August 17, 2018
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Maine company wants a chance at Bar Harbor-Canada ferry service

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

A company that operates local passenger ferries in Hancock and Washington counties has jumped into the ring on offering ferry service between Maine and Nova Scotia.

Downeast Windjammer Cruises has proposed paying the town of Bar Harbor $2.75 million over 10 years to operate a vehicle ferry to Canada from a defunct ferry terminal that Bar Harbor voters agreed to purchase in June. The company, owned and operated by Cherryfield resident Steve Pagels, also seasonally runs sailing cruises in and around Bar Harbor.

The proposal was submitted to the town Tuesday, a week after the town council discussed a separate proposal with Bay Ferries, which currently operates a high-speed catamaran ferry between Portland and Nova Scotia, to relocate that service to Bar Harbor. The proposal from Bay Ferries, which operated out of Bar Harbor from 1997 until 2009, is to pay the town a minimum of $1 million overall for a five-year lease at the Route 3 property, though it said it will pay more if it meets ridership goals. The Canadian firm projected it could pay as much as $880,000 to the town in the first three years.

Bay Ferries officials declined on Thursday to comment on the competing proposal from Downeast Windjammer Cruises.

Pagels envisions offering a slightly different service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, though he also would be able to carry vehicles across the Gulf of Maine. Pagels said the type of boat he proposes to use — but has yet to secure — is a monohull ferry that would make the crossing once a day, staying in Bar Harbor one night and in Nova Scotia the next, which he said would be “more economical.” The Cat, operated by Bay Ferries, would make the round trip from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor and back each day, spending each night in Canada.

By crossing the gulf once a day, Pagels said, ferry staff and passengers would have more time to load and unload, which would mitigate the impact of those activities on other uses for the 4.5-acre property, which could include public parking and a public marina. He said hopes to start service sometime next year and, eventually, to secure two monohull vessels that would pass each other along the route across the gulf, so that service in either direction is available each day.

Pagels said that, though he does not have prior experience operating an international vehicle ferry service, he feels strongly that there should be such a service between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia. He said he has been actively researching the logistics of operating such a service for the past year, and has been interested in the possibility since The Cat last departed Bar Harbor nine years ago.

“We have almost 20 years of experience operating ferries on the Maine coast,” Pagels said Thursday. “We’re still learning. We’re a small company.”

He said that by being comparatively small, his company can be more flexible and offer a smaller-scale, but more sustainable, service.

The town council should “at least look at a local Maine proposal, and then it’s up to them to decide whether it has merit,” Pagels added.

He said he has not secured a vessel large enough to carry vehicles across the gulf and has not yet approached officials in Nova Scotia about offering service to Maine. He said he would pursue those angles if Bar Harbor seems receptive to his proposal.

Cornell Knight, Bar Harbor’s town manager, said Thursday that he has received the proposal from the Cherryfield company and that the town council is expected to discuss it at its Aug. 7 meeting.

On July 17, the council voted to have the town negotiate with Bay Ferries to see if it might reach a lease agreement with the Canadian firm by Oct. 2, which Bay Ferries said would allow it to start operations from Bar Harbor by June 2019.

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