‘We’re not a taxi; we’re a vacation’: Nova Star crew, owners add final touches before ferry service relaunch

Posted May 09, 2014, at 2:54 p.m.
Last modified May 09, 2014, at 3:33 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Nova Star is a high-tech ship, but from the vessel’s bridge, it’s clear some things don’t change. Amid a console of instruments and computer screens sits an ashtray and an icon of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and fellow countryman of the ship’s Greek captain, George Pallas.

That mix of traditional and modern extends to the way the Nova Star aims to restore daily ferry service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, beginning next week. The Nova Star will offer passengers old-world comforts, while the crew entrusted with guiding the massive vessel between the two ports relies on high-tech seafaring techniques, according to the ship’s second officer.

“We are all like managers now and less like pirates,” said Yegor Katunin, from Ukraine, who helped pilot the ship from Singapore to Nova Scotia and then to Portland’s Ocean Gateway Terminal, where the public will have the opportunity to tour the ship from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

On Monday, Katunin will help guide the ship to its christening in Boston, a target market, and then to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for tours with tourism officials and travel writers Tuesday before docking again in Portland on Wednesday. The ferry begins the service’s daily schedule Thursday, leaving Portland at 9 a.m. That ship arrives in Yarmouth at 8 a.m., departing again at 10 a.m. for a 7 p.m. arrival in Portland.

The ship’s 130-person crew — hard at work in preparation for its first voyage next week — hails from all over the world. As guests walked through the halls, lounges and decks, languages and music could be heard demonstrating that diversity. Flagged in the Bahamas, Nova Star can hire internationally, a service contracted through the Florida-based FleetPro Passenger Ship Management.

For the crew, it’s come down to details. Among them are how to hoist the piano onto the stage of the ship’s piano bar. Other work critical to passenger comfort also is underway, including replacing the locks for all of its cabins.

“We’ve still got a lot of internal work to do, finishing some installations and modifications,” said Nova Star Cruises spokesman Dennis Bailey. “But by Thursday, we’re going to be in good shape.”

In the casino areas, technicians assembled and programmed slot machines; in the lounges at the stern of the ship, people scrubbed windows with views across Portland Harbor; and just outside of the bridge, crews have worked to replace railings to meet federal requirements.

For provincial officials in Canada and Maine, the ramp-up to May 15 is in anticipation of a boost to both areas’ summer tourist season. Nova Star Cruises CEO Mark Amundsen has said he hopes the ship will carry more than 100,000 passengers in its first season. Bailey said Friday that the cruise line, which has a full capacity of 1,215, is about 80 percent booked for its first weekend.

The service began selling tickets about a month ago after getting permission from federal regulators. During the summer season, adult one-way tickets will go for $139 and children’s tickets for $64, with cabins or airline-style chair reservations as add-ons. In the early and late season, tickets will cost $79 for adults and $39 for children.

As CBC News estimated, the trip could cost around $1,400 Canadian for a family of four with a pet. Bailey said the Nova Star line is offering more than just a ferry ride from one point to another.

“We’re not a taxi,” he said. “This is a vacation — we have a theater, a gym, a spa. You could drive, but it’s a long drive. So, it’s up to people to decide: do you want to get in the car with kids saying ‘are we there yet?’ or do you want to be on the deck with a cocktail? It all depends on how much that’s worth to you.”

As the ship nears its first trip, company leaders remain open to possible additions to its services. The Canadian Chronicle Heraldreported the company is in talks with two other areas for an off-season contract. So far, the province has provided the service nearly $14 million to start, with around $7 million more committed over the next seven years.

Bailey said the service also has some private investors but did not have a tally of the full startup costs to put the ship in service from May 15 to Oct. 11.

While the service’s first voyage has been a long time coming for provincial officials who have made repeated attempts to restart the service, it’s just the beginning for its crew, who will spend nearly five months at sea. Katunin, who will help pilot the vessel with the captain and another second officer, said he’s gotten in his time in Portland’s downtown while he can.

“It’s a nice place,” he said.

While along for a tour Friday, representatives from the office’ of Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins asked what they might bring him for the trip.

“Maybe a piece of Earth,” he said. “Or a small tree.”