BAR HARBOR — Despite having competition this year for the first time ever, Steve Pagels said Monday that business has never been so good for his ferry service between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor.
Pagels owns Downeast Windjammer Cruise Lines, which has provided ferry service across Frenchman Bay for the past 15 years.
This year, the Schoodic Ferry, operated by Frenchman Bay Research Boating, also is carrying passengers across the bay.
“Ridership is way up,” Pagels said. “Our marketing seems to be working. We’ve seen a significant increase in ridership over any previous year at this time.”
He said he didn’t know the exact number of passengers carried so far or the percentage increase over last year, but he based his assessment on the amount of revenue to this point. Pagels has reduced fares for this season, which may account for some of the surge.
On the Bar Harbor side, his ferry leaves from the Bar Harbor Inn pier. The new Schoodic Ferry leaves from the pier at College of the Atlantic.
Kaitlyn Mullen, the Schoodic Ferry captain and executive director of Frenchman Bay Research Boating, said that in July and through the middle of August, ridership had exceeded projections.
“We’ve been averaging 65 to 70 [passengers] a day, which is about 20 above where we expected to be for a first-year business,” she said.
Both ferry operators attributed some of their strong ridership numbers to the new Schoodic Woods Campground, which is in its first full season.
“That’s finally starting to come into play. It did not early on,” Pagels said.
In the past, he said, the majority of ferry passengers were people who were coming from the Schoodic side to spend the day on Mount Desert Island.
“We’re seeing a significant number going the other way this year,” he said. “I think there’s a little more awareness of the Schoodic Peninsula and what’s over there.”
Mullen estimated that about two-thirds of her passengers are starting on the Schoodic side.
“I would say a majority of those folks are coming from the new campground,” she said. “And because of our [early morning] commuter runs and late night runs, we have a large [Schoodic area] population that rides the ferry.”
Pagels said he also has a significant number of nonvisitor passengers as well.
On the Schoodic side of the bay, both ferries dock at the Schoodic Marine Center in Winter Harbor. There, passengers can get on a free Island Explorer bus, which makes several stops in the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park.
The celebration of the park centennial, which has helped bring a record number of visitors to the area, is providing another boost to business.
Mullen said one feature of her ferry that many passengers seem to like is its doubling as a marine research vessel. She is partnering with professional and student scientists on various studies, and on many ferry runs, there is a researcher on board to talk with passengers. The researchers take water samples at different locations in Frenchman Bay to establish baseline data on water quality and the health and abundance of marine life.
“People are really fascinated by that,” Mullen said. “They’ve also enjoyed the navigational classes that one of our deckhands has been teaching impromptu in the fog to keep kids entertained. For the most part, people really seem excited that a ferry can also be an experience.”
Pagels said passengers are giving his ferry service very high marks.
“Our customer satisfaction has been extraordinary,” he said. “We have had a lot of huge positive feedback.”
Pagels’ Bar Harbor-Schoodic ferry is a for-profit business. Frenchman Bay Research Boating is not for profit. Perhaps because of that and the word “research” in its name, Mullen said a lot of people seem to think it is supported by the national park or Friends of Acadia, but that is not the case.
She said her ferry service has received some grants from private sources.
“The Stroud Foundation in Northeast Harbor has assisted us in making our commuter runs financially viable,” she said. “And the Unity Foundation of Belfast has supported the interaction of middle school students in this area with some of our onboard researchers.”