BAR HARBOR — The height of the cruise ship season here happens to correspond with the height of the Atlantic hurricane season. Even storms that don’t come near the coast of Maine can stir up enough rough weather to force cruise ship captains to cancel planned port visits to Bar Harbor.
“The end of November is the true end of the hurricane season,” harbor pilot Skip Strong said. “We are in theory in the height of the season now, but the water’s starting to cool off all the time.
“The captains ultimately have responsibility for safety of their passengers. What we have always been told is that Bar Harbor is a stop that if at all possible, they want to make it. If they miss Bar Harbor, their comment cards are not good at all.”
On Oct. 9, both Maasdam and Caribbean Princess cancelled their planned stops here, according to Harbormaster Charlie Phippen. The week before, Regal Princess cancelled on Sept. 30 and Crystal Symphony did on Oct. 2. All were due to high winds, heavy rain or both.
The smaller boats operated by American Cruise Lines that tie up to the municipal pier, Independence and American Glory, are much more vulnerable to weather. “They don’t like to be out in the Gulf of Maine with seas higher than about three feet,” Phippen said.
Sending passengers ashore by small tender vessel is often the riskiest part of the operation for captains, Strong said. “The ship has to be able to make a good consistent lee for the tender to operate in.”
Ship operators prefer to tie up to a dock when possible. Plans to build a cruise ship dock on the former international ferry terminal on Eden Street in Bar Harbor depend on the Maine Port Authority purchasing the property from the Canadian government. Negotiations are currently underway, and a transportation bond to help fund the purchase is on the statewide ballot in November.
“The way the ordinance is written, we plan for a certain percentage of cancellations due to weather,” said Phippen. “It’s all just dependent on the size of the ship, the passenger complement and whether or not it’s safe to conduct the operation. We don’t hold them to the port fee unless they actually discharge passengers into the town after they’ve dropped anchor out in the anchorages.”
This year is on track to be in line with the historical averages from the last five years for cancelled reservations, he said. About 33 percent of small ship reservations are cancelled, 4 percent for large ships.
Of the 140 ship visits scheduled for this year, he said, there have been 19 cancellations as of Oct. 5. A total of 16 of those 19 were the smaller ships.
All ships pay a passenger service fee of $1.70 per person. The ships tying up at the town pier also pay a $1,000 docking fee. When a small ship cancels, it represents under $1,200 in lost revenue to the town.
Large ships pay $4 per person because they’re charged a $2.30 port development fee in addition to the passenger service fee. The Oct. 9 cancellations of two large ships meant the loss of $17,000 in port fees.
Each passenger spends much more than the few dollars charged by the town at local businesses, in restaurants and on tours.
For the pilots, Strong said, “it definitely hurts our bottom line when we don’t have these ships come in. If you know a day ahead of time, everyone can be sort of called off. But if the ship cancels at the pilot station because of weather conditions, everyone’s already on site, and we still charge half of our inbound rate. We’re seeing more ships decide a day or two ahead of time. They also might choose to skip because they want to get in someplace ahead of expected weather there. If captains have questions, they’ll often call us directly, and we’ll tell them what our recommendation is.”
He remembered a visit from Queen Mary 2 a few years ago that was called off at the last minute. “There were 45 tour buses sitting in Bar Harbor. There was no one happy about that one.”