The Yarmouth connection

While the former Bluenose ferry to Yarmouth Nova Scotia required a modest subsidy from the provincial government, around $1 million per year, it was only a fraction of the money needed to keep its successor, The CAT going once it began dividing attentions between Bar Harbor and Portland. In fact, many insiders admit that running from Portland two days per week helped hasten the end of The CAT‘s service on a route which had been viable for more than 50 years.

This past summer, a private group resumed service between Yarmouth and Portland with Nova Star on the route pioneered by Scotia Prince. Its performance has been a dismal failure. In just one year, Nova Star‘s operators have burned through $21 million earmarked by the provincial government to support service for seven years. They subsequently received another $4.4 million from Nova Scotia. The company is still foundering.

Now they have approached state officials in Maine for a $5 million loan guarantee. Granting that would provide a new definition of economic insanity.

Meanwhile, powerful private interests in Portland and Halifax continue to push for tax money to keep the operation afloat.

When the original Bluenose route was conceived in the early 1950s, Bar Harbor competed with Portland and Rockland for designation as the western terminus. Exhaustive analysis of commercial trucking and tourism interests at the time resulted in Bar Harbor being selected as the optimum port. Tourists enjoyed a schedule that allowed time for them to combine visits to both Acadia and the Maritimes. The crossing by conventional ship took about six hours, providing passengers time to explore the ship and experience sailing beyond the sight of land. Day trips for folks who wanted to include a quick visit to Canada while in Bar Harbor also were popular on that run.

Bluenose’s successor, The CAT was twice as fast. But passengers rode in what was basically a hermetically sealed can. The only open deck was on the spray-washed stern, a tiny space, also the designated smoking area.

The present myopic focus on Portland masks the fact that the service provides few benefits on this end, whisking people out of Maine to Canada from a gritty downtown waterfront. Although a trip on Nova Star is marketed as a cruise ship experience, spending 12 hours on a pitching ferry sailing broadside to the winds and waves of the untamed Gulf of Maine, is about as far from the Love Boat experience as one can get. The long, overnight schedule forces many folks to rent a cabin, driving the total price of a ticket too high for most travelers. Disappointing passenger counts support that conclusion.

In attempting to preserve Maine’s international link to the Maritime provinces, ferry operators have tried speed, they’ve tried tinkering with the schedule, and they’ve tried increasing onboard amenities. None of those approaches has produced better results than the original plan.

Officials on Mount Desert Island remain upbeat about the prospects of converting the former Bluenose and The CAT ferry terminal on Eden Street in Bar Harbor to use as a cruise ship pier. Preserving the option of using part of the facility for international ferry service always has been, and should remain, part of the equation.

Eventually, transportation sector investors and public officials may come to realize that the international ferry run worked best when it ran from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor. Should that day come, a facility ready to accommodate that realization will prove vitally important.

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