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October 22, 2018

"Getting There" - The High Speed Ferry to Nova Scotia

There is perhaps no more beautiful part of the East Coast than the Canadian Maritimes… the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The problem is that getting there is a hassle… either an expensive flight with a change of planes or a two-day drive.  That is, unless you take “The Cat”, the high speed car and passenger ferry which runs daily from Portland ME to Yarmouth NS.

But catch it soon, because it will soon moving farther away.

“The Cat” is a 1646 ton, high-speed catamaran owned by the US Navy but leased to Bay Ferries, the Canadian operator of the vessel (staffed with a US crew).  Launched in 2007, it used to run between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Maui.

The 349 foot long vessel can cross the Gulf of Maine’s 213 mile span in about five and a half hours at a top speed of 35 knots (40 mph), carrying 866 passengers and 282 cars.  She sails each morning from Nova Scotia at 8:30 am, arriving in Portland about 1 pm.  The return voyage leaves at 2:30 pm, arriving in Yarmouth 9’ish.  En route passengers can enjoy two bars, free movies, comfy first-class airline seating and a variety of food and shopping.

Ferry service between Portland and Nova Scotia has run since 1970, but the older vessels required an overnight crossing, allowing passengers to enjoy cabins (if they weren’t spending the night gambling in the on-board casino).  Locals in Maine still wax nostalgic about the “Scotia Prince”, the last slow speed ferry to make the overnight crossing.

But the current fast-ferry has found a new clientele, drawing customers from Boston, Providence and as far away as NYC.  Their market research says passengers are upper income with 75% of them coming from the US.

“The Cat” isn’t cheap.  A car with two passengers costs over $400 one way in peak season, though discounts are available for seniors and at off-peak times.  Nova Scotia residents get a $100 discount, given that the province subsidizes Bay Ferries to the tune of $7.5 million US per year.

The province is probably getting its money’s worth as Bay Ferries says its average customer spends 11 days driving through the Maritimes, staying in hotels and enjoying the great seafood.  With the exchange rate giving the US dollar a 30% premium, that can still add up to a lot of lobster.

But now Bay Ferries is threatening to pull out of Portland and depart instead from Bar Harbor ME, another three hours’ drive up the coast.  The company says it would cut the crossing time to three hours and save 40% on its fuel.

“The Cat” used to run on weekdays from Bar Harbor and weekends from Portland, but the company prefers one embarkation point and a less confusing schedule.  And they say they’re not worried about losing customers, noting that 3.5 million people visit Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor each year.

Locals in Bar Harbor were initially less enthusiastic about the ferry as the small town already sees as many as three cruise ships each day.  It looks like St Thomas VI, but with pine trees, it’s so crowded.

But days after the last sailing of “The Cat” for this season from Portland, Bar Harbor inked a deal with Bay Ferries to start service from their town in June 2019.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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