Debt, Death, and Disaster –
The Many Lives of the Maine-Nova Scotia Ferry
Lesser known than the Titanic or Mary Celeste, a cursed ship much closer to home is the CAT. Through corporate incompetence, government mismanagement, and terrible tragedy, this ferry and the journeys it makes from Maine to Nova Scotia every summer season has been a consistent source of frustration on the Canada-USA border. Have you ever wondered why the ship doesn’t come to Portland, and instead only goes as far as Bar Harbor? And for that matter, why it doesn’t go all the way to Halifax? Have you ever wondered why it has opened, closed, changed hands, and re-opened so many times over the past few decades? Have you ever wondered how such a simple idea, a ferry to New England’s northern neighbor, has caused so much strife?
The thousands of wealthy tourists who embark on this journey from both sides of the border may only be vaguely aware of the chaos that has caused the governments of Nova Scotia and Maine to scratch their heads wondering “what on earth is the problem?” Mets Manager Casey Stengel, during the team’s first season in the MLB, after witnessing his team lose game after game screamed at his players: “Can’t anybody in here play this game?!” For the employees that were laid-off and rehired, for the CDC inspectors dealing with toxic mold and disease, for the Port of Portland that seized the ship in 2015, and for the Nova Scotia government who continues to dump millions of dollars every decade into this sailing route, they must sympathize with Stengel. I live in Maine now, but am a native of Nova Scotia, and if you’re out of the loop, read on to hear how this feline ferry service killed a man, brought down two governments, was stormed by U.S. Marshals, and somehow still continues to connect the people of Maine and Nova Scotia.
This is the story of the CAT.
Maine and Nova Scotia, two societies divided by an international border but otherwise sharing much in common, have long enjoyed a bustling maritime link with one another. The distinction between American Maine and the Canadian (and before that British) Maritimes has always been a fairly arbitrary one, finally settled only by fraught diplomacy between the two states. To this day, travelers from New England who visit the Maritime Provinces – New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia – often report back a very familiar atmosphere. Cultural continuities aside, the presence of an international border does complicate travel between the Maritimes and New England, necessitating the involvement of passports and visas and all that bureaucracy. Still, private ferry services between Nova Scotia and Maine can be traced to the mid-1800s, with quasi-regular services cropping up around the turn of the century.
But the first truly modern ferry, one with a frequent and regular service between home ports, was the iconic MV Bluenose in 1956. This state-of-the-art, diesel-fueled steel ferry was built in Quebec for the Crown Corporation Canadian National Railways (CN), could carry ~600 passengers and ~150 cars, and ran nearly every day between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and Bar Harbor, Maine. Bar Harbor was the shortest possible route that made sense due to the fact that Portland was located too far away to be economically viable. Despite the closer distance, the trip was still a six-hour voyage.
Most Mainers understand the relationship between Portland and Bar Harbor, the former being the larger and more economically important city, the latter being more peripheral, rural, and reliant on tourism. A mirror image exists in the relationship between, between Halifax (the political and economic capital of Nova Scotia) and Yarmouth (a smaller, more peripheral city further afield.) Much as northern Maine has suffered from industrial collapse, population decline, and social malaise, so too has southern Nova Scotia. The decline of Yarmouth will be important to understand for the story of the CAT. While Portland and Halifax are growing cities connected to large population centers, Bar Harbor and Yarmouth suffer from being somewhat remote, and afflicted by regional decline. Nevertheless, CN was unable to economically justify any longer of a passenger ferry route.
But in 1970, the Swedish company Lion Ferry introduced a competing line, this time reaching Portland. Its cruises would be slow but luxurious, while remaining competitively-priced for international travel. How did the Swedes manage to make this route between Portland and Nova Scotia possible when CN couldn’t? The answer is that Portland’s city government, under the leadership of (initially-skeptical) City Manager John Menario, aggressively pushed for Lion Ferry to select Portland as its home port, rather than the Swedes’ initial pick – Gloucester, Massachusetts. How aggressively? The city itself put up $1.2 million (more than nine million dollars today) to guarantee that Lion Ferry would make at least that much in ticket revenue. On top of this bond with the company itself, Portland also agreed to undertake a $2 million (~$15 million today) construction project to build a new terminal for the ferry. This was an enormous investment by a struggling city, but it worked. Lion Ferry held up their end of the bargain, and in the end – the pledge was never collected. Lion Ferry enjoyed enormous popularity and substantial profits for decades to come. The revolving-door of cruise ferries used to service this line was set aside in 1982 with the introduction of the Scotia Prince, the soon-to-be-iconic ship which would run the line for the remainder of its lifetime.
CN, not to be boxed out, also extended a line to Portland in 1976, but this one was substantially less luxurious. This line was actually primarily for freight, passengers and cars being an afterthought, as CN did not feel it could compete with Lion. The next year, CN attempted to spin off its side-projects and try to salvage its railway business. The Canadian Crown Corporation CN Marine was founded by Parliament, and all of CN’s maritime interests were sold to it. Even this Portland-Nova Scotia profit-focused freight/ferry hybrid, however, soon found itself in the red. It was canceled in 1982, just as the Scotia Prince was entering the scene. In 1986, CN Marine was renamed Marine Atlantic.
The Birth of the CAT
So, from the days of fully-rigged sailing ships in the 19th century, to the steady MV Bluenose in the ‘50s, to the luxurious Scotia Prince in the 1980s, travelers could count on ships to carry them from Canada’s easternmost province to the rocky shores of Maine and back. By the ‘90s, waters around the Maritimes were crisscrossed by Marine Atlantic ferries, a Canadian enterprise which managed a fleet based in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. However, to focus on their most profitable routes, Marine Atlantic spun off its international ferry line into a new company, with a new name – Bay Ferries Limited. And it was Bay Ferries that unleashed the CAT.
The history of the CAT truly begins in 1998. Freshly independent from their parent corporation, Bay Ferries was looking to retire the aging MV Bluenose, which ferried passengers between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and Bar Harbor, Maine. And to revamp this well-worn route, the executives had one thing on their mind – speed.
Bay Ferries purchased a boat called INCAT 046. It was named after the company Incat Tasmania, which built it in 1997, and yes, this is where the name comes from. It was intended by Bay Ferries to act as fast, luxurious transport between Maine and Nova Scotia, taking less than three hours what took the old Bluenose more than six. However, its reputation was already in question when it was first purchased in 1998. The brand-new ship saw five cancellations in the first ten weeks of operation, and its poor handling during choppy conditions caused many to be sick, earning it the nickname the “Spew Cat.” This did not bode well, as the route between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor is quite rough, and prone to less-than-ideal conditions. Even today, with the latest technology, the crew of the CAT still regularly recommends to passengers using Dramamine (a motion sickness drug) to prevent nausea. Despite the deteriorating reputation and problems however, negotiations between Bay Ferries, the State of Maine, and the government of Nova Scotia eventually led to the passenger service returning to the two countries. And now it was time to drum up some publicity.
With government subsidies promised, docking arrangements prepared, and much general fanfare, the recently elected Premier Russell MacLellan of Nova Scotia organized a massive tourism campaign to draw American dollars to Nova Scotia. Much as in northern Maine, southern Nova Scotia had been ravaged by post-industrial decline and the collapse of the Cod stocks, and an infusion of New England money into Yarmouth could make or break MacLellan’s premiership. This political element would be all the more important, as MacLellan’s Liberal Party was seeking to stave off the rising Progressive Conservative opposition.
In the spring of 1998, a massive floating travel fair was organized in which the CAT would travel along the New England coast to advertise the culture of the Canadian Maritimes. French Acadian dancers performed in Yarmouth, rug-hookers from Cheticamp showed off their craft in Portland, and over 160 high-ranking trade representatives from the region went along. More than one million pieces of literature were distributed to curious Americans who were invited to come visit the docked boat and explore the amenities it had in store. Fine seafood dining, a movie theater, and a shopping area were but a fraction of the services offered on the ferry. All this and a time aboard of less than four hours, drastically less than the 8+ hours it would take to drive. The tourism campaign culminated with over 15,000 Bostonians gathering in Charlestown navy yard to watch the CAT dock beside the USS Constitution to thunderous applause. This was a high point for the project and many assumed at the time that it would be an overall success in the coming years.
With all this positivity, what could go wrong?
Tragedy on the Lady Megan
September 4th, 1998, ten o’clock at night, pitch black and frigid on the Atlantic waters, the fishing vessel Lady Megan II was returning home to Yarmouth after two days on the ocean. At the wheel was Captain Clifford Hood Jr., thirty-three years old with eighteen years’ experience aboard fishing boats like this, he had been a seaman since the age of fifteen. He knew his home port like the back of his hand. His ship was of an iconic New England style – little, old-fashioned, efficient, and beloved. Lady Megan was equipped with radar as its primary navigation tool, and while it had a basic GPS system, the crew rarely used it. Besides Hood, two other fishermen were aboard, resting as the skipper piloted home.
A more recent addition to the scene, however, was the CAT. High-tech, huge, and fast, it loomed like a futuristic titan over the aging fleet of boats with which it shared the harbor. Not every local was a luddite, but many cast suspicious glances at this aerodynamic catamaran. (Mostly unfounded) accusations of environmental irresponsibility were common, but this first season of the high-speed ferry had been attracting a good share of passengers. On this night, it was pulling out of the docks to make a night journey to Bar Harbor. While equipped with a suite of then-cutting-edge navigation instruments, the high speeds reached by the CAT during its trips meant that the ship was optimized for the crew to be inside compartments at all times – rather than on the deck itself. This would mean that the captain’s and navigator’s direct visibility is limited.
The bay was shrouded in fog, and even had it not been, the darkness was near-total. The harbor’s traffic tower heard from the Lady Megan at 10:46 PM, making a routine inquiry on activity. The tower conveyed to the fishing vessel that the CAT was departing shortly, but did not indicate that the Megan should hold its approach.
11:24 PM – The CAT’s navigator contacted the tower, informing them that they were departing. The tower then immediately contacted the Megan, informing them that they should steer clear of the leaving ferry. According to the representatives of the harbor traffic coordinators, at this time, Hood radioed back that he would keep his vessel well to the south of the harbor entrance, near a light buoy. The CAT picked up speed as it left the immediate vicinity of the docks, steering towards the center of the main channel.
11:33:35 PM – The Megan radioed the CAT directly, informing the ferry that they were leaving the light buoy and traveling towards the east entrance of the harbor – a very different plan than the tower had received. The CAT radioed back that they would be at the critical point in “two minutes” thereabouts, roughly 11:36. The Megan indicated this would not be a problem.
11:35:25 PM – The CAT saw the Megan directly ahead of it on its instruments. The engines were immediately set to full-power in reverse as the CAT radioed an emergency message to the Megan to divert course. The CAT begins to slow down. Simultaneously, the CAT became visible through the fog to the lookout on the Megan. The captain called for the two fishermen to hold on and get down, as he positioned himself in the wheelhouse to try and avert disaster.
11:35:45 PM – Collision.
We can skip the gory details of what followed. The simple math of a large high-speed catamaran colliding with a tiny fishing vessel played out as one would expect. While the CAT was essentially unscratched, the Lady Megan II was critically damaged; the wheelhouse was crushed under the weight of the ferry, fatally injuring Captain Hood and trapping him inside. He died before he could be extracted from the wreckage. His two companions were rescued with moderate injuries. No one aboard the CAT was injured.
Who was to blame? Litigation would rage for several years, but investigations by Canadian maritime officials found that while no one was completely without error – both the traffic coordinators and the CAT navigators were lax in their communication and planning – ultimately the young captain was most directly at fault for the collision, failing to adhere to his communicated plans and steering into the path of the CAT. Terrible weather conditions then turned what could have been a harmless miscommunication into a tragedy. Nevertheless, local Yarmouth voices would continue to claim that the state’s investigators put the blame on Hood just to spare the Bay Ferries corporation. As unlikely as this is, one can’t imagine a darker omen under which to play out the CAT’s opening season.
A Decade of Decline
As litigation roiled on, the CAT was out of service and not able to complete any ferry crossings. Despite the eventual finding of no proximate fault, all of this drama played out in the press of both Maine and Nova Scotia and resulted in the damaged reputation during the first year of operation. Actual passenger numbers for 1998-2000 weren’t stellar but did manage to just barely be profitable. Service peaked in 2002, with more than 160,000 passengers for the summer season. Global trends after 9/11 hurt tourism, however, and Bay Ferries Ltd. found it difficult to adapt. By 2004, the number of passengers had fallen to less than 130,000.
The CAT wasn’t alone in its struggles, however. After 30 years of serving Portland, Lion Ferry would leave the scene. While all the same afflictions which were bearing down on the CAT also were hurting the Scotia Prince’s ridership, there was another factor which would permanently stain the city of Portland’s reputation as a maritime fixture. In 2004, toxic levels of mold were discovered in the city-owned terminal used by Lion Ferry since 1969. This was ultimately found to be the result of negligence on the part of Portland. CDC investigators swarmed over the city’s portside holdings, and the Lion Ferry facilities were forced to vacate for the entirety of the season. Here too, litigation would rage back and forth for some time, but ultimately the city government would pay out $1.2 million in damages to Lion Ferry.
While it’s difficult to untangle this particular debacle from the overarching trends working against both the CAT and Lion Ferry, it must be said that this scandal almost surely cut the lifespan of this Nova Scotia-Portland ferry short by several years at least. Back in Nova Scotia, the Progressive Conservative Party had clawed back control over the province from the Liberals under the leadership of professional folk fiddler-turned-politician Rodney MacDonald. But this disaster, even if the Nova Scotia government could not realistically be blamed for the failures of the city of Portland, caused a drastic decrease in the tourist economy in southern Nova Scotia and engendered a sharp backlash against the Premier.
Today, MacDonald is head of the Gaelic College (Colaisde na Gàidhlig) and continues to fiddle at folk festivals.
From the Old Port of our town, the Scotia Prince would no longer be seen. While this was not a good omen for the CAT, it did result in a short-term boost for its 2005 season as it was now the only game in town. Or, at least, in state. During this period, Bay Ferries traded in the INCAT 046 for a larger boat called the INCAT 059 in an attempt to update amenities, and the revived ferry service limped along on a life support system of government investment until 2009. The forces arrayed against the CAT were formidable. A stronger Canadian dollar discouraged cross-border shopping, public scrutiny of the government subsidies was growing, stronger passport rules imposed by American ports choked tourism, a slumping economy due to the 2008 financial crisis hurt everything, and the decreasing novelty of the service was an inevitable drain.
Passengers continued to decline until the cancellation of the ferry service in 2009 when barely 25,000 passengers arrived in Yarmouth’s Port. This represented a nearly 75% decline in barely a decade. This indefinite cancellation in 2009 was a complete stop in regular marine transit between Maine and Nova Scotia. This was, in fact, the first time there was no operating ferry service in the area since the 1880s.
Once the line was cancelled, 120 Bay Ferries employees immediately lost their jobs. Bar Harbor also lost a huge source of revenue as thousands of Canadians would no longer visit the town and pump money into the tourism-reliant businesses. The city of Portland also lost a source of revenue as Bay Ferries paid $150,000 per year in rent to the city when it would occasionally dock in Portland starting in 2006. Whereas Bar Harbor was able to largely make up its losses with increased American visitors, however, Yarmouth was not so lucky.
Southern Nova Scotia is a region which had already been struggling with unemployment. Yarmouth is a small community which has lost 20% of its population in the last 50 years and it continues to decline. It has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the province, widespread poverty, high unemployment, and it’s home to a large Francophone minority community in an otherwise primarily English-speaking province. The cancellation of the ferry service was, unsurprisingly, a crushing blow to a region that was already economically struggling.
What is surprising is that many within Bay Ferries seemed to be aware of the struggles of operating a ferry service at the scale that it did. In a press release for the company at a time just before service stopped, key representatives for the company stated that the ferry “is not a viable business enterprise without government support.” They were right, considering the fact that government subsidies for the ferry had ballooned to nearly $5.6 million a year by 2008. Profitability was so low that during the off-season, the CAT was often transferred down south where it worked as a ferry service in Trinidad and Tobago, Florida, and The Bahamas, in an attempt to recuperate money. This off-season freelancing, unusual for catamarans like this, put a serious amount of strain and maintenance on the CAT.
John Henshaw, the executive director of Maine Port Authority at the time of the cancellation, stated that the cancellation was not a “great surprise” to him, and that it had always made little financial sense.
Up in Nova Scotia, Premier MacDonald’s government was harshly criticized by the Liberal Party and his own backbenchers for the excessive subsidies given to Bay Ferries while ridership remained stagnant or fell. Not long after, with the scandal of the CAT making regular headlines in the provincial papers, the Progressive Conservative government lost in a landslide in 2009, just weeks before the final collapse of the CAT. This Maine-going ferry was, therefore, instrumental in bringing down the government of an entire province.
The people of Nova Scotia and Maine, despite being so close to one another as the crow flies, were now severed from one another by sea.
The CAT’s first afterlife
After the cancellation of the service, the CAT entered a bizarre period of its lifespan. The boat was laid up for two years for repairs and maintenance until it was eventually sold to a Chinese company in 2011. The company renamed it the Hai Xia Hao (“Straits” in Mandarin) and it then operated successfully as a ferry between Taiwan and China. Increased passenger demand in the highly populated Southern China region allowed it to remain much more profitable than it had been in North America. Certainly, an interesting chapter in the life of this little boat.
After a couple years of desolation in the Gulf of Maine, and seeing the opportunity to make a profit in an open market, a new company entered into the arena in 2012. After negotiations between the Nova Scotia and Maine governments, a new company restarted the crossing route under the name Nova Star Cruises. A joint venture between Quest Navigation, based in Eliot, and Singaporean company ST Marine Ltd., this endeavor was rapidly put-together and needed to be rushed to market once approved, but the sleekness of its marketing and the confidence of its representatives – none more so than the Steve Durrell, COO – led many to believe that the high-flying ferry market of the 90s was going to stage a comeback.
The ship, the Nova Star, was thought of as something between the Scotia Prince and the old CAT. It would be fast, but not as fast as the CAT, and it would try to exude some of the luxurious class that the Scotia Prince had always had about it. On board was a casino, three restaurants, a movie theater, a conference center, a spa, an art gallery, and accommodations for over 1,200 passengers. It would make daily runs between Maine and Nova Scotia, and its owners told local business owners in both Portland and Yarmouth that it would be a major boon to them after years of slump. Harkening back to the first publicity run for the CAT in the 90s, Nova Star Cruises went on a goodwill tour of the northern New England coast to raise the public profile of the revived ferry, a rising tide to lift all boats.
Both Americans and Canadians were willing to believe it, though only the Nova Scotian government was willing to pump truly large amounts of capital into its operations. Nova Star Cruises began to work with touring bus companies and other travel agencies to put together extravagant package deals – despite the fact that even basic details (such as the cost of a ticket or the general schedule) had not been worked out yet. Taking on large loans to quickly refurbish terminal amenities and rapidly hire staff, everything was set to launch for the 2014 tourist season.
Nova Scotian Dreams, Corporate Nightmares
Hopes were high all around, in Portland, in Singapore, and certainly in Nova Scotia, where premier Darrell Dexter hoped he could pull off what his predecessor, Rodney MacDonald, couldn’t. Dexter had been a proponent of reviving the ferry service in Nova Scotia. He had campaigned on a twenty-one million-dollar infusion of cash to restart operations and made it a key plank of his future election. Upon his successful election, Dexter was the first premier of Nova Scotia to come from neither the Liberal nor Progressive Conservative traditions, but rather from the New Democratic Party. The NDP is Canada’s third-largest political party and well to the left of either of Nova Scotia’s other main players. Much like Maine’s politicians routinely proclaim their plans to revitalize northern Maine, Dexter hoped that he could revitalize southern Nova Scotia. Zach Churchill, then merely the representative for Yarmouth, was enthusiastic that service was returning to the area. He proclaimed shortly before Nova Star commenced operations that the return of ferry service was “a testament to the collective efforts of this community and region,” with Durrell echoing: “We have been working full steam ahead with our partners and community members[.]” If Dexter could pull this off, then perhaps the NDP would become a permanent feature of the Nova Scotian political scene.
Despite these hopes that the new company might be able to generate substantial tourism revenue, problems emerged almost immediately. Despite many millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies granted to Nova Star Cruises by Nova Scotia, and plenty of preferential treatment by American counterparts, the Singapore-Maine joint venture was floundering behind the scenes. The company had taken massive loans to prepare everything by the opening of the 2014 season, and yet even so, mismanagement in both Yarmouth and Portland led to bills going unpaid. The Old Port business community was excited to see the return of Nova Scotian tourists, but rumors started to spread that the ferry wasn’t paying its contractors. It wasn’t long before official allegations against the company were being levied in United States Federal Court, just as the ferry was finally beginning to carry passengers.
The opening season saw ticket prices finally unveil at a whopping $180 at the lowest level, (similar to the much faster CAT today,) substantially higher than many had been expecting. Passenger levels were immediately disappointing – and worrying for creditors – and many in both Maine and Nova Scotia felt that the purpose of the ship was confused. Was this a pleasure cruise, or a functional ferry? Both? It was hard to say. Panicky marketing campaigns targeted Boston and other Americans, but the greatest shortfall from expected numbers were in Canada. Passengers originating in Yarmouth were few and falling fast. Despite the evident lack of local interest, the provincial government in Halifax continued to pump more subsidies into the company, more than $30 million (USD) in total in under two years.
The Storming of the Nova Star
Debts were racking up, and revenue wasn’t coming. Nova Star Cruises, receiving another infusion of cash from Nova Scotia after the 2014 season, was able to muddle through two full summers of operation, but as the air turned chilly in Portland, the hammer finally came down. Pilots, (the kinds that steer ships, not that fly planes,) had gone unpaid by the owners of the Nova Star and were in arrears to the tune of $200,000. Pleading with a U.S. District Court judge, an attorney for the pilots demanded that the ship be seized while still in Portland harbor, before it could escape to Canada – or worse yet, Singapore.
In what is perhaps the most well-known incident regarding this terminally dysfunctional enterprise, on October 29th, 2015, U.S. Marshals were ordered to take actionwhile the Nova Star was still in port, in cooperation with the anodyne-sounding marine mercenary company National Maritime Services. Nova Star Cruises’ millions of dollars of debt on both sides of the border, completely unpaid for years, had finally seen the authorities had enough. The Nova Scotia government officially and immediately cut ties with the company following the raid. The next day, all hell broke loose.
Further instructions from the federal courts ordered Marshals (and their private-sector friends) to seize property so that the company to repay what was owed. Storming onto the boat, security took control of the vessel with the same character as a debt collector repo-ing a car with missed payments. The warrant for the seizing of the boat specifically mentioned that the “engines, boilers, tackle, appurtenances, electronics, or other property” were fair game for seizure, a sign that the court was skeptical the ferry’s owners could repay in full, and that the operation was more like a way of salvaging as much of what was owed as possible. This was little comfort for Portland companies who were already owed large sums of money. Besides the $200k owed to the pilots, several other creditors soon stepped forward, including $13k to local contractor A.L. Griffin Inc., $483k to their fuel supplier, $150k to the City of Portland itself, and over $175k in linens to Pratt Abbott.
Nova Star Cruises had been giving no word detailing how or if any of these creditors would have their debts repaid. This, however, should be understood in the context of the complex ownership arrangement for the Nova Star. The component companies (one in Maine and one in Singapore) and the joint venture itself all had different stakes and responsibilities, and working out exactly who owed what to whom would take years of litigation.
In a bit of dark comedy, Nova Star Cruises itself claimed to be owed money – by Nova Scotia. Spokesmen asserted that more than $2 million CAD which had been promised to it by Dexter’s government had never actually been received. Halifax, already having cut the flailing company loose, repudiated all its claims.
A Second Government Scratched
Premier Dexter had served as the head of the first truly left-wing government to hold power in Nova Scotia, but mostly due to economic mismanagement he lost in a landslide in his next provincial election. The debacle with Nova Star was one of the principal reasons why Dexter lost after only serving one term, and it was indicative of the general style of his government. This was despite the fact that the Governor of Maine at the time, Paul Lepage, negotiated with Dexter’s government and even penned a letter offering major support for the project. Dexter did not help his eventual loss by stating that the impact of the loss of ferry service was a “mythology” during his campaign. Seats for the NDP in the southern part of the province – where the ferry operated – were lost in a landslide. These areas had been key to Dexter’s election, as the cancellation of the CAT was one of the main issues which brought down the Conservative government of Nova Scotia in 2009.
By this point, some were beginning to call the entire service cursed. The CAT, Nova Star Cruises, and Bay Ferries Ltd., through their misfortunes, had helped bring down at least two provincial governments and disrupt entire communities. The ferry service had drained almost $100 million in taxpayer subsidies from one of the poorest provinces in Canada. Companies throughout Maine had been left holding the bag for thousands in unpaid services, and communities like Bar Harbor saw their economic prospects dimmed with the loss of Canadian tourists. All this over a ferry service that had previously operated since the 1880s with no such debacles.
The CAT Came Back
Like the sequel to a bad horror film, Bay Ferries re-entered the scene in 2016 to pick up the pieces. Only a few months after Nova Star Cruises exited stage left, an agreement was struck with the US Navy for the charter of a new high-speed catamaran called the HST-2 to run between Yarmouth and Portland. This boat would be branded as the CAT to go along with previous marketing. Whereas Nova Star Cruises took in almost $40 million of government subsidies, the new contract with Bay Ferries promised $33 million in the first two years of operations. While not everything would be rosy, Bay Ferries’ competence in operating a ferry service was a breath of fresh air for many in both Maine and Nova Scotia after the unmitigated disaster of the Nova Star. The 2016 season was yet another disappointment, however. According to information revealed to the public, only 35,000 passengers used the service during the first season of operation. This fell well short of the government’s projected target of 60,000, and would necessitate further subsidies. Things improved (marginally) for the 2017 and 2018 seasons, but then even further bad news came.
In an almost comedic chain of events, Bay Ferries was forced to move their port of call back to Bar Harbor. To keep an involved controversy brief, Bay Ferries had voluntarily chosen to move from Portland to Bar Harbor starting in the 2019 season and did not renew its leases with the city. However, as an international border-crossing ferry, its new location in Bar Harbor had to be certified by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol as appropriate for screening entry into the country. But as it happens, the extended government shutdown from late 2018 to early 2019 had put the certification on hold – indefinitely.
Feeling the pressure of the oncoming season, Bay Ferries reached out (not to say ‘came crawling back’) to Portland to inquire about renegotiating their exit from the city. Portland was unsympathetic, informing the ferry service that the land which Bay Ferries had previously used for various purposes in the East End was now allocated to be used as overflow parking. Furthermore, other local maritime business, especially Casco Bay Lines, were planning on moving into the empty space now available in Portland’s harbor. In short, Portland’s government appeared to tell Bay Ferries: “You didn’t want us, and we don’t need you.”
Even so, this was a setback for Portland, as the city had collected over $150,000 just in docking fees, not including the tourism dollars that were injected into the city. Nor was this the only problem with the switch however. Bar Harbor was not equipped to accommodate the new larger ferry as it turned out, so renovations had to be done. Over eight million dollars went towards modifying the Bar Harbor terminal and to transport a loading ramp. These changes took much longer than expected and due to delays, the CAT completed zero commercial crossings for the 2019 season all whilst receiving millions in subsidies. And the bad times were still not over.
COVID and the CAT
With the onset of COVID-19 and the closure of the US-Canada border, the CAT was forced to cancel its 2020 and 2021 seasons, totaling three seasons in a row of no ferry service at all. This was bad enough, but even once the border re-opened, the strict border rules on the Canadian side of the border (including the required the use of the unreliable “ArriveCAN” app) have reduced passenger numbers further. Bay Ferries has stated that these difficulties along with rising inflation and the cost of fuel has caused considerable difficulties for the company.
Tim Houston, the new Progressive Conservative leader of Nova Scotia has voiced his displeasure with the CAT. Speaking to the press in September 2022, Houston stated that he was “absolutely disappointed” with the amount of people using the ferry. He also stated that Nova Scotians as a whole should be disappointed with the service provided and that major changes will have to be decided on. When questioned by a reporter, the Nova Scotia Public Works Minister Kim Masland stated that canceling the government’s contract with Bay Ferries could “absolutely” be a possibility. Houston’s government was recently elected to majority status in 2021 and has not made friends with Bay Ferries. The Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives actually sued to disclose to the public how much funding is actually directed towards the new ferry. After losing the court case, Bay Ferries was forced to admit that the company had been paid more than a million dollars every year to operate even when it does not sail outside the summer months. With passenger numbers dipping below 40% capacity at times, the public was outraged.
If Houston were to cut ferry services, however, his position may be threatened. His governing majority is small and many of the seats that propelled Houston to power were in the southern sections of the province where the ferry operates. Any cut or alteration could cause a caucus revolt that could sweep his government out of power. For those keeping track, this would be the third time that the CAT has directly or indirectly brought down a government. What Houston seems to be searching for however, is a way to put the CAT out of its misery without suffering political blowback.
Zach Churchill, Yarmouth’s local MP who had previously been a vocal supporter of the restored ferry service under Dexter, would be elected leader of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia in 2021. With Houston looking to cut ties with the ferry service, an almost personal battle might be shaping up between Churchill, the candidate of Southern Nova Scotia, and Houston, the candidate of the cost-cutting right.
Today and Tomorrow
Suzanne Rent, a prominent Halifax journalist, made the point that it might have been more economically viable for the Nova Scotia government to hire a helicopter to drop $20 bills on the citizens of Yarmouth and the American tourists who come to visit. She also stated that subsidizing the hotels, coffee shops, and restaurants in the area would probably do more to attract businesses and tourists. Yarmouth is a small town of less than 10,000 people, and even if passenger and vehicle traffic were to increase, it is unlikely that Yarmouth would have the services necessary to provide for the wave of tourists. On the American side, the Council Chair for Bar Harbor told News Center Maine that Canadian passengers cause problems by increasing traffic and limiting the number of hotel rooms available for the small town. Perhaps these concerns are overstated, but its clear that passengers arriving in both anchor ports have the problem of actually finding a place to sleep and eat. When they actually come off the boat, especially on the Canadian side, some continue to just drive on from Yarmouth towards Halifax, thus limiting the amount of tourist dollars that actually go back into the economy of the rural south.
In an era of record inflation, with Nova Scotia having some of the highest taxed residents in Canada as well, it makes sense to ask if the $472 per passenger subsidy might be better spent, well, almost anywhere else. Large sections of Nova Scotia have virtually no cell phone service, and its roads have been considered some of the poorest quality in Canada. The Highway 104 route, the main route Mainers use to enter Nova Scotia by car, would be a much better option for investment if the goal is to directly benefit the largest number of Canadians and Americans alike. There is also perennial discussion and debate over whether to install toll roads on the section between the towns of New Glasgow and Antigonish. This section has been nicknamed the “Highway of Death” by residents due to the large number of accidents, especially during the winter months. Considering that this highway is used year-round and is one of the highest-traffic arteries in the provinces, it makes much more sense to this writer to use funds for this project rather than endlessly carrying the CAT. Halifax could also invest in its railway infrastructure, or in renovating the Stanfield airport.
The CAT has become a sort of third rail for local politics in Nova Scotia and Maine. Despite the fact that the ferry continues to be heavily reliant on taxpayer funds, it remains a pet project for the Nova Scotia government. It is marketed as a symbol of Maritime culture and pride, and the idea of a ferry polls well. Many Nova Scotia residents visit the United States during the summer months – and vice-versa. The reality is, however, that many are hesitant to fork over the extra funds to keep the CAT afloat. Before Tim Houston, no one politician dared touch it, lest they be accused of attacking a sacred cow. This is especially true in the southern regions, which continue to struggle economically.
This is not a unique story. Many communities in Nova Scotia, indeed in Maine as well, have essentially vanished off the map. The Halifax region has grown while rural areas have declined, and of the 18 counties that make up Nova Scotia, only four recorded population growth. Mainers may find this narrative familiar. In the end, there is no unlimited source of funds for the ferry, and the government of Nova Scotia is going to have to make the decision of where best to spend its money.
For the people of Maine and the readers of the Portland Townsman, I urge you to take a trip on the CAT. Despite all the flaws associated with funding and operations, the ferry and the trip itself are beautiful. Maine and Nova Scotia have always been close partners, ones that have worked together for trade and tourism and celebrating our shared heritage. Just remember – the future of the ferry is deeply in doubt, and you may be riding on the most cursed ferry line to ever sail the Atlantic.
Amalgamated sources here. Published with editorial contributions from Ashley Keenan.