Maine-Nova Scotia ferry service in flux again, with another operator


A new operator is taking over the route of the ferry Nova Star, which was seized by U.S. marshals in October for $3 million in unpaid bills following two disappointing seasons of operation between Maine and Nova Scotia.

The 528-foot ship, built and owned by Singapore Technologies Marine, entered service in May 2014 to much fanfare in Portland and Yarmouth. Nova Star Cruises failed to attract the ridership the company predicted, however, and the province of Nova Scotia dropped the operator after spending $41 million (Canadian) to subsidize the service.

“We had serious challenges with the Nova Star operations,” Geoff MacLellan, Nova Scotia’s minister of transportation, said last fall after announcing that Bay Ferries Ltd. would take over the Maine-to-Canada run. “It made it difficult for us to continue with that.”

The venture’s demise added to the checkered history of Nova Star. Originally slated to sail the English Channel as Norman Leader, French operator LD Lines terminated its contract with ST Marine after sea trials in 2010. LD Lines’ parent company, Louis Dreyfus Armateurs, cited a delay in delivery and a “deficiency in the deadweight capacity of the ro-pax vessel.”

Nova Star then sat idle in Singapore until Maine-based Quest Navigation, in a joint venture with ST Marine, came calling in 2013. The ferry was upgraded to offer a cruise ship experience with luxury cabins, three restaurants, four bars, a casino, a theater and a spa.

“From what I understand, (the ship) didn’t meet the specifications that the original buyer wanted,” Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for Nova Star Cruises, said in the summer of 2014. “It meets our specifications fine. I think there were some other issues as well and the buyer backed out. But it’s brand new.”

The shine didn’t bring success. Despite offering Portland-to-Yarmouth service for the first time in five years — Bay Ferries had dropped the route in 2009 after Nova Scotia stopped providing subsidies — Nova Star Cruises couldn’t attract enough interest. The company expected 100,000 passengers during Nova Star’s inaugural season, but the ship carried only 59,000. Last year, ridership dropped to 52,000.

As a result, the operator spent more than $28 million in subsidies during its first year. The total rose to $41 million in 2015 as the company racked up bills with creditors that included the city of Portland, the Portland Pilots, McAllister Towing and local fuel and supply providers. On Oct. 30, a federal judge directed the U.S. Marshals Service to seize the ship in Portland Harbor.

During the next few weeks, owner ST Marine reached settlements with most of the parties, and Nova Star was released on Nov. 30 after the shipbuilder posted a $750,000 surety bond. The ferry sailed out of Portland on Dec. 9 and has since landed a new route: crossing the Strait of Gibraltar for Inter Shipping, which operates ferries between Morocco and Spain.

To replace Nova Star Cruises, the government of Nova Scotia tapped Bay Ferries, an experienced Canadian operator that previously ran a high-speed catamaran to Maine. But by mid-March, the company still hadn’t secured a ship.

“We have, from the outset, been attempting to identify a vessel that works best for customers, is capable of meeting Canadian and U.S. regulatory requirements, and makes financial sense for Nova Scotia,” Bay Ferries Chief Executive Mark MacDonald said in early February. “Because we are competing for assets against other operators worldwide, we are limited in what we can say on the status of our search because of the risk that it would jeopardize our company’s ability to get the best ship in place for the Yarmouth (to) Maine service in 2016.”

MacDonald did not respond to a request by Professional Mariner to comment on the search and what Bay Ferries might be looking for in regard to capacity and capability. Nova Star could carry 1,215 passengers and up to 336 cars, with a cruising speed of 21 knots. 

In early March, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command confirmed that Bay Ferries was in talks with the Navy about leasing USNS Puerto Rico, a 349-foot high-speed catamaran. The ship operated under the name Alakai for Hawaii Superferry until 2009, then was sold at auction to the Maritime Administration and transferred to the Navy.

“The Department of the Navy is looking at the possibility of making the high-speed transport available for lease and negotiations are ongoing,” spokesman Nathan Potter said in an email. 

Potter said the Navy could not speculate on when an agreement might be reached, or if other companies are interested in leasing the ship. The Maine-to-Nova Scotia sailing season is set to begin in June.

By Professional Mariner Staff