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Portland-Nova Scotia ferry expects to carry 100K passengers in 1st year

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Portland-Nova Scotia ferry expects to carry 100K passengers in 1st year

PORTLAND — Nova Star Cruises expects to carry 100,000 passengers its first year of offering ferry service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The goal was announced by company officials, who on Monday afternoon spoke for the first time in public about the new business venture.

The ferry, which will be christened the Nova Star, is still in Singapore. It will likely depart in March for a 35-day trip to Portland before it’s officially scheduled to begin offering ferry service between Portland and Nova Scotia, according to Mark Amundsen, president of STM Quest, the joint venture operating Nova Star Cruises.

STM Quest last week officially signed a contract with Nova Scotia to launch the new ferry service. Nova Scotia will provide $21 million in Canadian dollars, which is roughly $20 million, over seven years to help subsidize the service.

The first-year, 100,000-passenger target surpasses the roughly 75,000 passengers that boarded The Cat – the high-speed ferry that most recently provided service between Portland and Nova Scotia – in 2009, its final year in service.

But it would be lower than the 130,000 annual passengers estimated to be the minimum number needed to remain viable, according to a report completed in August 2012 by the province of Nova Scotia. The Scotia Prince, a ferry that preceded The Cat, carried as many as 160,000 passengers during its heyday in 2002.

The new ferry service has a business model that will help it succeed where The Cat did not, according to Amundsen, who along with Steve Durrell, STM Quest’s chief operating officer, are graduates of Maine Maritime Academy. The two worked together at Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Durrell was president and Amundsen was director of ship repair.

“The Cat model didn’t quite translate down here because it had no ability to carry overnight passengers in cabins, and that’s where our business model varies from The Cat,” Amundsen said at a news conference held at Portland’s Ocean Gateway Terminal. He was joined by Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, and officials from Nova Scotia.

He said a third of the Scotia Prince’s passengers rode the ferry overnight just to take advantage of the amenities, including a casino. They would arrive in Yarmouth, spend a few hours, then hop back on the return ferry to Portland.

“The Cat could not duplicate that,” Amundsen said. “That’s why the passenger ridership went right down.”

He added that The Cat, which was a high-speed catamaran that made the trip from Portland to Nova Scotia in five hours, also offered an uncomfortable ride compared to the smoother, though slower, passage that the Nova Star will provide. The Nova Star is expected to make the trip in nine hours.

The Nova Star is a 528-foot-long vessel with the capacity to carry 1,250 passengers and 300 vehicles. It cost $165 million to build, originally to ferry passengers and vehicles across the English Channel.

It will offer 163 cabins and 652 total berths. It will have three restaurants – one fine dining, one casual pub and one buffet – as well as theater, conference and casino amenities. Because the Nova Star will operate in international waters, Maine's casino prohibition will not apply.

STM Quest is a joint venture between Quest Navigation and ST Marine Ltd., the company in Singapore that built the ship.

Amundsen, a resident of Eliot, said Quest Navigation plans to open an office in Portland that will employ up to 10 people. STM Quest, however, will officially be based in Halifax. Because Nova Scotia is providing subsidies for the ferry service, Amundsen said, “we’re going to buy as many things as we can from Nova Scotia, but economically we’re going to look at both sides.”

STM Quest is hiring International Shipping Partners, a Miami-based subcontractor experienced in operating ferries around the globe, to operate the Nova Star.

Ticket prices are expected to be released in a few weeks. Nova Star Cruises will begin taking reservations by January 2014.

The ferry will be scheduled to leave Portland each day at 8 p.m. and arrive in Yarmouth at 7 a.m. the next day. The ship will then depart Yarmouth at 9 a.m. and arrive in Portland at 5 p.m.

“We welcome the return of the service,” LePage said at Monday’s news conference. “It will be a great deal for the (Portland) waterfront, as it will in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.”

STM Quest will receive $10.5 million up front from Nova Scotia to help fund the start-up costs. It will then receive $1.5 million a year to help cover marketing expenses, according to Amundsen. That would mean the total $21 million would be extinguished in seven years. However, if the service is struggling, Amundsen said the company could request that the marketing funds be accelerated.

There is a long list of things to accomplish before the May 1 start date, not all of which are in STM Quest’s hands.

For example, the Maine Department of Transportation will help design, engineer and perhaps help pay for a new gangplank that will allow vehicles to drive on and off the ferry. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security will also have to become involved in getting the international service up and running.

If that May 1 deadline is not met, STM Quest could negotiate a later start date.

Durrell acknowledged it was a tight timeline, but said he was confident it would be met.

“If it was easy, anyone could do it,” he said with a grin as he and Amundsen left Monday’s event in Portland to catch a flight to Singapore, where they would meet their business partners and organize some of the work that needs to be done on the soon-to-be-christened Nova Star.