By MICHAEL GORMAN Local Xpress
Bay Ferries has narrowed its search to a single vessel to service the Yarmouth to Portland run this season, Local Xpress has learned.
Multiple sources confirm that the company has set its sights on a high-speed ferry that once served the Hawaiian Islands and is now owned by the United States navy.
"This is the best available vessel on the market," according to one source.
The USNS Puerto Rico, formerly known as the Alakai, is a 106-metre ship that allows for roll on-roll off transfer. According to Wikipedia, the ship has a capacity of 866 passengers and up to 282 subcompact cars and was christened in 2007.
In October, Bay Ferries won the contract to take over the service after two disappointing years of operation by Nova Star Cruises. While the announcement and promise of a long-term deal was viewed favourably, particularly in the southwest of the province, questions quickly turned to what ship would be used for the trip.
The provincial government has been under intense scrutiny as each day passes without an announcement. Earlier this week it was learned that a Connecticut-based tour operator cancelled three planned trips to Nova Scotia this summer due to the lack of information about the ferry.
Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan, who would not comment for this story, has repeatedly said he has faith the company will find a ship in time for the upcoming tourist season and earlier this week said he absolutely believes there would be a ferry service this summer.
Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said he was not able to comment on this story.
In a news release issued earlier Thursday, MacDonald said the company is "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-Maine service in 2016."
The release goes on to say the company has been keeping the provincial government up to date on efforts to secure a ship.
The Associated Press on Thursday reported that several American politicians are trying to help broker a deal to get a vessel from the navy, which, according to the report, had never put it into service. People who talked to Local Xpress on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak confirmed that all that is needed for the deal to go through is a final sign-off by the navy.
This would be the second high-speed ferry to service the run. Bay Ferries previously operated The Cat from 2002-2005 until the former NDP government ended a subsidy for the service.
People familiar with the history of ferry service between Yarmouth and Maine will likely have two questions top of mind upon learning a high-speed ferry could be returning to the area:
The first: Can it accommodate trucks?
According to one of the sources who talked with Local Xpress, that question is a moot point. It appears the City of Portland would prefer for large trucks not to tie up the downtown and the local customs agents have issues processing them fast enough, said the source.
The second question: Will the trip be too rough?
The Cat ferry, which previously served the voyage, was not-so-affectionately dubbed the "vomit comet" due to its rough ride. According to a source familiar with engineering reports, the newer, more modern designed ferry rides higher on the water and does not have a large dip in the middle, which allegedly was the main culprit for the Cat's rough ride.
Another selling point for the USNS Puerto Rico, said one source, is its speed; it could leave Yarmouth in the morning and return in the evening, docking in the seaside town overnight. This would likely lead to more bookings at local accommodations.
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