PORTLAND, Maine » The original Hawaii Superferry, the Alakai, will once again be taking civilian passengers and vehicles on commutes over the ocean — only this time it will be in Canada.
Mark MacDonald, president of the Canadian company Bay Ferries, said his company will operate the twin-hulled vessel under a lease agreement with its owner, the U.S. Navy.
The Alakai, now known as the USNS Puerto Rico, will provide high-speed ferry service between Maine and Nova Scotia.
The Navy took over the Alakai and its sister ship, the Huakai, in 2012 after the high-speed ferry service in Hawaii abruptly shut down in 2009.
The former Superferry can make the 212-mile trip in 5 1/2 hours. The previous ferry ship on the route, the Nova Star, which ended service in October, took 11 hours to make the crossing.
The vessel is similar in size and operation to a high-speed ferry that Bay Ferries operated on the same route from 2006 through 2009. That vessel was also called the CAT.
The Navy ship will be renamed the CAT.
“Yes, the CAT is back,” MacDonald said during a news conference today in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In the one-year charter agreement signed with the Navy today, the Navy retains the right to take back the ship at any time. MacDonald said he doubts that will ever happen.
He said the Puerto Rico will be configured to carry between 700 and 750 passengers. It can carry 280 cars.
The service will begin on June 15, MacDonald said. It will depart Portland daily at 2:30 p.m. and arrive in Yarmouth at 9 p.m. After spending the night in Yarmouth, the ferry will depart for Maine at 8 a.m.
The Nova Scotia government will provide a subsidy of just under $24.9 million over two years, according to a 10-year agreement.
The Superferry is 349 feet long, considerably smaller than the 528-foot-long Nova Star. Its maximum speed is 40 mph, compared with the Nova Star’s 24.6 mph.
Experts in the ferry business say service on the route has a better chance of success with a smaller vessel that is less expensive to operate and can make the crossing faster.
High-speed ferries consume more fuel than conventional, single-hull ships, but fuel prices are low right now, said Gary Andrews, a ferry consultant based in England.
“More importantly, the crossing time gives it a unique selling point that the Nova Star didn’t have,” he said.
Bay Ferries is well-respected, knows the market and has connections in the tourism industry, all of which will be needed to help the company make up for the short notice before the season begins, said Darrell Bryan, CEO of Interferry, an international trade organization for the industry.
“It stands a far better chance of making it a successful operation,” he said.
Nova Scotia canceled its contract with Bay Ferries after the 2009 season because officials complained its requested $4.5 million annual subsidy was too high.
Its replacement, the Nova Star, was far more costly.
The Puerto Rico was built in Mobile, Alabama, in 2007 for Hawaii Superferry LLC and designed to operate in the Hawaiian islands. The federal government obtained the vessel after Hawaii Superferry went bankrupt in 2009.
Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, first called the head of the Military Sealift Command in December and urged officials to work within their existing statutory and policy guidelines to give help making the surplus vessel available for lease.
The province spent $21.5 million for the service in the Nova Star’s first season in 2014. Last year, the government limited its subsidy to $9.8 million. The service’s financial troubles led a federal court to order the seizure of the Nova Star in October after several companies complained that they were owed more than $2.2 million.
The Huakai, now known as the USNS Guam, is being used in Guam and Okinawa to take Marines and other equipment around the Western Pacific.