Once in a while, something that seems so wrong turns out to be so right.
Such may be the case with The Cat, the futuristic, high-speed ferry that has transformed the journey between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia into a surreal three-hour thrill ride. Offering a glimpse into the future of commercial ocean travel while leaving every vestige of conventional boating in its turbulent, hundred-foot-wide wake, the space-age vessel seems quite out of place as it roars through Frenchman's Bay four times each summer day. But by using creature comforts suitable for a luxury cruise ship, navigation equipment that might be appropriate for a starship, and a set of jets powerful enough to overcome the laws of physics, The Cat is churning the otherwise pristine waters around Mount Desert Island into a proving ground for some sophisticated technology and opening up a new, and very accessible, gateway into Nova Scotia.
When Bay Ferries, the Canadian company that also operates ferries in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, decided nearly a decade ago to replace its forty-two-year-old international ferry, the Bluenose, it sought to do more than upgrade its service, says Risteen Masters, marketing director for The Cat. It sought to transform the passage between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth - a trip that had the reputation for being a rolling, nearly seven-hour endurance test that sometimes sent even the most seagoing stomachs in frantic search of a small paper sack - into a stable, enjoyable, and speedy excursion.
"Mitch McLean, our chairman, has been in the ferry business for a long time, and he had seen the development of fast ferries in Europe and realized that they could work here," Masters explains. "I think there may have been some doubters at the time, but they seem to have kind of quieted down now."
McLean's vision first appeared in Maine waters in 1998 in the form of an Australian-built, $90-million, twin-hulled ocean-going vessel known as The Cat - a moniker based both on the ship's design as a catamaran, or twin-hulled ship, and its unique bow, which resembles a cat's nose. The Cat's ultramodern design solved both problems associated with the Bluenose: Its massive diesel engines and jet drives allowed it to make the crossing in less than three hours, while its twin aluminum hulls sliced through the waves and drastically reduced seasickness-causing motion - its ride felt more like that of a train than a boat. And people on both sides of the border noticed the changes: Ridership on the Yarmouth-to-Bar Harbor run doubled during The Cat's first year of service, with more than 150,000 passengers riding the ferry in peak years. The upgrade has been so successful that in 2002 Bay Ferries traded in their first catamaran for a larger, and even more elaborate, ferry.
Pedestrians on Bar Harbor's Shore Path and hikers on Champlain Mountain in Acadia National Park are sometimes struck by the contrast of the futuristic blue vessel with its massive white wake sprinting past Egg Rock Light, then slowing to a crawl as it slinks past lobstermen tending their traps among the tree-covered Porcupine Islands of Frenchman's Bay. The Cat, the fastest car ferry in North America and one of the most sophisticated vessels in the world, seems on one hand quite out of place in these pristine natural surroundings - and yet somehow appropriate, passing as it does near the sterns of the massive, often glitzy cruise ships moored in Bar Harbor.
The differences between The Cat and conventional ferries are apparent well before passengers board the 320-foot-long ship. In addition to the vessel's unusual bow (painted whiskers help further the feline effect), the wave-piercing bows that extend forward and below each hull reveal that this is a most unusual catamaran. The twin vehicle decks, with their impersonal, painted aluminum walls, are spacious enough for 250 cars or buses but belie the degree of comfort that passengers experience when they ascend to the passenger level. And all passengers do ascend; patrolling crewmembers and closed-circuit television cameras ensure that no stowaways (other than the four-legged variety, which are allowed to remain in vehicles during the passage) remain on the vehicle deck during the crossing.
Once they see what awaits them above, however, few passengers have any desire to return to the vehicle deck prematurely. On the passenger level, movies are broadcast on big-screen televisions in two separate lounges. A cafe, bar, and duty-free shop satisfy those passengers who resist the temptation offered by seventy-one slot machines located in the forward saloon (gambling is only allowed while the ship is in international waters). In addition, nearly 900 nicely upholstered yellow-and-blue seats - enough for every passenger, should this leviathan ever be filled to capacity - are spread throughout the ship. Even after two years of service, the upholstery is in perfect condition, and the carpets are still spotless. Some seats are in rows, perhaps the only feature the ship shares with conventional ferries and airplanes, while many are secured around circular tables. At these tables, some passengers play a hand of gin rummy, while others read the newspaper, or even work on a laptop. But the subtle details are what distinguish The Cat from its more basic maritime relations: the wooden parquet walkways that wind throughout the ship, the recessed lights that give the seating areas a warm, modern appearance, and, perhaps most importantly, the superior air-circulation system that ensures passengers receive enough fresh air (all windows are sealed shut because of the ship's speed) and avoids the stagnant old-ship smell that plagues many ferries.
The amenities within The Cat are so superior and the ship's ride is so smooth, in fact, that most travelers are completely unaware of the speed at which they're crossing the Gulf of Maine, according to Shawn Cummings, who helps oversee all customer-service operations on board. "Many people simply have no idea how fast they're going," he says. Even for experienced mariners - many of whom can be found staring wide-eyed out the large windows overlooking the ship's bow, or gazing out at the horizon from the open aft deck - perceiving the speed at which The Cat is moving is difficult. Once Cadillac Mountain and the hills of Acadia National Park disappear about a half-hour after getting under way, there are few features on the horizon by which to gauge the ship's tremendous speed. Add a touch of zero-visibility fog - a common occurrence on the passage and a condition for which the ship does not reduce speed - and most mariners choose to focus on the creature comforts inside the ship, humbly surrendering their own nautical common sense to the captain's faith in his double radar system.
The food served at the cafe, while hardly gourmet, is acceptable and reasonably priced, its culinary shortcomings compensated by the eatery's surroundings. A glass ceiling bathes the tables in the center of the ship with sunlight, and the friendly, largely Canadian, staff is strikingly congenial. "It's your ship while you're aboard, I just work here," one cashier responds when a customer asks permission to take food back to his seat.
The entire crew - most of whom are laid off each fall - enjoys surprising passengers who do not expect such friendly, accommodating service, Cummings explains. "We're not just providing people with transportation, we're providing a service," he says. "When people are getting off and they thank me and say they had a good time, it makes me feel really good."
At full speed, salty ocean spray often obscures the ship's floor-to-ceiling windows, but the other windows that ring the vessel usually remain clear, providing both sunlight and a pleasant view of the whitecaps as the ship slices through them. These windows also offer the opportunity for whale sightings - a frequent occurrence as the ship passes through prime feeding grounds for humpbacks, minke whales, and right whales. "This is so exciting," beams Gwen Sandven, who has boarded The Cat along with other members of a nineteen-day bus tour through Canada and the East Coast. "Some of our people just saw some whales, but I guess I wasn't in the right spot. So I'm keeping my eyes out."
Amid the luxurious appointments, The Cat still offers passengers a few subtle reminders that they're on board a ship. The aluminum vessel occasionally creaks and groans while passing through choppy seas, and its motion, although quicker and less pronounced than the pitch and roll experienced on the ferry Bluenose, can still send passengers staggering like they've spent a bit too long at the bar in the forward cabin.
But most guests, particularly those who have experienced other ferries, are surprised by the lack of motion on board. "I didn't really know what to expect, but we're out here in the North Atlantic right now, and this is just great," says Pablo Stinson, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has brought his nine-month-old daughter, Anabelle, on The Cat for a trip to visit relatives in Halifax after spending three days in Bar Harbor. "We called ahead to see what we could bring, and they said to bring whatever we wanted - there's lots of room." Indeed, from mothers pushing toddlers in strollers to retirees enjoying the freedom to stretch their legs, all passengers on The Cat seem to take advantage of the vessel's space - this trip is about movement, both of the ship itself and those within it.
To get a sense of the ship's power and speed (or just to smoke a cigarette), most passengers haul open the heavy, sliding rear doors and step onto the open aft deck. Here the roar of the four, 9,500-horsepower diesel engines and accompanying water jets, each of which produces enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every three seconds, climaxes in a deafening display of whitewater, cool ocean spray, and speed. Staring at the ocean as it zips by between the converging columns of water produces a feeling of vertigo akin to watching a cascading waterfall.
Here, on the aft deck, is perhaps the only place on the entire ship where passengers get the sensation that they are, in fact, traveling at highway speeds. The Cat cruises at about forty knots (forty-seven miles per hour to landlubbers) and is capable of traveling even faster.
"It's a Jet Ski on steroids," a passenger says, mesmerized by the cascading white water.
And that, Captain Stephen Johnson says, is precisely how he thinks of his 6,556-ton vessel. "We really are basically just a big Jet Ski," he says from his lookout in the bridge, located forward and above the passenger level. Here, in a quiet room nearly fifty feet and three decks away from the roar of the massive diesel engines, the captain and his three crew members stare not just through the panoramic windows, but at an array of computer screens - some showing the status of the radars, others monitoring the Global Positioning Systems and closed-circuit television cameras in the unmanned engine room - that are among the most essential pieces of equipment on board. From the bridge, the vessel's motion is hardly noticeable as it races through the whitecaps far below, an occasional whale sighting and a digital speed display providing the only evidence that The Cat is still tearing along at near highway speed.
A quick glance around the bridge appears to reveal that this vessel has evolved so far from its seafaring roots that it has abolished the need for a steering wheel, but Captain Johnson is quick to point out that he still uses a wheel to steer his ship - a two-inch miniature spoked model that he adjusts between his thumb and index finger.
For some, however, all the benefits of this hyper-modern ferry come at too high a cost.
"This is certainly the latest, but I'm not so sure it's the greatest," says one New Yorker returning from a three-week vacation in Canada. "You gain some things - speed, namely -but you give up some other comforts, like open decks. This is just more encapsulated."
For many Mainers and their guests, however, The Cat opens up Nova Scotia for even a day trip. "We had some guests from out of town and they just wanted to take a short trip, so this is just perfect," explains Bev Buyers, formerly of Searsport and now living in Ohio. Buyers is riding The Cat for the first time and plans to stay overnight in Yarmouth. "We have a dog with us, so the shorter trip is just great," she adds.
For others, the high-speed ferry is just a bonus over the old Bluenose, allowing spontaneity within a crammed vacation schedule by removing almost a full day of travel between Maine and Canada. "My daughter lives up in Brownville, Maine, and we just decided we wanted to go up to Nova Scotia and then drive back through Calais," says Phillis Skillman, of Ainsworth, Nebraska. "So we're just winging it - we don't have any reservations, and we're having a great time."
Given the tremendous success of The Cat, it is not surprising that its design has produced kittens. Incat, the Australian company that designed and built The Cat, claims to have nearly three-dozen similar ferries working in ports from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and Yellow Sea, with more under construction. Last winter, Bay Ferries sent The Cat south to make runs between Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. After Bay Ferries traded in its earlier version of The Cat, that ship was quickly put into service between Australia and Tasmania. Bay Ferries has no plans for another high-speed ferry in Maine, although the company is "always looking at opportunities," marketing director Masters says.
The military, too, has taken notice of The Cat's success, having commissioned three wave-piercing catamarans, the first of which was one of the lead ships in the Persian Gulf during the early days of the Iraq war. With its ability to make high-speed runs comfortably while carrying a large cargo, The Cat is ideally suited to military applications.
But in Maine and Nova Scotia, places where natural beauty and a slower pace usually take precedence over luxury and speed, an ultramodern creation like The Cat might seem like an invasive creature dropped from another planet. And while it may be just that, there is no denying, for better or worse, that this creature is quickly finding a home here.
For more information call the Bar Harbor terminal at 207-288-3395, or visit The Cat's Web site at www.catferry.com