Nov. 2, 2005 The familiar V.I. Fast Ferry Salacia, which has operated between St. Thomas and St. Croix for the past six seasons, will not be back this year.
Boston Harbor Cruises, Salacia's parent company, announced Wednesday afternoon that it is no longer financially viable to operate the 600-passenger ferry on the local route.
Alison Nolan, Boston Harbor Cruises general manager, said, "Unfortunately, we have decided to suspend the 2005-2006 season. It was a difficult decision. It was financial. As you know, the ferry has been in operation for the past six seasons. We have been trying to find a model that would make year-around service viable, but we haven't been able to do so.
"Port fees didn't enter into the decision making at all," she continued. "To generate enough revenue to sustain our operation, the margin is so small that anything that would affect our ridership even 15 percent would affect the success of our operation."
Nolan was clear it was the expectation of competition that was forcing the company to hold off service this year.
"Now, there's the introduction of Island Lynx," Nolan said, "and until it is clear whether Island Lynx is going to be successful, V.I. Fast Ferry cannot go through another season experiencing predatory competition from a new start-up venture."
Island Lynx, a new year-round high speed ferry operation is scheduled to start inter-island service late this year.
St. Croix attorney Kevin A. Rames, Island Lynx shareholder, said Wednesday, "Island Lynx Ferry Company has developed a business model for providing year round passenger ferry service, freight service and transhipment of automobiles between St. Croix and St. Thomas and elsewhere because of the failure of V. I. Fast Ferry and others to adequately serve this critical market.
"In addition, the quality of the vessel that Island Lynx has secured will assure its passengers of timely arrivals at their destination," Rames continued, "as well as a smooth and comfortable ride, which was notably lacking in the past."
He concluded, "It is the intention of Island Lynx to open up a new age of inter-island commerce for the benefit of us all, but most particularly for the woefully under served St. Croix market."
Nolan said V.I. Fast Ferry is not throwing in the towel. "It was an unfortunate decision to reach. First and foremost, [we want to] protect the route and come up once and for all with a solution that we can introduce next season, if we get the appropriate vessel. What we want to do is to protect our routes. If we don't, there's always going to be other companies that will come along. We want to do it in a way that makes sense, and that lets residents of both islands know we're there for a sustainable long-term service."
Nolan said the company is looking for a suitable vessel that would be appropriate for year round service. "We are going to maintain all our leases, office space and docking rights." She added, "Until we come up with a year round solution, we are always going to be subject to that kind of predatory competition."
She said she contacted the V. I. Port Authority Tuesday with the company's decision. "We were unable to speak with VIPA executive director Darlan Brin," Nolan said, "but we have sent written notification to his office." It was too late Wednesday afternoon for the Source to get comment from anyone at the Port Authority.
For decades, different ferry companies most of them hydrofoil operations have tried to ply the rough waters between St. Thomas and St. Croix, but, with the exception of the V. I. Fast Ferry, they have all folded, usually in less than one season.
After much fanfare, St. Croix-based Mermaid Fast Ferries' Calypso I began service in 2002, ran for a few months with spotty service, and ended service in 2003.
Boston Harbor Cruises has been in the ferry business for 79 years. "We represent a broad-based knowledge of the industry," Nolan said, "and we want to come up with the best service possible and stay the course."
The new kid on the block is coming from Egypt. Hal Lacey, Island Lynx operations officer said Wednesday the new vessel, the Quelbe, (after the territory's official music) is "46 meters, roughly 160 feet long and 41 feet wide. She carries 308 passengers, 12 vehicles or 14 tons of freight."
The vessel is designed, built and classed for short international voyages, Lacey said. The spacious vessel will offer WiFi service, mobile phone communications, a large-screen TV, an outdoor patio on the second deck, snacks, and a well-stocked bar.
It will operate at about 35-36 knots, more than 40 miles per hour, Lacey said, which will make the trip about 60 minutes, but it will operate on a scheduled one-way trip of 75 minutes from Gallows Bay on St. Croix to the Tardily Ferry dock on St. Thomas.
And, it will offer service to Tortola and Vieques. There has been no ferry service to Vieques in many years. The only way to reach the island is to travel to Fajardo, Puerto Rico and catch the Vieques ferry service.
Rames said, "Notwithstanding the obvious benefit of year round service, the vessel's ability to carry up to 14 tons of freight proves a unique opportunity for the development of increased trade between the islands. Based on a minimum of two round trips a day, the service will provide the possibility to ship up to 28 tons per day between the islands."
The name of the company is a play on words. "A lynx is a fast cat," Rames said, "and the Quelbe is a catamaran which links the islands."
Lacey said the vessel is expected here from Egypt sometime late this month. "It will be placed on a heavy transport for the 10- day trip to St. Croix," he said. "There are always delays in the best of scenarios, when you are dealing with shipyards, and then there is weather. That is out of our control, and that's why we haven't set up a major marketing effort yet.
"We are looking at starting service in the middle of December," he said.
Lacey said, "Fares will be in the $70 to $80 range. The biggest problem is fuel. It just jumped 17 cents a gallon. Hovensa sends out a month to month average figure and it just went from $1.82 to $ 1.98 a gallon.
"Looking at a flat rate of $70 round trip," he said, "we will add a $5 fuel surcharge, and once fuel drops back, we will drop the surcharge. Who knew about this fuel situation? It's safe to say, the fare will be between $70 and $80."
Details of the Vieques and Tortola service have to be worked out. Lacey said he is working with Smith's Ferry Service on St. Thomas. Smiths's will handle Island Lynx ticket sales from its counter at the Wilmoth Blyden Terminal. The two companies will not compete for the Tortola service; the routes will complement one another. The Vieques service is tentatively scheduled for Fridays and Sundays.
Lacey said there are still some kinks to work out with the Department of Motor Vehicles regarding transporting automobiles.
The Island Lynx schedule and fares will be published in ads in the Source, the Avis and the V.I.Daily News in about two weeks, Lacey said.
Lacey can be contacted at 344-9453, or visit the company website at islandlynx.com.
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