Sept 9, 2003 – If all goes according to plan, three ferries should by plying the waters between St. Thomas and St. Croix this winter.
The 600-passenger Salacia operated by V.I. Fast Ferry will return to service in December. "We are happy to be coming back," Kevin Matthews, director of operation for Boston Harbor Cruises, the Fast Ferry's parent company, said on Tuesday. "We hope to have a good, fun season."
Chris Elliott, owner of St. Croix-based Mermaid Fast Ferries, said on Tuesday that his company will have two vessels operating between the islands starting this fall. Mermaid began operations with a single ferry last September in what was announced as year-round service, but the company shut down operations in January.
As to when the new service is to begin, "We are shooting for late October or early November," Elliott said on Tuesday.
The Port Authority's decision to reduced a scheduled increase in the per-passenger tax was a factor in the decision to return the Salacia to service. Last season, the head tax was $1.50; it had been scheduled to double to $3 for the coming year, but in August, VIPA dropped the figure to $2 at the same time that it rolled back airline passenger and landing fees that had been in effect since February.
Matthews said the reduced head tax increase was not the only deciding factor. "If we had known in advance, we could have planned in advance," he said of the tax. "It's not the make-or-break factor in our decision. More importantly, we designated the Virgin Islands as our winter home four years ago in expectation of growing into a year-round service."
But, still another factor influenced the company's decision to return, he said: Virgin Islands hospitality. "People thank us for great service," Matthews said. "We just don't see that in Boston."
Group bookings prove popular
He said he has received many calls from V.I. residents, including representatives of school and sports groups and not-for-profit organizations. "We had a lot of organizations calling me personally and talking to our sales people. They wanted to know if we were coming back so they could make plans," he said.
Matthews said he has group packages booked for the coming season with Divi Carina Bay Casino and Carambola Beach Resort on St. Croix, as he did last year. "We need to get good-quality service, and we are getting off-island groups booking between the two islands," he said. "Lots of them want a day trip or an overnight stay on either island. Last year we discounted round trips to the Divi."
Many callers simply wanted to be assured of consistent service, which the ferry can provide, he said. The ferry can easily accommodate sports teams with all their equipment, carnival troupes with all their elaborate paraphernalia, and bands with their instruments. "We heard from a band who traveled eight or nine times last year," he said.
In August, Matthews had said the pending increase in the head tax to $2 from $1.50 was "still not great news. It's essentially raising the tax 33 per cent on us. It's just more food for thought. We will have to evaluate our options."
But he added that with the company having "sunk a quarter of a million dollars in both islands' infrastructure," BHC wanted to return the Fast Ferry to service, even though "it's very hard for a ferry operator to make a go of it down there."
Last season presented obstacles with the Gallows Bay docking facility on St. Croix under construction, Matthews said on Tuesday, as did having a competitor that was "challenging." The fact that Mermaid went out of business in January was in itself a source of concern to him, he said.
"People tend to think of the ferries as all one company," he said. "When people came to us with Mermaid tickets, we could not accept them." He added that he things most people now realize "there were two different ferries."
The other ferry, Elliott's Mermaid's Calypso I, had a spotty performance last year in its five months of operation before service was suspended. (See "Mermaid Fast Ferries closes Calypso I down".)
Mermaid ferries "fastest in their class"
Asked how he plans to operate two ferries in the coming season when one did not succeed last year, Elliott replied: "That's fine; that's not a problem." He said his ferries will have half an hour less traveling time and the fares will be $50 round-trip and $40 for children — or $10 cheaper than the Salacia.
There will be one boat based on each island, with simultaneous departure schedules starting at 8:30 a.m. and ending at 6:30 p.m. He said he anticipates about six round trips per day with each vessel.
Elliott was reluctant to reveal many details about the boats, neither of which is in the territory yet. "After last year, we can't afford to put out any more information than absolutely necessary," he said. "We can't be too specific, because the competition is just not that friendly."
He did say that the two boats, each of which holds about 300 passengers, are faster than the Salacia. Matthews said the Salacia cruises at around 37 knots, taking about an hour and a half between islands. Elliott said his boats will travel at 42 knots, or nearly 50 miles per hour. "They are the fastest in their class," he said.
He said both boats have undergone U.S. Coast Guard inspection in the states, but he declined to say where exactly they are. "It will be just a very quick inspection down here," he said, he said, adding that the plan is for the vessels to arrive "about a week before we start."
Matthews in August had raised the point that for the ferries connecting St. Thomas and St. John, the Port Authority head tax is just 25 cents, as opposed to the $2 BHC will be paying. However, Lloyd Romeo, who recently retired as VIPA's director of administration and finance, said that while the tax is on the books, it has never been enforced.
"Traveling from St. John to St. Thomas on the ferry is the only way to travel," Romeo explained. "It's like a bus service — children use it for school, adults to go to work, for shopping, to the doctor, or whatever reason. It's not a choice." He said the service isn't a choice, but a necessity, indicating that is why the tax has never been implemented.
Another difference is that the St. Thomas-St. John ferry service is regulated by the Public Services Commission, which must approve the passenger fares, whereas the St. Thomas-St. Croix ferry companies set their own rates based on whatever they think the market will bear.
Matthews said BHC may have to add the $2 tax to its $60 fare to minimize losses. This will be the Salacia's third winter in the Virgin Islands; it lost money on the first two and is expected to do so again this coming season. After losing $250,000 last year, Matthews said, he hopes to keep losses below $100,000 this time. BHC can afford to operate on that basis, he has said, because the Salacia does a good business in the summer in the Boston area and the losses would be less than the cost of not running the vessel at all in the winter.
V.I. Fast Ferry employes about 15 local people each year, Matthews said. "We try to hire local deckhands and ticketing people," he said. "We bring down a crew every year, and we have one Virgin Islander come up to Boston for training and building our employee base in the V.I."
BHC, the nations's largest private ferry company, is celebrating 80 years of being in business this year.
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