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Quick and queasy route to Nova Scotia

The Cat from Portland, Maine, clocks 5 1/2 hours

Email|Print| Text size + By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / June 11, 2006

PORTLAND, Maine -- As we settled into our reclining seats on board The Cat, in the glassed-in bow of the massive high-speed ferry, my friend Linda turned to me with a worried expression.

``Do you think it will be rough out there?" she said.

I had my own concerns about The Cat -- foremost among them, whether we would be bored on the 5 1/2 -hour trip to Nova Scotia -- but the threat of seasickness had never crossed my mind. For all the cuteness of the whiskers painted on its nose, the ferry seemed too huge to bounce around. At 320 feet long, The Cat can carry 775 people and 250 cars. A promotional brochure describes it as cutting through the waves instead of riding on top of them.

Besides, I had ridden on plenty of ferries , up and down the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts, in Greece and Puerto Rico, without so much as a twinge of queasiness.

I gave Linda a sympathetic look. Though long since transplanted to New Jersey, her roots were in landlocked Nebraska.

``It will be fine," I told her, without a trace of doubt.

We had come to see if The Cat would live up to its billing as the best way to travel from Maine to Maritime Canada. Powered by four diesel-fueled water jets, the 750-ton catamaran travels at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. It has offered car and passenger service from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, on the southern tip of Nova Scotia, a three-hour trip, since 1998; more than a million passengers have made the trip. Last year, ferry service from Portland to Yarmouth, long provided by an older cruise ship, the Scotia Prince, ended in a dispute with the city, and The Cat's parent company, Bay Ferries, moved in to fill the gap.

Riding The Cat is not cheap, but it cuts travel time by half. On the Scotia Prince, the overnight trip took 11 hours. The Cat takes half that time to cross the Gulf of Maine, and offers diversions to help the time pass: four comfortable, cinema-style lounges showing TV and movies on big screens; two full bars featuring Starbucks coffee and lobster rolls, among other snacks; and a compact block of 70 slot machines, where the shiny tokens feature an embossed image of The Cat .

As the ferry began gliding past the Portland waterfront, we saw oil tankers and sturdy fishing boats, and church steeples lined up neatly in the distance. Through large wraparound windows streaked with dirt, we savored a close look at an old-fashioned, two-masted wooden yacht, graceful as a swan, and spied gracious homes attached like barnacles to the rocky backsides of the harbor islands. Smoothly, steadily, we powered past Portland Head Light , the quintessential Maine lighthouse, its bright beacon flashing over crashing white surf.

Then our speed picked up, the scenery fell away, and I began to notice the motion of The Cat. A faint but steady up-and-down swaying was periodically chopped up by a rougher, side-to-side shaking that seemed aligned with the distant rumble of the engines. Forty minutes out, I watched our progress on the TV screens overhead, where a red line inched steadily east. It was getting harder to ignore the unsettled feeling that was overtaking me.

Was this . . . could I be . . . seasick?

The idea was almost embarrassing. My grandfather and several uncles had made their livings sailing and maintaining boats for wealthy families on the North Shore of Massachusetts. My brother had worked as a fisherman for years. The other side of the family was descended from Vikings, for Pete's sake. My body was betraying its genetic underpinnings.

Linda, meanwhile, was a picture of corn-fed, Midwestern health. After a nap, she disappeared to try her luck at the slots.

The brochure for The Cat states plainly that ``some people are more sensitive to motion than others," and offers practical tips for riding out the storm within, such as avoiding reading and not drinking alcohol.

On the narrow, open-air deck at the stern of The Cat, I found other blindsided victims. Together, we watched the ferry's foamy, churning wake.

The Cat cuts straight across the gulf on a 200-mile path far from land, so those hoping for a scenic tour of the ragged Down East coast will be disappointed. Between Portland Head and fog-shrouded Yarmouth Harbor, there was little to see but flat gray water. Occasionally, a sea bird swooped in the distance, lighted up like a bright scrap of tinsel.

Inside , there was more to look at, from the movies playing in the lounges (among them ``The New World," ``The Producers," and ``Cheaper by the Dozen") to the eclectic treasures in the duty-free gift shop, where souvenir thimbles and ``Anne of Green Gables" dolls compete for attention with the ``Road Kill Cookbook" and $32 cartons of cigarettes.

For some on board, the biggest thrill was the time and mileage saved by the trip. Many passengers brought cars and planned to tour Nova Scotia, having skipped the 780-mile haul from Portland to Yarmouth. April Gosson , 32, who lives outside Yarmouth, said the boat had spared her 10 hours of driving to visit her mother in Massachusetts.

``If you can handle a six-hour flight on a plane, this is ice cream, because you can get up and move around," said Mark Caliri, 47, and his wife, Brenda, 46, of Woburn, Mass., celebrating their 22d wedding anniversary.

Waverly Turgo and Paul Gleisberg , both 66, of Westbrook, liked everything about the trip, from the roast chicken dinner ``cooked to perfection" to the whales they glimpsed on their return trip.

On the return journey, one day after my first bout of seasickness, I scored my first victory over the affliction. As soon as we boarded in Yarmouth, I sought help from a kind, efficient staff member on The Cat, who gave me Dramamine and told me where to sit (the back of the boat, near the center). After one more uncomfortable hour, the medicine kicked in.

Restored just like that to my hardy old seafaring ways, I was giddy with relief all the way back to Portland.

Contact Jenna Russell at jrussell@globe.com.

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