British Columbia's three controversial "fast ferries" were auctioned off for slightly more than $19 million Monday, a fraction of their multimillion-dollar price tag.

The Voyager and Discovery each sold for about $6.7 million, while the Explorer went for close to $5.9 million. The buyer was only identified as being a group from North America.

Commissioned by B.C.'s previous NDP government, the aluminum-hulled PacifiCats were designed to improve ferry service on the West Coast and give a boost to the province's shipyards.

But the project turned into the politically embarrassing "fast ferries fiasco" as costs more than doubled to $454 million.

The catamarans had been up for sale for two and a half years without any firm offers, said B.C. Ferries.

* Last-ditch bid to keep fast ferries in B.C.

So the government put the ferries up for unreserved auction, meaning there was no minimum bid price. Interested bidders were required to post a $2-million deposit in order to bid, said Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers.

The auction was handled by Ritchie Brothers at Vancouver Place; bidding took less than 30 minutes. Several unidentified bidders took part.

Few interested bidders were expected due to the ferries' limitations, said a marine expert hired by the Ritchie Brothers auction. The ferries can only operate in relatively calm conditions.

Two of the ferries were plagued with mechanical problems and were pulled from service within months. One of the brand new ferries was never used and sat at the dock until auction.

Last week, unions representing ferry and shipyard workers called on the government to cancel the auction and use the ferries to link Vancouver with Victoria and Nanaimo.

Provincial Transport Minister Judith Reid dismissed the idea, calling it economically unsound.