Weather delays among friends


Trade-offs and compromises tag along with every life. Dictatorships largely avoid both, democracies suffer with them, or at least with the need for them although they elude us at times. Building a house, building a boat, running a Steamship Authority (SSA), trade-offs, compromises, and best judgments rule, and the result is that someone is always unhappy to a greater or lesser degree. The compromises in our personal lives make sense. The compromises a service industry forces on us often don’t.

So, the Steamship Authority felt the sting recently from weekend travelers whose plans were interrupted by weather delays to ferry operations. Typically, when the boatline does its job trouble-free and everyone gets where they’re headed on time and the package they waited for arrived when it ought to have, no one has a word to say. When the opposite occurs, there’s a lot to talk about. The SSA lays its plans to minimize this irritation, but it happens.

The Island Home, whose service is more often interrupted by harsh weather than is the case with other vessels in the fleet, is a prime example of compromise. She’s double-ended, because she replaced the ancient Islander, which was double-ended, and Vineyard folks wanted a double-ender to take the retiree’s place. Some SSA captains preferred a Martha’s Vineyard ferry model, faster, more sea-kindly, simpler systems — a workhorse. Plus, the Martha’s Vineyard is not as easily put off her schedule as the big, new vessel.

But Island Home is more capacious, which has allowed the SSA to save some money by reducing the number of trips it operates. She doesn’t have to turn around, and she’s sumptuous, something all Islanders want but won’t admit they want. She was wildly expensive, and despite that, she’s not handy when the weather gets snotty. In the big picture, perhaps a modest negative.

Steamship Authority reliability measured over time — leaving aside the outlying occasions, like the pre-school vacation weekend when your travel plans were fractured — is terrific. Its financial circumstances are enviable. Despite years of declining passenger, auto, and freight traffic, and hugely increased fuel costs, the boatline’s ability to borrow relatively cheaply and to raise fares to offset falling sales protects it from the variability in the market. Its protected status and delicately maintained political relationship with its various unions gives it the upper hand, always and in any competitive circumstances.

Taken altogether, that’s why the Steamship Authority’s report card from its customers — on- and off-Islanders alike — and its voting constituents is, in sum, complimentary. Even a chartered and protected monopoly, as the Steamship Authority is, must make compromises, but if the beneficial results of those compromises and difficult decisions flow substantially to Islanders — and they do — a weekend’s inconvenience, a missed connecting reservation, a car space unavailable when you want it, won’t upset the friendly, tolerant, and appreciative relationship Islanders have with their lifeline.