Updated Thursday, 5 pm
Two more ferry breakdowns — the MV Woods Hole Tuesday evening and MV Martha’s Vineyard Wednesday morning — left passengers scrambling for answers, and delayed workers, students, and freight deliveries.
On Wednesday, with the two largest ferries currently serving once again on the sidelines, the Steamship Authority is left apologizing to its customers again and pulling in a fast ferry to shuttle passengers to and from Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole. That’s being kept in service through Monday to ensure ferry service for passengers for the weekend, according to an SSA alert. Two freight ferries, with limited passenger capacity, are also making regularly scheduled crossings.
The MV Martha’s Vineyard returned to service Thursday after an electrical panel was replaced. The Island Home is also out of service, for routine maintenance. SSA officials said it the earliest it will return is Saturday or Sunday.
Earlier this week, even before the latest snafus, the Island’s representative to the Steamship, Marc Hanover, who represents the Island on the SSA’s governing board, called for a consultant to look into reliability of the ferries and communication to customers.
“It’s been abysmal,” Hanover said Monday. “We need to clean up the communication because it stinks.”
Hanover has called on Robert Davis, SSA’s general manager, to hire a maritime consultant to review what went wrong in recent weeks.
“Even before the fiasco, I had an uneasy feeling,” Hanover said. “I want to get to the bottom of this before the busy season. We need to find out if this is a fluke or if we have serious problems, but we need to find out.”
Davis told The Times Tuesday he’s actively looking for a consultant to come in and review what happened. How quickly it can be done will depend on finding a qualified person and scheduling, Davis said.
On Wednesday, the governor’s office weighed in on the crisis, issuing the following statement: “The Baker-Polito administration has contacted the Steamship Authority to offer assistance, and will remain in contact with their office as they work to return full ferry service to the people of Martha’s Vineyard.”
State Sen. Julian Cyr and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes issued a joint statement saying they intend to meeting with Davis to see what the state can do to assist. “We urge the Steamship Authority to be more transparent with Island residents and its customers about the cause of the service delays, and what the Steamship Authority is doing to solve these persistent problems,” they said. “It is also clear that the Steamship Authority must improve communication to Vineyard residents and travelers about boat delays, ferry schedules, mechanical problems, and any other disruptions in operation.”
During a 14-day period, the two largest ferries serving the Island were out of service more than they were in — the MV Woods Hole ran aground, setting off a series of mechanical issues, and the MV Martha’s Vineyard stranded passengers for five hours at sea because of a wiring issue with its generator. There were also cancellations due to weather, with four nor’easters, that have piled up since the beginning of the month.
Both vessels wound up at a Fairhaven shipyard for repairs at the same time, causing three days of craziness that included bringing in the fast ferry SeaStreak Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday to shuttle passengers back and forth between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven, and even borrowing the MV Gay Head from Nantucket for a couple of runs on Sunday.
“We knew we had to do something,” Davis said of calling in the SeaStreak. “They mobilized within an hour. It’s great to have someone, a transportation partner like that, to come in and be able to step up like that.”
Even with those emergency moves, some shipments were delayed to the Island, and customers had to alter their plans going to and from the Island because reservations were canceled and no standby vehicles were allowed.
The Woods Hole returned to service Sunday before being sidelined again Tuesday. The Martha’s Vineyard returned Tuesday night, only to have an issue on Wednesday morning when a breaker for the ferry’s steering pump tripped.
Despite his criticism of reliability and communication, Hanover praised Davis and his staff for their handling of the crisis. “Management did a phenomenal job through this process,” he said. “They didn’t go home. They’ve been working 24/7. I don’t want them or our customers to go through this again.”
Costs associated with the two weeks of ferry troubles have not been calculated, Davis said. “I don’t expect it to be a huge dollar amount in the scheme of things,” he said. “We can absorb it in our operating budget.”
Ferry musical chairs
On Monday, the Steamship Authority sent out an alert saying work has been completed on the Martha’s Vineyard, but testing procedures for the vessel’s new switchboard would be done by the Coast Guard on Tuesday. The Martha’s Vineyard had just returned to service after a $17.5 million refurbishment by Senesco Co. in Rhode Island.
The Woods Hole returned to service for its 3:45 pm run Sunday, and had been operating without issues all day Monday after an on-again, off-again week before being taken out of service again Tuesday.
Standby lines have been pretty much nonexistent during the two-week period.
The Woods Hole was taken out of service Thursday, March 22, causing problems for passengers looking to go to or leave the Island with a vehicle. That followed a week of going in and out of service after running aground in Vineyard Haven Harbor the week before.
“Over the weekend, our engineering department and the vendor’s technician determined that the check valves in the MV Woods Hole’s port propeller shaft had broken,” according to a statement. “After obtaining newer models of the valves, the technician installed the replacement valves for both the port and starboard shafts and reassembled the units.”
Once called a “workhorse,” expected to make runs on the tougher Nantucket to Hyannis run, the Woods Hole is frequently one of the first boats sidelined as a result of wind. Hanover said he’d like to get to the bottom of why boats like the Martha’s Vineyard and the MV Nantucket are able to make their crossings and the Woods Hole gets canceled.
“It’s something we need to explore, why the bigger boats with the higher profile are more susceptible to wind and cancel sooner,” Hanover said. “They’ve already talked about building another Woods Hole; at this point, I would not.”
Chaos at the terminals
On Friday morning, there was chaos in Vineyard Haven as customers scrambled to find out what was happening. With only one person on duty in the parking lot booths, traffic was backed up into Five Corners.
Meanwhile, those with reservations were told there would be no standby possibilities or opportunities to change reservations through at least Wednesday, after waiting in long lines.
Customers with canceled reservations were handed a voucher that is good for a year.
In Woods Hole, there were trucks two lanes deep waiting for a freight ferry to take them to the Vineyard. Passengers, mostly commuters, squeezed onto the SeaStreak, a fast ferry on loan to the Steamship Authority.
Steve Coughlin, a driver for Lunedei, which picks up and takes mail on ferries twice a day, was waiting at the Vineyard Haven terminal for a boat off-Island. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years,” he told The Times. “It’s never been this bad.”
Davis was in Woods Hole Friday morning assessing the situation. “We’ll get you there a little faster,” he said to a Times reporter, after acknowledging the Steamship Authority’s tough week before going to talk with other SSA employees.
Indeed, the SeaStreak made its crossing in 15 to 20 minutes. It returned Wednesday to shuttle walk-on passengers.
Hanover said at one point nearly 17 years ago, then general manager Armand Tiberio suggested looking at fast ferries, but it was widely criticized, and Tiberio ended up resigning that year, according to Times archives.
“It shows how times change,” Hanover said, noting the positive feedback the SeaStreak received for its fill-in service over the weekend. “It would be very expensive to operate.”
He said it would likely cost double what passengers pay now for the ride across the Sound.
Rich Saltzberg and Jamie Kageleiry contributed to this report.
Timeline of ferry fiascos
Thursday, March 15
9 am: MV Woods Hole runs aground in Vineyard Haven Harbor with 146 passengers on board. No one is injured.
Friday, March 16
Multiple trips of the Woods Hole are canceled due to “mechanical issues.”
3:45 pm: Smaller freight ferry MV Sankaty replaces Woods Hole on scheduled runs, as SSA evaluates ongoing issues.
Saturday, March 17
5 pm: Woods Hole returns to service, though no formal announcement is made.
8:45 pm: MV Martha’s Vineyard loses power and drops anchor off East Chop and West Chop, stranding 72 passengers, 11 crew, and three snack bar employees.
Sunday, March 18
1:45 am: Martha’s Vineyard returns to Vineyard Haven slip under tow.
6 am: SSA engineers go to Vineyard Haven to look at Martha’s Vineyard issues. All scheduled trips replaced by freight boat Sankaty.
Monday, March 19
7 am: Martha’s Vineyard returns to service after being cleared by Coast Guard.
Tuesday, March 20
10 am: SSA board and port council meet in Falmouth.
9:30 pm: Martha’s Vineyard has a second generator issue, and night runs are canceled for mechanical issues.
Wednesday, March 21
9 am: Times employees witness the Martha’s Vineyard being escorted from Vineyard Haven slip by a tugboat.
With a fourth nor’easter bearing down on Island, multiple runs of all ferries are canceled due to weather.
1 pm: SSA confirms that Martha’s Vineyard is being taken out of service and taken to Fairhaven for evaluation and repairs.
Thursday, March 22
Weather cancellations continue through midday.
5 pm: An indicator light forces Woods Hole out of service. It’s moved to Fairhaven for evaluation and service.
Friday, March 23
7 am: The fast ferry SeaStreak is brought in to shuttle passengers to and from the Island, but with no vehicle capacity, reservations are canceled and standby service is eliminated.
10:45 pm: An extra trip of the smaller freight ferry Katama is added, to get more freight vehicles to the Island.
Saturday, March 24
4:30 am: The Katama makes its first run at 4:30 am from Woods Hole to get more freight to the Island. SeaStreak continues its shuttle service.
Sunday, March 24
6:45 am: MV Gay Head is brought in from Nantucket to provide two runs to add vehicle capacity. SeaStreak continues its shuttle service.
3:45 pm: Woods Hole is cleared to return to service.
Monday, March 25
Woods Hole makes all its scheduled trips.
Tuesday, March 26
5 pm: Woods Hole is shut down and taken out of service after an alarm code went off. It’s been taken to Fairhaven.
7:30 pm: The Martha’s Vineyard returns to service.
Wednesday, March 26
6 am: Martha’s Vineyard is taken out of service after a breaker for a steering pump trips.