Martha’s Vineyard ferry fatigue reaches three full weeks

SSA continues to work on restoring service, while Island businesses feel the pinch.

1
An aerial view of the M/V Woods Hole. The vessel suffered mechanical issues on and off throughout the month of March. — Bill Brine

Problems with the Steamship Authority’s largest ferries are now at 21 days and counting. While there is hope on the horizon that some of the woes are coming to an end, the issues with two vessels that recently went through extensive work at Senesco Marine raise questions about that Rhode Island facility’s work.

The MV Martha’s Vineyard is back making runs, but faced a couple of setbacks after an electrical panel was replaced late last week. The Martha’s Vineyard underwent a $17.5 million midlife refurbishment at Senesco before returning to service March 7. Ten days later, it would lose engine power between East and West Chop after leaving for its 8:30 pm run, an incident that left passengers stranded for five hours before the vessel was towed back to Vineyard Haven. That’s set off two weeks of off again/on again episodes — a one-hour delay Friday and two missed runs on Saturday being the latest.

The MV Island Home, which also underwent routine maintenance at Senesco and has been out of service since December, was originally scheduled to return March 24. It didn’t. No reason was given for that delay, but when it was due to return Friday, March 30, it suffered a setback when software for one of its two bow thrusters did not work. More recently, the SSA was awaiting a technician from Denmark.

Adam Robson, a design engineer for Tees White Gill in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, England, told The Times by telephone the company had two engineers aboard the MV Island Home Tuesday morning. Robson said they were working out a software problem centered around the bow thrusters’ interface with the MV Island Home’s new diesel engines. Robson said he was previously onsite in Rhode Island for part of the refit of that vessel. Tees White Gill also makes the bow thrusters installed in the MV Martha’s Vineyard and the MV Woods Hole, Davis said.

The earliest the Island Home was expected to return was Wednesday afternoon, though that was still up in the air as The Times went to press.

Davis told The Times Monday that the Steamship Authority intends to seek a warranty claim against Senesco for its work on the Martha’s Vineyard, which has been directly attributed to its problems. Senesco “continues to provide support” to the Steamship Authority, Davis said.

“There will be warranty claims, [but the] focus is on restoring service,” he said.

Numerous calls to Michael Foster, vice president and general manager of Senesco Marine, have not been returned.

On Friday, Davis told The Times the SSA remains confident in the service it receives from Senesco. The MV Nantucket is there receiving service now, he said. “They’ve made people available for us,” he said. “They did have crews down there working on items.”

The MV Woods Hole, the $40.6 million newest addition to the fleet, hasn’t been worked on by Senesco, but has had problems of its own. After being out of service for more than a week, the Woods Hole passed a Coast Guard inspection on Monday afternoon, Davis said. The vessel will temporarily replace the MV Sankaty, and did ferry runs between Hyannis and Nantucket Tuesday and Wednesday to give technicians a reasonable window in which to evaluate its performance, he said. Continuous monitoring for a 10.5-hour schedule, as opposed to 18 hours, as it would be on a Vineyard schedule, will be less taxing for the technical crew, he said. He expects it to return to Vineyard service after that. Hyannis terminal manager Chris Chace told The Times Tuesday afternoon the Woods Hole did its first run at 6:30 am Tuesday morning with technicians aboard, and began the next run at noon, following the typical Sankaty schedule. On Thursday, “if everything goes well, it will go back to Woods Hole,” he said.

Meanwhile, the SSA used two freight ferries with less capacity — the Sankaty and Katama — to augment its Woods Hole–Vineyard Haven service, as well as a fast ferry on loan from SeaStreak to shuttle walk-on passengers. That’s led to late-night and early-morning runs that SSA seeks to avoid to keep the peace with Woods Hole residents. Reservations have been canceled, and standby service, typically easy in the offseason, has been nonexistent.

In an earlier interview, Davis acknowledged the patience of customers is wearing thin. “I can understand why there would be frustration. We’re frustrated as well,” Davis said. “We endeavor to be running a reliable service. We’re embarrassed we’re not.”

Davis also acknowledged the problems with communications, and noted that’s one of the reasons he asked the governing board to authorize hiring a communications director. He said the SSA will explore social media, particularly Twitter, as a way to get the message out quicker to customers about mechanical issues and other cancellations. Late last week, a Twitter account was established with the @SteamshipAuthority handle, though there’s yet to be a tweet from it. “We clearly need to be looking at that,” Davis said. “We need to look to get information out quicker.”

The issue now is that he, other administrative staff, and even captains are working on the issues with the vessels, which is their priority.

Davis praised SSA staff for how they’ve handled themselves during the three-week crisis. “I think in terms of the terminal people, I’ve been down to Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven, they’re holding up,” he said. “Things get a little tiring, I understand. They understand we have a job to do. We need to get people to where they need to be.”

 

Lifeline or let down?

Susan Goldstein, owner of the Mansion House Inn, expressed frustration with the ongoing outages and the effect it’s having on people who visit the Vineyard. People are worried they either won’t be able to get to the Island or they’ll get stuck once they do, she said, and that’s having an impact on advance reservations.

“It has a continuing impact. Besides their engineering issues, the communication is percolating among people who have reservations in the future,” Goldstein said. “For some people, the whole idea of a ferry is part of the magic, and now it’s part of the hurdles you have to jump through.”

Last week, during the height of the latest outages, Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce issued a survey to its membership about economic impact.

Nancy Gardella, executive director of the chamber, said more than 60 people responded and while there hasn’t been a huge economic impact from the ferry issues yet, the fear is that with emailed alerts going to everyone that has ever shared their emails to make a reservation, it will send the message that the Vineyard isn’t a safe place for people to travel to because of the unreliability of the ferries.

“It’s one thing to communicate with Islanders about what is going on, but it’s another thing, according to some businesses, when those go out to everyone who the SSA has an email address for,” Gardella said. “It erodes confidence, and they may make other choices.”

Within the comments the chamber received was praise for the Steamship Authority’s willingness to hire the fast ferry and to run the freight ferries on additional runs.

“People were complimentary about the effort,” she said.

The Steamship Authority needs to find the balance on communication. “As one person put it in their comments, I don’t really need to know what screwdriver you’re using to fix a boat, I need to know if the boat is going,” Gardella said.

Weather happens, mechanical issues happen. For the SSA, it’s unfortunate that it’s all happening at once. “What the SSA has gone through is unprecedented; between the weather and mechanical issues, they’ve had the worst nightmare a business can have in a three-week period,” Gardella said.

Over on the other side, there has been a bit of a boon for Woods Hole businesses, particularly those within walking distance of the boat slips.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Sean Nekola, general manager of Quicks Hole Tavern, said about an uptick in business. “Because of cancellations and delays, our numbers are great right now.”

And the fast ferry is the talk of the town. “Locals who ride the SeaStreak, they talk about how great it is to go from a 45-minute ride to a 15- to 18-minute ride,” he said.

Jim Tietje, who owns the Patriot’s Quickwater, the ferry known for running in all types of weather and conditions, said he’s seen a slight uptick, but not as much as you might expect. “We’re definitely aware of it. What I see as most striking is the SeaStreak,” he told The Times. “It might be a good idea for the bigger freight boat to be used for cars and the catamaran for just foot traffic, in the future. It might save them money, and people would definitely enjoy it.”

Problems can lead to opportunities, Tietje said. “It’s been a snafu, but hopefully they’re learning from it.”

 

Rich Saltzberg and Brian Dowd contributed to this report.