The Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority (SSA) terminal was drenched in sunlight Wednesday morning, highlighting the inauguration of fast ferry service between New Bedford and Martha's Vineyard.
In a morning ceremony marked by words of praise for all concerned, Island officials, Steamship Authority representatives, and the chairman of the New England Fast Ferry Company (NEFF) welcomed the start of the new service.
The new high-speed catamaran, named the Whaling City Express, will make the crossing in approximately one hour. The 95-foot catamaran has the capacity to carry 149 passengers, their luggage, freight, and bicycles.
New England Fast Ferry Company was the winning bidder to provide the service under a license granted by the Steamship Authority.
Standing in the flower-filled main cabin of his new ferry, Jim Barker, New England Fast Ferry chairman, welcomed the assembled crowd and said, "We've met with many people over the past two years - selectmen, harbor masters and many others - and we really appreciate the time all those people took to come out, talk to us, and give us their input."
Mr. Barker praised the input and efforts of Kathryn Roessel of Tisbury, Steamship Authority Vineyard member.
Ms. Roessel referred to the long years of political turmoil and battles which paved the way for the start of high-speed New Bedford service in her remarks. "This is a great day; the great New Bedford, Steamship Authority wars are over, and the winner is...the people of Martha's Vineyard," she said. "We have this great new service, at no cost to us, and it's great because nobody loses."
Ms. Roessel expressed her hopes that the New England Fast Ferry service would provide a template for ferry service to Nantucket and said she thought the new service would reduce traffic on Cape Cod.
Ms. Roessel gave credit to the private interests for achieving this new service successfully. "Some politicians may try to take credit for this service, but this didn't happen because of politicians, it happened in spite of them," said Ms. Roessel. "If there's a real need for an economically viable service, American business is going to step up to the plate and do it. Thanks to everybody at New England Fast Ferry, and good luck!" she concluded.
The Oak Bluffs celebration followed a similar ceremony in New Bedford on Tuesday which was attended by a score of local and state dignitaries. Speaking at the State Pier, New Bedford Mayor Frederick Kalisz Jr. said the new service would re-establish historic links between New Bedford and the Islands.
Among those attending the formal send off was George Leontire, former New Bedford city solicitor, and J.B. Riggs Parker of Chilmark, former Vineyard Steamship Authority member.
"It was a big day for [New England Fast Ferry]. They fought for a long time for this and it's a very good thing for the Vineyard," Mr. Parker said in a telephone interview after the ceremony.
According to a report in the New Bedford Standard Times, Mayor Kalisz and Mr. Parker predicted success for the new service once people learn to appreciate the convenience of the new route. In a statement tinged with emotion, the mayor also gave credit to Mr. Leontire and Mr. Parker for their efforts, the paper reported.
Mr. Kalisz said the high-speed service is one more step in establishing the city as a sea, air, rail and highway transportation hub.
Slow trip to fast service
Steamship Authority Fast ferry service to New Bedford was originally envisioned as an essential piece in a larger SSA transportation model by former SSA general manager Armand Tiberio, who said the new service would divert automobiles.
During his brief tenure, Mr. Parker, Ms. Roessel's predecessor, urged the Vineyard to work with New Bedford to establish Steamship Authority-operated fast passenger ferry service. Mr. Parker argued that the boatline and not a private operator should reap any profits.
The Steamship Authority purchased the Schamonchi, an aging passenger ferry, with the intention of replacing the ferry with SSA operated high-speed ferry service, based on the assumption that the new service would generate profits for the boatline.
Fred Raskin, Mr. Tiberio's successor and the boatline's new chief executive officer, took the view that New Bedford fast-ferry service was a nettlesome issue with uncertain ridership potential. He decided it was less risky to turn service over to a private operator.
Eventually, Ms. Roessel, at one time an ardent critic of both fast ferries and Mr. Parker, came to the view that a privately operated fast ferry licensed by the Steamship Authority would provide a good test of the potential service with minimum risk to the boatline.
Last August, the Steamship Authority members voted to license New England Fast Ferry, ending years of often nasty debate. The deal gave the company a seven-year, three-month contract to operate two high-speed catamarans.
During the summer, the boat will make five trips to and from the Island Monday through Wednesday, and six trips Thursday through Sunday. The summer schedule goes from July 1 until September 19.
In the winter, there will be three trips daily, and four on weekends. There will be additional boats for Thanksgiving weekend and the Christmas season.
The new passenger ferry will operate between State Pier in New Bedford, and the ports of Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven, depending on the season.