SSA weekend breakdowns strand many
It was the Steamship Authority (SSA) version of the perfect storm. On the first weekend in August at the height of the summer season, first one then another freight boat broke down.
The result was hundreds of hot, tired, and in some cases irritated vacationers waiting to get vehicles on and off the Island. Some of them had to wait until late Sunday night to make the trip.
Saturday and Sunday were a trying two days for the terminal employees on the customer frontlines and for SSA managers as they scrambled to react to a developing situation. Marc Hanover, Vineyard SSA representative, said that from everything he heard, even people who were unhappy about not being able to gain passage said the boatline employees conducted themselves remarkably well.
Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said early Saturday evening the freight boat Sankaty, which has a capacity of approximately 40 vehicles, developed a problem with its generator. The vessel still had a 7:45 pm and 10 pm round trip out of Woods Hole yet to run.
The mechanics were called, but at the time of the evening it was not possible to call in another crew. It was also not possible to run an extra trip using a larger passenger ferry without violating Coast Guard work rules, said Mr. Lamson.
At the same time, on its last return trip to Woods Hole Saturday night, the freight boat Katama, which also carries about 40 vehicles and 140 passengers, developed a problem with a rubber coupling between one of the main engines and a reduction gear. The freight boat limped into port at reduced speed and tied up for the night.
By 11 pm that night the mechanics had identified the Sankaty's problem and had the parts they needed to begin making repairs throughout the night. The Katama's problem was more problematic. That would take all day Sunday to repair.
Saturday night and Sunday morning, management was busy making arrangements to bring the Governor, the SSA's spare vessel berthed in Fairhaven, on line to cope with the expected Sunday backlog. "We had to send somebody to Fairhaven to get it started and then bring it to Woods Hole," said Mr. Lamson. "By the time all that took place, it did not leave Woods Hole until 2 pm Sunday."
Mr. Lamson said the backlog was finally cleared up late Sunday night.
A long, long wait
Among those left waiting was Paula Filias of Manchester, leaving after a weeklong vacation with her family. "We had a great week until it was time to go," she said.
She arrived at the Vineyard Haven terminal Sunday morning only to learn that her scheduled freight boat was canceled.
For the next 12 hours she and many others waited and waited, anxiously gleaning any bits of news about when she might get off. She said one woman with four children in the car simply broke down in tears when the wait became too much.
She said that as the day wore on, the SSA chipped away at the line of waiting vehicles and she tried to remain patient. It would be 10:15 pm before her Vineyard vacation was officially over and she boarded a boat in Oak Bluffs for the mainland.
She said that now that she understands that a cancelled boat might mean 12 hours of waiting, she would do things a little differently in the future rather than sit and wait.
Some of those waiting could not understand why they were forced to wait while others were not. Mr. Lamson explained that the policy is to not to bump people who hold reservations for boats that are running on time, which would only compound the problem.
Based on the existing policy those people who held tickets for boats cancelled on Saturday received first priority for any available spaces that opened up over the people cancelled on Sunday. They also were reimbursed for the cost of their cancelled trip.
On Sunday morning the SSA also offered to drive vehicles over later in the day so that reservation holders who wanted to could leave their vehicles in Woods Hole rather than wait. Mr. Lamson said he had a few complaints from passengers unhappy that terminal staff could not answer all their questions and seemed disorganized.
Mr. Lamson said that on Saturday night the situation was trip by trip because it was not clear how long it would take to correct the problem. And on Sunday they were hoping to get the Katama back early.
"We came in Sunday morning because we had to come up with a game plan as to what we were going to be telling people," said Mr. Lamson. "We developed that as soon as we could, and we then tried to get a crew to come in to run extra trips because we knew there was going to be backlog at the end of the day from the trips we missed."
Mr. Lamson estimated that approximately 100 vehicle trips were disrupted in each direction over the course of the weekend.
He said there were a few demands from people asking that the SSA compensate them for the cost of missing out on a week at a vacation rental. Those people were told that while the SSA does everything it can to transport people, it is not responsible for vacation rentals due to cancelled trips.
Mr. Lamson said that "everybody stepped up" to help out. He said that Tim Twomey, SSA port engineer, started up the Governor Sunday morning so it would be ready when the crews arrived, then drove to the airport to pick up a part that was flown in from Louisiana and helped to install it.
"I thought the terminal managers both in the morning and the afternoon on both sides did a great job," he said. "They are on the frontlines."
"Who knew," said Mr. Hanover. "Two boats in two days?"
Mr. Hanover said that while he understands the inconvenience he was very happy with the efforts of senior management and the employees to deal with the situation.
"Wayne [Lamson] called me Sunday morning to tell me what was going on. It was very nice to be in the loop," he said.
Referencing the reality of Island living, Mr. Hanover said, "The timing was very unfortunate, but Islanders are far more used to it."