SSA says schooners too close for comfort
For more than 42 years, the Vineyard Haven schooner Shenandoah has been moored in Vineyard Haven Harbor. She was joined more than 30 years ago by a second schooner, Alabama. Each of the vessels takes passengers on sailing cruises of varying lengths into a seafaring time when wooden sailing ships were everywhere in Nantucket and Vineyard sounds and Buzzards Bay.
But the Steamship Authority has fretted from time to time about the proximity of the schooners' moorings to the path SSA vessels take approaching and leaving the Vineyard Haven wharf. SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said that when the wind blows hard from the southeast or south the sailing vessels swing on their moorings and extend toward the ferry channel. When that occurs, SSA captains have limited room to maneuver when approaching the Vineyard Haven terminal, Mr. Lamson said.
As she approaches the south slip at the Vineyard Haven SSA terminal, the Martha's Vineyard passes astern of the Coastwise Packet Company schooners Shenandoah and Alabama. Photo by Susan Safford
Although the issue has simmered for years, a cancellation last winter and another last month, both blamed on the position of the Shenandoah, attracted Mr. Lamson's attention. This month, Mr. Lamson sent a letter to the New England district office of the Army Corps of Engineers to ask about the status of the mooring permits issued to Captain Robert Douglas Sr., owner of the companies that own the schooners.
Mr. Lamson's inquiry may be the first step toward invoking a special condition in the Corps's mooring permit that would allow the SSA to request that the moorings be relocated.
On Tuesday, Tim Dugan, army corps spokesperson, confirmed that the Corps received a request from the SSA asking about the permit and the location of the moorings. He said the Corp is looking into the issue.
The Shenandoah is a 108-foot square topsail schooner with an overall length of 150 feet. The Alabama is a 90-foot gaff rigged fore and aft schooner. The tall ships have come to define Vineyard Haven Harbor and are synonymous with Captain Douglas, owner of another Vineyard icon, the Black Dog Restaurant.
Captain Douglas is master of Shenandoah, and his son Morgan runs Alabama. Throughout the summer the sailing ships carry delighted passengers and groups, mostly Island school children on Shenandoah. They include Vineyard sixth graders, who participate in an annual weeklong sail that has become an Island rite of passage.
When not in use and throughout the blustery winter months the schooners lay to moorings south of the ferry channel.
The Douglases maintain that there is no problem and the SSA should simply use the SSA terminal's north slip when wind conditions require it. That view that has the full support of Tisbury harbormaster Jay Wilbur.
Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee has attempted to bring both parties together to find some resolution. But a December meeting with representatives of the SSA, the Douglas family and town officials brought no resolution.
On Jan. 8, Mr. Lamson sent Tisbury selectmen a copy of an Army Corps permit issued to Mr. Douglas and told them that he would send a letter to the Army Corps regarding the permit.
Mr. Lamson's call was a topic of brief discussion at the Tuesday night selectmen's meeting. Following a brief discussion, selectman Denys Wortman expressed his hope that something could be worked out.
The permit cover letter, dated March 2, 1999, asked Captain Douglas to sign it and return it if the conditions were acceptable. Under special conditions, the permit states that if the SSA determines that "it is operationally necessary to use the southerly ferry landing on a regular basis (during the summer months), and that mooring of the Shenandoah and/or the Alabama interfere with the safe navigation of the Steamship Authority vessels, these moorings may have to be relocated off of the authorized federal channel width so the mooring is a distance of at least 50-feet plus the swing radius of any vessels anchored to this mooring."
The permit says that if the Corps, after consulting with the local harbormaster and the appropriate Coast Guard office, agrees with the SSA's view, then the mooring will need to be relocated.
Mr. Lamson told The Times in a telephone interview last week that the locations of the Shenandoah and the Alabama moorings and the degree to which the sailing vessels' positions affect the comings and goings of the ferries has been a reoccurring issue.
Mr. Lamson said the issue came up in 1999 during the tenure of former SSA manager Armand Tiberio who left the boatline in September 2001. He said that for some reason, Mr. Tiberio stopped short of asking that the moorings be moved.
Mr. Lamson, a long-time SSA employee and general manager since December 2004, said the mooring issue came to his attention last winter when a captain cancelled a trip. "It was a trip late at night, it was dark and in the winter," he said. "The reason he gave was the wind direction and that he was afraid he was not going to be able to make this maneuver around the Shenandoah and the Alabama and be able to get into the slip. There was too much of a risk involved."
Mr. Lamson said that in certain conditions, when the wind is blowing out of the south southeast, the Shenandoah is lined up across the entrance of the slip, the captains must maneuver around it while trying to compensate for the wind blowing against the side of the hull. In the case of the single-ended Martha's Vineyard, the ferry must also rotate 180 degrees in front of the slip before docking. The new double-ended ferry Island Home will be approximately 50 feet longer but more maneuverable, he said.
Last month, the loss of a bow thruster on the Martha's Vineyard led to a cancellation when the captain decided it was too risky to try and dock in the wind without the use of the thruster. Mr. Lamson said the position of the Shenandoah was a consideration in that decision as well.
Mr. Lamson said that not all the captains on the Vineyard run agree the schooners pose a problem. But he decided that if it was going to cause trips to be cancelled and pose a safety risk, the question of the mooring locations needed to be resolved. He said he has spoken with Captain Douglas but, "basically his position is that the SSA should use the north slip."
Mr. Lamson said using the north slip raises issues on the waterside, because it is close to the mooring field, and on the landside. For example, trying to coordinate the loading and unloading of a freight boat and passenger boat.
Mr. Lamson said it may be coming down to a choice of whether the SSA cancels trips under certain conditions, or the boats are moved. He said that according to harbormaster Jay Wilbur, the moorings are in the correct locations and meet town requirements regarding length of chain and scope.
"If that is the case, and I have to take him at his word, then we have to pursue it with the Army Corps of Engineers," said Mr. Lamson
Capt. Morgan Douglas was off-Island this week, but responded by e-mail to The Times. He said that the moorings are scheduled to be inspected this year, and he told Mr. Bugbee that he was going to have their location surveyed and replaced, if necessary, at their Army Corps certified location when they are hauled, "as they were three years ago."
"We have not planned for a scenario in which these vessels will be required to move," said the younger Capt. Douglas.
He added, "Furthermore, what I feel needs to be mentioned within this issue is that these schooners, their location and the SSA have coexisted in Vineyard Haven harbor for over 40 years now. Why is this such a grave concern now?"
Morgan Douglas said that although he has agreed to have the mooring locations confirmed, the SSA has continued to use the south slip when weather conditions are unsuitable, or in the most recent case, when a vessel was operating without a working bow thruster.
He said it is "opportunistic" of the SSA to "to blame cancelled trips on our schooners' locations in 30-plus knots of southeast breeze with a fully functioning north slip. It should also be mentioned that with the south slip out of operation for repair all of December, the north slip was used by all the ferries."
In a telephone call Tuesday, Capt. Robert Douglas said he wants no problems with the boatline. He said that if it is a problem now, it has not often been a problem over the course of 43 years.
Mr. Douglas said that he wanted to reserve comment for the moment, but he has an extensive file detailing his continuing relationship with the SSA.
This week Mr. Bugbee said the town's involvement has been limited to trying to facilitate an agreement, but with little success. Asked about the position staked out by Mr. Wilbur that this is a non-issue, Mr. Bugbee said. "That is the harbormaster's opinion. I would not necessarily say it is the opinion of the town."
Mr. Bugbee said everyone is in agreement that the town does not want to lose the two signature schooners.
"We want to work to find a compromise here," he said. "We tried to do that first by bringing the two groups together and initiating talks, but it comes down to a disagreement over how the north slip should be utilized."
Mr. Bugbee said the town is continuing to look for a workable solution in what is a very busy and congested area of the harbor.
Marc Hanover, SSA Island member, attended last month's SSA meeting with the Douglas family. He said that for now it is a public safety issue and is best left in the hands of management. Mr. Hanover said it appears that something has changed, and he is waiting to see what the mooring survey reveals.