SSA added hundreds of spaces over three days to offset Irene

The Martha's Vineyard and the Island Home rode out in the storm in the lee at the Vineyard Haven terminal. — Photo by Steve Myrick

At noon Monday, the Steamship Authority’s Vineyard Haven terminal was calm, a very pretty August picture. The sun shone, the sky was deep blue, and there was not one vehicle waiting in the standby line from the morning.

That the Steamship Authority (SSA) was able to recover so quickly from the suspension of service on Sunday, as hurricane Irene, downgraded to a tropical storm, passed far west of Martha’s Vineyard, had much to do with boatline preparation and nimble fleet adjustments.

Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said the boatline added a total of 13 trips to its schedule before suspending service on Sunday and, based on the storm’s projected wind direction, he decided not to take two freight boats offline early and send them to Fairhaven and safety behind the New Bedford hurricane barrier. To have done so would have resulted in the cancellation of six trips Saturday from Martha’s Vineyard.

As Irene began her trip up the Eastern Seaboard, the SSA advised travelers to leave early and announced additional ferries would be added to the schedule in anticipation of possible cancellations as the storm approached.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty as to the projected track, timing and intensity of hurricane Irene,” Mr. Lamson said in a press statement last Thursday. “The Steamship Authority is continuing to monitor the progress of the pending storm and will issue further travel advisories and updates over the next several days as revised forecasts are released by the National Weather Service.”

On Sunday, the SSA suspended service and battened down to wait out the storm. On Monday, the boatline was ready to resume service right out of the starting gate, pending Coast Guard approval.

The Coast Guard closed ports and waterways to vessel traffic until a helicopter crew from Air Station Cape Cod could survey the area for floating debris fields and determine that all aids to navigation were in their proper positions. The overflight was scheduled for 6:30 am.

However, when the crew was pulled away on a search-and-rescue mission, Air Station Cape Cod needed to launch a second helicopter. So, the SSA was not able to resume service until about 9 am, Monday.

In a telephone conversation Monday, Mr. Lamson told The Times the SSA was fairly certain, based on the storm forecast, that it would not be operating Sunday.

Mr. Lamson said that 28 trips were on the Sunday schedule, and all were sold out. That would amount to approximately 1,300 spaces that needed to be shifted elsewhere.

To beef up capacity, the SSA added the freight boat Governor to the route Thursday and began adding additional freight trips Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Mr. Lamson estimated each freight boat was able to carry about 50 vehicles, give or take a truck.

“We started to see it on Wednesday that we were going to need extra service, and that’s when we arranged for the Governor to come out and head right for Vineyard Haven from Fairhaven,” Mr. Lamson said.

“People were showing up and trying to get off. Even if they had reservations Saturday, they were trying to get off, presumably to get home or take care of other things.”

By the time operations ceased Saturday night, the boatline had added four freight boats to the Thursday schedule, five to Friday’s and four more on Saturday. In total, that amounted to the addition of more than 650 additional spaces.

In addition, trucks with reservations on the Island Home were moved to freight vessels to allow the use of both lift decks on the Island Home. That added about 350 more car spaces over the course of three days.

The SSA also moored the Sankaty and Katama in Woods Hole. “By allowing them to continue operating through the rest of the day Saturday rather than having to send them to Fairhaven, we gained a lot of space there too,” Mr. Lamson said.

By the end of the day Saturday the SSA had carried all vehicles that wanted to leave Martha’s Vineyard. Based on the wind direction out of the south, the SSA moored the Martha’s Vineyard and the Island Home in Vineyard Haven, putting the two primary Island ferries in a protected lee.

Mr. Lamson said, unlike other storm events, operations were made easier by the fact that there was little question service would be suspended Sunday, so planning became easier.

“Whereas other storms, it might be the end of one day and the beginning of the next, so you never know when you will be stopping and resuming service,” he said, “because it is on a trip-by-trip basis.”

The SSA weathered the storm without significant damage, but for a few shingles here and there and some minor damage to the Oak Bluffs cupola. Mr. Lamson said the boatline was ready at 6 am Monday morning and had hoped to receive Coast Guard clearance and begin operations as soon as possible. “What we were hoping to hear at 7 am, we eventually heard about 8 am, that we had received permission to leave the port,” he said.

Mr. Lamson said he expects to speak with Coast Guard officials about ways to expedite the process in the morning. “I know this is a tough call,” he said.

Mr. Lamson praised SSA employees. “Everyone did a great job leading up to the storm and during the storm,” he said. “People were still working, crews were on board the boats making sure that all the lines were secure. And then today, getting everything back on schedule. I appreciate all those extra efforts that were made over the last few days.”