Martha’s Vineyard ferry service is weather and design dependent

File photo by Susan Safford

The timing for Martha’s Vineyard travelers could not have been worse. School vacation week began Saturday with gale force gusts out of the west and Steamship Authority ferry cancellations, the majority by the Island Home, the boatline’s newest and largest ferry.

Early Saturday morning, Islanders with a reservation on the Martha’s Vineyard held something of a winning lottery ticket. The older, single-ended ferry held to its schedule throughout the morning as winds blew between 30 and 40 miles per hour and gusted to 49.

The story was different on the Island Home. The new, $32-million double-ender did not cross Vineyard Sound until 1:15 pm, when she left Woods Hole on her first trip of the day. Sunday, the Island Home failed to make its first trip of the day due to weather, an 8:15 am departure from Woods Hole. Island travelers with reservations on the 9:30 am trip to Woods Hole were left high and dry.

Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said this week that there are many factors that affect the decision to sail. They include the direction of the wind, the direction of the tidal current in Vineyard Sound, the judgment of the ferry captain, and the handling characteristics, which differ among the vessels.

“We were fortunate to be able to get the trips in with the Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Lamson said in a telephone call with The Times Tuesday.

Ultimately, he said, the decision to cancel a trip is left to the ferry captain’s judgment. “They are ultimately responsible,” he said. “That decision is left to the captain. Management would not tell somebody to go when they do not think it would be appropriate.”

Mr. Lamson acknowledged that there is a degree of subjectivity. For example, the decision to sail at 1:15 pm, Saturday coincided with a change of captain and crew.

Mr. Lamson said he thinks it was more a case of a change in the direction of the current than crew Saturday, but he agreed there is a degree of variability.

Passenger and crew safety is the primary consideration, according to Mr. Lamson. “When a captain feels that it is not safe, or somebody could get hurt, he is not willing to take that chance, that risk, and I support that,” he said.

Mr. Lamson said the differences in performance between ferries are attributable to the differences in the design of the vessels. For example, the Nantucket continued to run Saturday between Hyannis and Nantucket. “Probably the best sea-keeping vessel we have is the Nantucket,” he said. “The wind was out of the west. Generally, when it is out of the east is when we run into problems with the Nantucket route.”

Mr. Lamson explained that each ferry design, a double-ender versus a single-ender, has built in trade-offs, and each port presents specific problems depending on the direction of the wind.

On Saturday, the Island Home’s tall superstructure would have added to the difficulty as she entered the Woods Hole passage, a channel known for boiling strong currents, with a west wind pushing her from left to right across the channel.

“Trying to make the turn in Woods Hole and then keep a course and then make the stop before the vessel gets into the slip can be very challenging,” Mr. Lamson said.

Once the Island Home did begin running, the lift decks, which can accommodate eight vehicles on each side, remained up and unused to keep the vessel’s center of gravity as low as possible and increase stability, he said.


In a Letter to the Editor published in today’s Times, an unhappy Leah Casey of Oak Bluffs said she and her family had a reservation on the cancelled 9:30 am Island Home and were forced to wait until the afternoon to board a boat, even as the SSA loaded trucks rather than automobiles. She wanted to know why the SSA did not bump “enormous, probably empty, trucks” to allow long-delayed passenger vehicles to board.

Mr. Lamson said the current policy is to board reservations first for a scheduled trip that runs, not those that have been bumped. They will be loaded as space allows on trips that run.

“We would take them before standbys that didn’t have any reservations,” he said.

He said the advantage of this system as opposed to simply pushing each reservation back is that it disrupts only those who held a reservation for a cancelled trip, “rather than having a domino effect throughout the day.”

To the point of Ms. Casey’s letter, he said the SSA would not bump a truck driver holding a reservation but does work with the companies to open up spaces when there is a considerable backup. He said the SSA would ask if there is any way that the company can move a reservation or go later, perhaps another day.

Mr. Lamson said that depending on the weather, the SSA will issue travel advisories when it expects possible cancellations. In this case, there was some uncertainty.

He said many people anticipated cancellations due to the forecast of high winds and so traveled Friday. He said he understands the frustration people experience when there are cancellations. “It is unfortunate,” he said. “We know how much people rely on the service, in particular this week when people are heading off for vacations and perhaps flights and other commitments that have been made. The crews do everything that they can to run if at all possible.”

Numbers compared

On Saturday, the Island Home missed three trips out of Vineyard Haven: 7 am, 9:30 am, and noon. That translates into about 180 vehicles left waiting to cross.

Looking at 2011, Mr. Lamson said the Island Home was scheduled for 4,414 trips. She cancelled 59 trips due to weather and six trips due to mechanical issues. She made greater than 98 percent of her scheduled runs, he said.

By comparison, the Martha’s Vineyard was scheduled for 2, 978 runs in 2011, between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven and cancelled 14 trips due to weather and four for mechanical problems. There were another 952 trips between Woods Hole and Oak Bluffs, for which 10 trips were cancelled due to weather.

In sum, the Martha’s Vineyard missed 24 trips due to weather and the Island Home missed 59. Mr. Lamson said that difference could be explained in the handling characteristics, particularly in Woods Hole during certain current and wind conditions.