Ferry ‘Martha’s Vineyard’ is back in service

Problems with two vessels causes disruption in Steamship Authority schedule.


Updated 11:30 am, Monday, March 19

Two ferries that suffered mechanical issues in recent days, stranding some passengers and delaying others, are back in service as of Monday, according to an update from the Steamship Authority.

A problem with the main fuel oil transfer pump is being blamed for the engine failure on the MV Martha’s Vineyard about 15 minutes into its voyage Saturday night, after leaving Vineyard Haven at 8:30. That left 72 passengers, 14 crew members, and three concession workers stranded off East Chop for five hours until the ferry could be towed back into a slip at Vineyard Haven terminal at 1:45 am.

“After undergoing sea trials late yesterday afternoon with a backup fuel transfer pump, and further inspection by the Coast Guard, the vessel was cleared to return to service as of its 7 am scheduled trip from Woods Hole today,” the statement from general manager Robert Davis states. “It is now operating according to its normal published schedule.”

Meanwhile, the MV Woods Hole, which ran aground last Thursday, leading to a series of mechanical issues, had a new control mechanism installed Sunday night. “That vessel is undergoing certain tests, but is expected to be fully operational today, though some of its scheduled trips may be delayed from time to time as it is integrated back into its normal schedule,” according to the statement.

Service on the Woods Hole was interrupted Monday morning in Vineyard Haven. A Times employee waiting for the 9:30 am ferry from Vineyard Haven was told that the Woods Hole was undergoing drills.

The Woods Hole returned to port at about 9:50 am and began loading passengers.

In an interview with The Times Sunday, the Steamship Authority’s general manager Robert Davis said his agency needs to do better by its customers.

“We need to be able to communicate better with them,” Davis said. The ferry service needs to do all it can to minimize cancellations, he said.

The Martha’s Vineyard returned to Vineyard Haven Harbor at about 1:45 am, as its passengers without vehicles made an orderly exit to waiting cars and taxis. Vehicles began rolling off closer to 2 am.

There were no reported injuries, according to the Coast Guard.

Davis said the Martha’s Vineyard, which just returned to service several weeks ago after a $17.5 million refurbishment, was being worked on in Vineyard Haven Sunday. The engines were restarted, and the tug that brought it safely back to port briefly pulled it out of its slip so it could disconnect from the ferry.

At the time, Davis was unwilling to speculate on what went wrong with the engines, but said dock trials were underway in the hopes of getting it back into service. Earlier runs on Sunday were done by the M/V Katama, but the M/V Sankaty, another freight ferry with minimal passenger capacity, took its place for the remainder of the day, he said.

“By far, this is an anomaly,” he said of all the troubles ferries have had operating in recent weeks, between weather and mechanical cancellations.

In Vineyard Haven, there was a sea of cars waiting for the ferry at 12 noon. Things were much quieter in Woods Hole at that hour.

The SSA has had difficulty getting the message to those who rely on the ferry service as a lifeline. On Sunday, someone hit the wrong button and sent out a message that the MV Woods Hole’s run was canceled. It was the Martha’s Vineyard that had been canceled, he said. The Woods Hole was cleared late yesterday to return to service by the Coast Guard, after its late-week mechanical troubles that began with a grounding on Thursday.

Davis said he plans to begin talking with staff Monday about the need to dredge Vineyard Haven Harbor in the area where the ferries dock. Most of the SSA fleet turns around to enter the slips, which Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker told The Times causes some of the shoaling.

‘Dead in the water’

The Martha’s Vineyard was making its last trip of the day when the engines failed, leaving it drifting between East and West Chop. The captain dropped anchor to keep the ferry from drifting, and called the Coast Guard watchstanders at 9 pm.

Meanwhile, the Woods Hole, making its trip from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven, stood by for about an hour in case its assistance was needed, Davis told The Times.

West Tisbury resident Graham Houghton and his daughter boarded the MV Woods Hole Saturday night for the 8:30 pm. Houghton and his 2½-year-old, Beatrix, had just been dropped off after a visit with family in Orleans.

As the Wood Hole neared West Chop, the captain announced that a boat ahead of them was disabled, Houghton said. The captain’s announcement also indicated the Wood Hole would be delayed.

The Woods Hole then deviated from its course and, according to Houghton, began to circle.

Onboard staff, including the captain, didn’t tell the passengers much about what was happening, Houghton said.

“People resigned themselves that we were going to spin around in a circles for a while,” he said. “There was speculation that we were breaking surf for the distressed vessel.”

While the situation remained mysterious aboard the Woods Hole, Steamship staff “were very respectful and accommodating about it.”

Complimentary food and water went on offer, but no alcohol, after about 30 minutes of circling.

Houghton described his daughter as “a trooper,” given the situation.

In general, passengers behaved, he said. One group of partiers started off boisterous out of port, but were “out of steam” by the end.

“For the 10-plus years that I have been a regular ferry user, nothing like this has ever happened,” he said. He found it most concerning that “they didn’t lay out all the facts and details.” But he put it in perspective to the Martha’s Vineyard.

“We had it easy compared to them.”

The Times began receiving messages from passengers onboard the Martha’s Vineyard at about 9:30 pm, saying it was “dead in the water.”

“Two Coast Guard vessels were dispatched and were on the scene,” according to a statement from Davis. “The first of three tugboats arrived at approximately 10 pm to provide assistance if needed. The three tugboats planned to escort the vessel to Woods Hole. However, because the main engine could not be restarted, the vessel was escorted back to Vineyard Haven, arriving there shortly before 2 am. All of the passengers disembarked without incident, and the Steamship Authority arranged hotel accommodations for those who needed lodging until they were able to travel to Woods Hole this morning.”

According to the statement from Davis, Steamship Authority maintenance personnel traveled on the MV Woods Hole’s 6 am trip to Vineyard Haven this morning to assist the vessel’s chief engineer in diagnosing and resolving the problem. “We apologize to the passengers who were onboard last night,” Davis said. “We also wish to thank the Coast Guard, Tucker Roy Marine, and Tisbury Towing for their assistance.”

Juan Loveluck, a passenger on the ferry, wrote in an email to The Times at midnight that the Coast Guard ordered the ferry back to Vineyard Haven.

“Some unhappy folks onboard,” he wrote. “SSA to provide lodging to those who need it.”

Loveluck wrote that the crew had kept passengers informed throughout the ordeal with regular updates, and opened the ferry’s concessions to passengers at no charge.

“There was some tension at the beginning, but things settled down,” he wrote. “I think some kids got scared when life jackets were handed out, which apparently is required when an SOS is sent to the Coast Guard.”

He added that SSA staff members went above and beyond to interact with kids onboard with games, word puzzles, and activities, “which has been terrific.”

Loveluck wrote that three tugs had assembled and were standing by. “It sounds like they have gotten the engines running again, so we may be steaming under our own power,” he wrote.

While the ferry remained at anchor, Loveluck wrote that at least with power being restored, there was heat on the ferry again.

At about 1:30 am, Loveluck and a Times reporter watching from shore reported “movement,” and a short time later the Martha’s Vineyard was back in Vineyard Haven, tied up.

There is good news ahead for the beleaguered fleet. The MV Island Home is due to return at the end of the month, Davis told The Times. It was originally scheduled to return to service March 24, but the shipyard devoted most of its attention to getting the Martha’s Vineyard back to SSA.

Travelers are advised to check the SSA site for updates on delays and cancellations.

A view from the freight deck. – Juan Loveluck



Reporter Rich Saltzberg contributed to this report.