On the ride from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven Friday morning on SeaStreak’s Whaling City Express, a regular commuter hatched a plan. He would use some of his winnings from the Mega Millions jackpot to buy a $2 million fast ferry he saw for sale on the Internet.
“This is too good to give up,” he said, talking to a woman across the aisle on the speedy 20-minute ride into Vineyard Haven.
One of the side effects of the ferry fiasco affecting the Steamship Authority has been the little ferry that could. Twice during the two-week ordeal, and counting, the SSA has called on the SeaStreak, and twice Jim Barker, one of the owners of the New Jersey–based fast ferry company, has said yes, sending one of his 149-passenger fast ferries in to shuttle passengers.
“It’s exciting to get a call to respond and help. It’s something that we enjoy doing, to tell you the truth,” Barker told The Times. “The crews in the winter really like it because they get back home and can go home at night. They love it working out of their backyard again.”
The SeaStreak runs two ferries throughout the busy tourist season from New Bedford — one to Oak Bluffs and the other to Nantucket, from late May to late October. There is also a popular Friday night service from New York to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. During the winter, SeaStreak operates commuter ferries from Atlantic Highlands, N.J., into New York City, carrying about 2,000 passengers a day.
Barker takes a crew from New Bedford with him to New Jersey, having them work two weeks on and two weeks off. That crew happened to be on when SeaStreak got its first call for help on March 22, when both the MV Woods Hole and the MV Martha’s Vineyard were out of service, leaving just two freight boats on the Woods Hole–Vineyard Haven runs.
The crews fueled up and left New Jersey at 10 pm, and arrived in time for their first run at 6 am, Barker said.
“We didn’t even talk about economics or anything. They said, We need help, and we came,” Barker said. “We figured out details the next morning.”
They spent most of the weekend helping out, and when the SSA ferries returned to service, Barker said the Whaling City Express went to New Bedford for a couple of days for maintenance. It arrived back in New Jersey on March 28, when Robert Davis, general manager of the Steamship, called again. Both the Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard were down again because of mechanical issues, and the busy Easter weekend was ahead.
“We’re glad to help the Steamship Authority out,” Barker said. “We did a similar thing last summer, when Iyannough went up on a breakwall on the Nantucket run. We helped them out. We really view the Steamship as a partner of ours.”
History of the fast ferry
Barker answered a request for proposals in 2004 for a fast ferry service out of New Bedford. It was called the New England Express. The boats were built to use the Steamship slips, matching the bow configuration to fit into the docks, he said.
The early days were not always kind. A combination of fuel prices and a downturn in the economy in 2008 really made the operation difficult. Year-round service was out of the question, but Barker kept the seasonal business, which was good, afloat.
“It’s been a challenging business running to the Vineyard, but over the past few years it’s taken off and become much more successful,” Barker said. “Our business in general has been growing.”
That same year in 2008, he picked up another boatline. SeaStreak was owned by a foreign company, and had difficulty navigating the U.S. rules and regulations for a foreign-owned company. When SeaStreak went into bankruptcy, Barker purchased it. He changed the name of his company to the flashier SeaStreak brand.
There were challenges back then, with fuel prices over $4 per gallon, but in recent years things have gotten better. The New Jersey–New York run carries 2,000 commuters per day, and the New Bedford–Islands runs have also increased in popularity, to the point where there are six runs per day and an extra one on Fridays, Barker said.
Leslie Hurd of Angels Helping Animals isn’t surprised in the least that Barker has jumped in to help out. Barker, she wrote in an email, has been helpful to her animal rescue nonprofit, and SeaStreak is a regular contributor to many Island nonprofits, she wrote.
“I am so impressed and pleased with the SeaStreak stepping in to save the day when the Steamship has experienced constant problems,” Hurd wrote. “I am hoping there is an opportunity for the SeaStreak to continue service this summer to Woods Hole.”
That’s been the buzz at the ferry terminals in recent days, as commuters snub traditional ferries in favor of taking the Whaling City Express, which gets them across in about 20 minutes.
In an interview with The Times Thursday, Davis said adding a fast ferry to the run is an idea that will have to be explored, given the popularity, though he warned that passengers would be charged more than they’re being charged now.
Pointing to the Steamship Authority’s experience in Nantucket, he said the ticket prices would likely be twice what passengers pay to take other SSA ferries.
“We’d have to see if there’s a vessel available, and how it would fit into our operating schedule,” Davis said. “We have five vessels running in the summer, so we’d have to figure out where it would park overnight.”
Barker has certainly heard the buzz, and he’s seen some of it on social media and in newspaper accounts. Asked if there’s a chance for a fast ferry service to become a regular feature between Woods Hole and the Vineyard, he said, “I think they’ve got my number if they want to talk about it.”