New: Ferry breakdowns force 549 trip cancellations

SSA stats show staggering increase in ferry breakdowns; Islanders call for immediate changes.


Updated May 8

Steamship Authority ferries failed to make 549 crossings between Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole since the start of the year, an eye-popping increase over the 26 total in 2017.

Weather crossings cancelled due to weather are also up sharply so far in 2018 with 219 through the end of April compared to 218 for all of 2017. That’s more understandable given the four nor’easters that pummeled the region during the month of March.

But the unprecedented increase in mechanical breakdowns doesn’t even take into consideration the ferry trips that weren’t made Saturday as a result of the latest power loss for the MV Martha’s Vineyard.  The ferry Martha’s Vineyard, for the second time in three days, lost power Monday during a crossing.

“During its 1:15 pm trip from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole today, one of the MV Martha’s Vineyard’s generators briefly lost power, causing the vessel’s other generator to start up, but not resulting in any loss of propulsion for the vessel,” a release stated.

Coast Guard Ensign Nathan Mendes said the vessel lost power for seven seconds.

“Both the SSA’s Port Engineer and representatives of the generator’s vendor were on board the vessel at the time, and resolved the issue,” the release stated.

Mendes said the vessel was cleared to operate, and unlike the power failure on Saturday, the event didn’t rise to the level of a marine casualty.

Both the 2:30 pm trip from Woods Hole and the 3:45 pm trip from Vineyard Haven were expected to suffer delays of 10 to 20 minutes. Both the MV Island Home and MV Woods Hole are running on their regular schedules.

Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis told The Times a sensor overheated and caused a generator to go offline, but a backup generator kicked in quickly. The vessel did not lose throttle control, he said.

On Monday, Marc Hanover, Martha’s Vineyard representative to the Steamship Authority board, called for an emergency meeting after the ferry Martha’s Vineyard lost power Saturday, setting off hours of delays for passengers traveling between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven.

Late Tuesday, Hanover told The Times that board members were unable to meet any sooner than next Tuesday’s 9:30 am meeting on Nantucket.

The MV Martha’s Vineyard lost power off Woods Hole Saturday as it was backing out of the slip, the latest difficulty for the ferry that just returned from repairs in Fairhaven earlier this week.

“I’m very upset about the Martha’s Vineyard,” Hanover said. “I don’t want to wait another week.”

Because only one slip is operational in Woods Hole and a second slip was occupied by the MV Katama, a freight ferry that broke down last Monday, there was no place for either the MV Island Home or the MV Woods Hole to dock in Woods Hole to move passengers. As a result, hundreds of customers were stranded on each side of Vineyard Sound for hours.

Hanover was at a loss for why the MV Katama, which occupied the only other available slip in Woods Hole, wasn’t tugged to the Steamship Authority’s Fairhaven facility to undergo the generator work it required. He advocated for an immediate stop to terminal work in Woods Hole to free up another slip.

“My personal feeling is we’re done with construction for now,” he said.

Repairs to the Katama weren’t expected to take as long as they did, Davis said. As for ongoing work in Woods Hole, “The construction for the season is just about ended anyway,” he said. He expects the work barge to exit the slip it’s in before Memorial Day, and pier work to wrap up in the first week of June. No work will take place over Memorial Day weekend, he said.

Hanover called the consolations offered by the Steamship Authority to the hordes of disgruntled passengers — free tickets, free parking, and free snacks — ”Band-Aid” fixes for deep problems.

Once again, he advocated hiring an outside consultant to review the issues encountered by the ferry service. Last month, the board balked at that, and instead voted to give general manager Robert Davis time to come up with a plan to do an internal review.

Since he believes Davis cannot spend more than $100,000 without board approval, and a consultant’s fee will exceed that figure, board action will be necessary.

Davis confirmed he is not authorized to spend in excess of $100,000.

“I think we need to be looking at some areas of the company,” he said, and highlighted the maintenance program. He said he hoped a future consultant could “measure us against what other ferry operators do.”

The captain Saturday night was the same captain who was at the helm when the Martha’s Vineyard lost power off East and West Chop on St. Patrick’s Day, Hanover said, though he said he didn’t know his name.

“I think he’s done an outstanding job.” Hanover said, noting the captain must be “shell-shocked.” Most captains never need to drop anchor, and this captain needed to twice in a short span of time, he said.

“He was backing out of the Woods Hole slip, and the whole boat went dark,” Hanover said.

The Times obtained a copy of the distress call to the U.S. Coast Guard by the ship’s crew.

“We’re dropping the hook right now. We’re right off of Red Ledge, ebb tide,” the voice from the crew member states. “I’m doing the best I can right now.”

The crew member further explains that they are just off Woods Hole.

“We’re going to need assistance,” he says in a panicked voice. “We have a couple hundred aboard. I’m doing everything I can right now.”

The U.S. Coast Guard responded to the scene, but as it arrived, the crew member said over the radio that the Martha’s Vineyard’s engine had started back up.

“I just got it back,” he told the Coast Guard. “We’re going to back up.”

The power failure stemmed from a fuel line connected to a generator, according to Ensign Mendes. The Martha’s Vineyard was 50 to 100 yards from the its slip in Woods Hole when the failure occurred, he said. A marine inspector was aboard the vessel Sunday morning, monitoring sea trials off Woods Hole, he said.

Davis said the Martha’s Vineyard never lost power to the main engines but the ship “went dark” and the instruments went down after an alarm sounded and a generator went offline. Davis said the captain anchored because “under the circumstances he wanted to be cautious.” Davis said the captain, whom he declined to name, and the crew “hustled” and dropped the anchor in less than 30 seconds. Davis praised the captain’s actions in particular: “He did exactly what he should have done in the event of an emergency.”

A clogged fuel filter left a generator “starved for fuel,” Davis said. Asked if fuel contamination was a consideration, Davis said, “We took a fuel sample, and we’re sending it out to a laboratory to have it tested.”

Additionally, Davis said the Steamship Authority has accelerated the scheduled replacement of all fuel filters.

On Sunday morning, the SSA issued an alert stating that the Martha’s Vineyard has been cleared to resume its scheduled service.

Some Island Home trips were delayed to give crew members their required rest period, but the vessel made up the lost time on its early-morning trips, and is now back on schedule.

Juliana Germani, a Times columnist who was on board the Martha’s Vineyard Saturday afternoon, said passengers were told by the crew that the ferry lost power, then regained it and would return to Woods Hole.

People were stranded for up to four hours in both Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven because the Martha’s Vineyard was taking up the only available slip in Woods Hole with the ongoing construction of the terminal and slips. A tug was moved into place to move the MV Katama out of the way so the MV Martha’s Vineyard could be moved to make room for ferries to load and unload passengers in Woods Hole.

Travelers were told that should happen by 7:30 pm., but it wasn’t until about 8:30 that the Martha’s Vineyard was finally moved.

In Vineyard Haven, the MV Island Home had to return to port because there was no slip in Woods Hole. A massive crowd gathered at around 8 pm as the vessel was loading to finally make its crossing to Woods Hole.

It was a busy day on the Island, with the Big Chili Contest in Oak Bluffs. Chili fester Brandon from Hyannis told The Times, “I left my phone in my truck in Palmer lot. I’m having a miserable time. Guess I have to keep drinking.”

Emily from Brewster said, “We came for the day. I’ve got an 8-year-old in the car. I think it’s time to look for a hotel.”

The Martha’s Vineyard was making its 5 pm crossing from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven when the engine issue occurred. The Martha’s Vineyard last lost power on St. Patrick’s Day, stranding passengers for five hours. Saturday was Cinco de Mayo.

The SSA issued a statement at 7:30 saying that MV Katama, which has been down for most of the week because a generator issue, was being towed out of a slip in Woods Hole to make room for the Martha’s Vineyard so that ferry service could continue.

Another update followed at 9 pm, stating that the MV Island Home left Vineyard Haven around 8:15 pm for Woods Hole, and the MV Woods Hole followed it at around 8:30 pm. The MV Island Home left Woods Hole for the Island around 9:15 pm, and the MV Woods Hole followed at around 9:30 pm. Both vessels then made one additional trip from Vineyard Haven, with the MV Woods Hole arriving in Woods Hole first so that it could make a return trip to the Island (arriving after midnight), and the MV Island Home berthed for the night upon its arrival in Woods Hole before midnight.

The MV Sankaty was brought from Hyannis early Sunday morning so it can substitute for the MV Martha’s Vineyard, beginning with its 6 am trip from Vineyard Haven, until the Martha’s Vineyard is able to resume service, according to the statement.

According to Germani, there was cheering and clapping in Woods Hole when the Martha’s Vineyard was finally moved. “Not for the Steamship, but for the fact we will likely go home tonight,” she wrote in a text message.

As of 9:15 pm, Germani said she was finally on board a ferry, and it was about to depart for Vineyard Haven. “Every seat is taken,” she wrote.

The Martha’s Vineyard returned from a more than $18 million midlife refurbishment done by Senesco in North Kingstown, R.I., in March.

The problem with the MV Martha’s Vineyard, and the other ferries in the fleet, is the talk of the Island at social gatherings, on social media, and it even took over an emergency planning meeting.

John Christensen, West Tisbury’s outgoing emergency management director, led a two-session hazard mitigation workshop at the West Tisbury library last week where Steamship Authority problems rose to the top of issues analyzed.

The workshop participants learned of the power failure on the MV Martha’s Vineyard at the start of the Sunday session, West Tisbury planning board chairman Virginia Jones said.

West Tisbury town manager Jennifer Rand, a workshop attendee, said she was aboard the Martha’s Vineyard when it went dark. She got stuck in Woods Hole for four hours until the MV Katama could be shifted to a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) dock and the Martha’s Vineyard shifted to the vacated slip, she said. This allowed the Island Home to dock.

The MV Katama tied up at WHOI’s Iselin Dock over the weekend, but has since departed, a WHOI official confirmed.

Davis said the MV Katama traveled to the Hyannis-Nantucket route to spell the MV Gay Head, which will head to Senesco Marine Tuesday for keel cooler work.

Rand said she didn’t get home until 11 pm Saturday night.

The string of difficulties besetting the ferry service in recent months struck Christensen as indicative of systemic deficiencies. “These events are not isolated. They’re not just bad luck,” he said.

Christensen said the Steamship Authority also seems to have transitioned from building vessels geared to address the needs of the year-round community to building vessels designed for the benefit of summer visitors.

“They need to rethink their design and construction of the vessels,” Jones said.

In a post-workshop memo, Jones wrote, “It was agreed that the SSA should seek and find one design that can be replicated numerous times for maximum efficiency and reliability.”

Tim Carroll, Chilmark emergency manager and town administrator, said in addition to vessel design, workshop groups discussed hardening Steamship Authority terminals against storms or resituating them.

“Anything that comes here, by and large, comes by the Steamship Authority,” Chilmark resident Brock Callen, executive director of Sail MV, said. In light of that, his group at the workshop discussed planning at the Vineyard Haven terminal to address rising seas.

“Vineyard Haven is our entry point,” he said.

Another topic addressed at the workshop was whether the Steamship Authority “would benefit by some real competition,” Callen said.

“I respect the good work and service the Steamship Authority provides every day,” Tim Carroll said. “I consider the Steamship Authority to be the lifeline of Martha’s Vineyard. More community input into planning the future of the Steamship Authority seems like a good idea.”

Updated with Steamship Authority statistics on breakdowns.


  1. I think it’s time to start the planning for the new bridge. With the rates for the ferry crossing as high as they are I bet you could find investors to pay for the bridge if they could charge the same rates to cross the bridge as the ferry charges. This would be even faster than the fast ferry.

  2. The recent spate of troubles with the steamship is disruptive , inconvenient etc,etc.
    We often hear about tragic events that occur, with large loss of life.
    When the investigations are done, we usually learn that there were a series of mistakes, things mishandled, warning signs ignored, etc etc.
    The steamship, and the authorities involved with overseeing the steamship authority have had plenty of warning signs. This incident could have very well resulted in the sinking of that vessel and the loss property and life. I have no reason to doubt that the lives of the people on board that ship were in jeopardy. We got lucky.
    It’s time for someone to get serious about the safety implications here…It seems to me that there is a systemic problem here, and we better get to the bottom of it before people die..

  3. I appears that these problems started after the last vessel overhaul, which was done by a private contractor. Perhaps the new general manager has been distracted by the spending spree and building boom the SSA has initiated?

  4. It’s rare that I agree with any comments of dondondon12. However in this case I think it’s another reason to build the bridge.We have waited to long for a solution to the problem.Back in the day I used to ride the Jamestown Ferry to Newport.They built that bridge and solved that problem.Now it time to solve this problem

    • mv ai— the Newport bridge is a bit of a different situation. I was stationed at the naval base in Newport in the early 70’s . it was a great convenience when coming from the south. But, Newport was accessible by road from the north / east — therefore, not really isolated as an island the way MV is.
      Look at the traffic on the Sagamore or Bourne bridges — And try to make a left turn onto rt 28 on the cape in the summer. No thanks– I would rather have responsible oversight and competent management of the ssa .
      Thanks for having the open mindedness to agree with me on a point.. Sometimes it seems no mater what you say, the ‘other side’ will oppose you just to oppose you.

  5. dondondon12 We apparently had the same boss for a while in Newport. I was coming from the South and was just comparing the ferry vs the bridge for travel. There are some issues with traffic but they are partly caused by the limited hours the ferry runs. Here are some things the bridge would eliminate.there is a storm coming and you are off island and the island looses power, the boats are cancelled because of wind and your pipes freeze because you can’t get there to drain the pipes. It’s 2AM and you have a medical emergency requiring off island care. .Boats won’t help at that hour.Even your example of the Bourne Bridge traffic could be solved,Just leave the island at 2AM even in mid summer and breeze right thru. That’s why in the Winter I drain the pipes of my summer home . The other example was a ride off island in an ambulance that had to wait till the boats started running in the AM.

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