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 total of 26 in 2017.
Crossings canceled due to weather are also up sharply so far in 2018, with 219 through the end of April compared with 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. That same ferry lost power for seven seconds Monday during an afternoon crossing. Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis said Wednesday the costs associated with those cancellations will be discussed at a board meeting Tuesday, May 15, on Nantucket.
In a 29-page report written May 7 and provided to board members ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Davis outlined his plan to do an in-house improvement campaign instead of spending an estimated $500,000 for an independent one advocated for by Marc Hanover, the Island’s representative to the SSA board.
The internal review, which Davis will ask board members to support, calls for improvement of on-time performance and communications, the creation of an operations and communications center, the solicitation of public input, and maintenance improvements, among other things.
Davis will seek the board’s approval, even as there is mounting public pressure beyond Hanover for an independent review.
“This isn’t just a March or April problem,” said J.B. Blau, owner of several Island restaurants including Sharky’s and Copper Wok. “This could be our real Jaws.”
Blau said a monster shark menacing the Vineyard could actually draw tourists these days, but the travails of the Steamship Authority could begin to scare off visitors.
Business owners gave the Steamship Authority the benefit of the doubt until Saturday, he said, when the MV Martha’s Vineyard’s issues stranded hundreds of customers on both sides of the Sound. Business owners realize how vulnerable they are with Memorial Day approaching, Blau said.
A new organization founded by Tisbury resident MacAleer Schilcher called Save Our Steamship Authority (SOSA) boasted 748 members as of Wednesday afternoon.
People have decided to “rise up as a united Island to make sure everything possible is being done to rectify the situation and bring confidence back, and also to give the people of the Island the opportunity to speak,” Blau said.
Late Wednesday, state Rep. Dylan Fernandes and state Sen. Julian Cyr joined those calling for an outside review and a hearing on Martha’s Vineyard. “The Steamship Authority’s failure to solve problems with maintenance and operations, as well as its lack of transparent communication, has become a significant ongoing concern,” the letter states. “We believe it is imperative that the Steamship Authority take swift action to remedy these issues.”
Hanover called for an emergency meeting that garnered little support from fellow board members. Overtures to move the meeting from Nantucket have also been rejected.
In his report, Davis acknowledged an observation put forth by McKinsey and Co., a consultant firm solicited by Hanover to do the independent review: “The authority has experienced an unprecedented combination of vessel mechanical problems that have resulted in hundreds of sudden and unexpected trip cancellations. These events justifiably have led to an erosion in public confidence in the authority’s operations, and have raised questions about the authority’s maintenance practices and fleet rotations.” However, Davis noted McKinsey and Co. won’t address the issue of “strengthening fleet and maintenance strategy” as part of its plan.
Hanover said Davis negotiated away parts of McKinsey and Co. proposal to reduce the cost. He acknowledged he agreed to the trimmed plan. Hanover said he doesn’t have confidence in the Steamship Authority’s ability to reform itself, that there are deep-seated problems requiring ideas and influence from outside.
“People are very angry,” Hanover said.
Oak Bluffs backs Hanover
On Tuesday, Oak Bluffs selectmen unanimously endorsed selectman Michael Santoro’s motion to write a letter of support for Hanover.
“I happened to get the management report that’s being presented at the next board meeting, and shockingly, to date, there’s been 870 boats that have been canceled and that’s only through April,” Santoro said, a number that also reflects weather-related and other cancellations. “Can you imagine, if this continues, what it’s going to do our Island?”
Santoro said the $500,000 price tag for an independent consultant would be well worth it.
“The SeaStreak, for nine days, cost them $127,000, and that’s not including the tugboats and the repairs,” he said. “We need to support Marc. We have management within the Steamship Authority that I think is afraid to have a consultant come in.”
“The $127,000 is a drop in the bucket compared with what our citizens have paid in hotels, missed work, and missed doctor’s appointments,” selectman Brian Packish said. “There’s a massive conversation to be had;, Marc has worked hard to get an independent report.”
Packish criticized having meetings at 10 am. “This is way too big of a conversation for us to sit quietly,” he said.
Packish added that the cancellation epidemic is hurting the Vineyard economy: “We have a brand, and our brand has become unreliable. It’s problematic in every budget, in every household.”
Cinco de Mayo distress
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 last week.
Because only one slip was 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 up to four 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.
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.
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.”
As the Coast Guard arrived, the captain got the ferry restarted.
The power failure stemmed from a fuel line connected to a generator, according to Ensign Nathan Mendes. The Martha’s Vineyard was 50 to 100 yards from the its slip in Woods Hole when the failure occurred, he said.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Second power loss of the Martha’s Vineyard
On Monday, the MV Martha’s Vineyard briefly lost power again to a generator.
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 SSA 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.
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.
The Martha’s Vineyard returned recently from a more than $18 million midlife refurbishment done by Senesco in North Kingstown, R.I., in March.
“I’m disenchanted with the whole situation,” Hanover said.
Emergency planning focus
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.
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.”
“I respect the good work and service the Steamship Authority provides every day,” Chilmark town administrator 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.”
George Brennan and Barry Stringfellow contributed to this report.