Stalled nor’easter stalls Vineyard traffic

Ferry crossings were suspended for two-plus days, stranding people on both sides.

It was standing room only on the ferry Nantucket as it made its crossing Saturday morning after two-plus days of cancellations.

In the end it was a lot of wind, not as much rain as predicted, and two-plus days of canceled ferry crossings by the Steamship Authority.

The powerful nor’easter, which eventually was named subtropical storm Melissa, began affecting ferry traffic on Wednesday, and crossings didn’t continue until Saturday morning, when the first trip by MV Nantucket looked like something out of the Fourth of July weekend, with travelers overflowing to the outside decks.

“The 7 am boat was so jammed. People were standing in the aisles,” Pamela Street, a Vineyard Haven resident stranded for three days in Falmouth, told The Times. “Bridesmaids were talking about how they were going to get their hair done.”

Street said restaurants and coffee shops like Pie in the Sky and Coffee O. in Woods Hole were jammed with other stranded passengers. She was grateful to Arne Grepstad and Carol Silvia of the Sands of Time Motor Inn/Harbor House, who helped them secure a reservation for Friday night after it became apparent they would be stranded for a third night. 

“They asked [Friday morning] if we were going to stay, and we didn’t know,” Smart said. “They said, ‘When it starts to fill up, we’ll call you.’ That was so nice.”

Street described the hundreds of stranded travelers as frustrated, though she took it in stride, spending time in the Woods Hole Museum and library. At one point on Friday, people lined up for the 1:15 crossing, only to be told at the last minute that it wouldn’t be going. A short time later, the SSA pulled the plug on the rest of the day’s ferries. “A woman finally came out and said it wasn’t going, but you could barely hear her,” Street said.

The cancellations caused missed appointments and delayed Columbus Day weekend getaways for Vineyarders and visitors.

SSA general manager Robert Davis took some heat from Islanders at a meeting Tuesday at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center over communication and procedures relative to the cancellations caused by the storm. 

“I’ve traveled on boats that have traveled in 40 mph weather,” Vineyarder Nikki Patton said. “I’ve heard the bang and the slap and the hit. Something’s changed. We had I think 35 mph to 45 mph winds, and we stopped the boats for three days. The last time anybody remembered that was in the ’70s — storm of ’78 … Does anybody on this board know or can tell me where I can get the answers to when the boats stop running — at what wind speed?”

Davis said there are many factors that go into the decisionmaking. “It depends upon the direction of the wind, the speed, which vessel we’re talking about, the familiarity with the crew onboard the vessel. So there’s a number of factors. There’s no ‘at this point we stop running.’” 

Wind always forces boats to be diverted from Oak Bluffs because the pier is not in a protected harbor, but Davis said there was a particular issue in Vineyard Haven during this storm.

“One of the issues we actually had in Vineyard Haven was because of all the vessels that are still moored in Vineyard Haven with the wind coming from the north, it made the approach in and out of our slip in Vineyard Haven too dangerous to be making,” he said. “So that factors into it. So there’s a number of issues.” Davis went on to say fog can be particularly problematic. Primarily, the decision to sail or not is left up to the boat crews, he said.

Patton asked Davis to reiterate the problem in Vineyard Haven during the nor’easter.

“There was an issue in Vineyard Haven Harbor with the vessels — the direction of the wind from the north, northeast … some of the vessels that were moored there were swinging over close to the approaches that we need to be making to get into our dock,” Davis said.

Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker, who was not at the meeting Tuesday night, told The Times only one sailboat seems to have swung near the ferry lane, the Sea Witch. Crocker said given the size of the Sea Witch, only a couple of inner harbor moorings can safely accommodate it, and the length of the mooring chain cannot be truncated to fit particular conditions.

“You need the scope in order to be safe,” he said. He also said the owner of the Sea Witch was off-Island when the storm arose, but as of 10 am on Oct. 16, the owner was aboard the Sea Witch, tinkering with the engine. 

The storm generated gusts of 45 to 55 miles per hour on the Cape and Islands, and whipped up seas. Despite the sustained winds and powerful gusts, there were few reports of damage.

Paul Doherty of Vineyard Haven shared a photograph of a sailboat in Vineyard Haven Harbor that had its sail ripped to shreds by the gusts.
At the Campgrounds in Oak Bluffs, next to Dukes County Avenue, a tree limb struck and damaged a pickup truck.

And the widow’s walk at The Times building on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven was damaged by a powerful gust.

The storm also caused some cancellations. The Permanent Endowment’s Creative Living Awards was postponed until Monday, Oct. 21, at Thimble Farm.
The state closed the Vineyard to shellfishing due to runoff, though it opened up again on Sunday.

As if we didn’t get enough wind and rain, another nor’easter was forecast to hit Wednesday night into Thursday. As of 10:30 am on Wednesday, the SSA was diverting some ferries from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven. This storm is not expected to linger over four days.

Rich Saltzberg contributed to this report.