Another blackout for MV Martha’s Vineyard

Switch that failed had been replaced during $18 million overhaul.

SSA has issued a travel advisory for Sunday. -Rich Saltzberg

Updated Dec. 18

The Steamship Authority ferry Martha’s Vineyard suffered a blackout in Woods Hole Sunday when a kill switch on the bridge failed, and cut power to several systems, including the sole generator online. The vessel has four. On Monday, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll stated propulsion was lost due to the failure, but the next day he walked that statement back in an email. Final clarifications were given to The Times Wednesday afternoon. 

The switch took offline Generator No. 1, a 310-kilowatt John Deere model. Sometime between “15 and 30 seconds” later, a 125-kilowatt Caterpillar emergency generator came online, according to Driscoll, who noted that even during the quarter- to half-minute the vessel lost power, propulsion wasn’t lost. 

The Martha’s Vineyard, which underwent an $18 million midlife overhaul in 2018, has been fraught with problems ever since. Twice that year the vessel suffered blackouts while underway — in Vineyard Haven Outer Harbor on St. Patrick’s Day and in Great Harbor on May 5. The vessel’s woes were a large part of the reason an independent consultant was brought in for a top-to-bottom review of the SSA.

The Martha’s Vineyard, which also had problems last week, had not left its slip in Woods Hole Sunday when the blackout occurred. 

“The power outage on board the MV Martha’s Vineyard has been traced to a shutdown switch located in the pilot house,” SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll emailed Monday. “The switch allows for the immediate shutdown of several portions of the vessel, including the main generator and ventilation system, in case of a fire on board. The switch was determined to have become loose in the control panel, which caused the power loss the vessel experienced while docked in Woods Hole on Sunday evening. Once the cause of the outage was identified, the switch was tightened and tested, and found to be operating properly by both the authority’s maintenance and engineering personnel, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, which cleared the vessel for operation this morning.”

Driscoll subsequently said propulsion was offline due to the switch, but rescinded that statement Tuesday evening, writing that “transfer pumps” from a tank to an engine halted due to the failure. Later that evening, Driscoll amended that statement, and wrote it was a “fuel transfer pump” that moved “fuel from the storage tank to the service tank” that lost power. 

The interplay of fuel between these two tanks, the functionality of the pump, as well as the measurements and reporting of the fuel in the tanks, were key causal elements in the St. Patrick’s Day stranding of the vessel, the authors of the HMS report found. Driscoll wrote the pump or pumps between the tanks were restarted “prior to the vessel returning to service.”

The vessel blacked out at about 9:30 Sunday night, stranding 15 people en route to the Vineyard. Driscoll said they will be compensated for hotel stays. 

In the 15 to 30 seconds before the emergency generator kicked on, power was cut to the vessel’s vehicle doors, and the interior lights went out, Driscoll noted. 

SSA maintenance personnel figured out what had gone wrong “sometime overnight,” Driscoll said. By 6 am, the U.S. Coast Guard had cleared the ferry for service, although it was briefly replaced by the MV Gay Head

The Coast Guard doesn’t plan to investigate further now that the vessel is cleared, according to Petty Officer Zachary Hupp. 

Asked if the switch was among the parts of the vessel restored or replaced during the midlife overhaul at Senesco Marine in Rhode Island, Driscoll said, “The entire pilot house is new since the overhaul.”

He said the fix for the blackout was relatively simple: “Once we found it and tightened it, it worked.”

Asked if an inspection of similar switches was triggered throughout the SSA fleet after the incident, Driscoll wrote, “[N]o, they will be inspected as each vessel comes in for regularly scheduled repair.”

That contradicts what SSA general manager Robert Davis told the board at a meeting on Tuesday. At that time, Davis said the SSA is “looking at all these switches to make sure they’ve been secured.”

Updated to include corrections by the SSA and to include additional information.  –Ed.


  1. wait a minute… one we found it and tightened it, it worked. you mean to tell me that no one knew exactly why the boat suffered a blackout? seems to me that there only could be a couple of reasons for a catastrophic power failure. Where was the lead Maintenace person? did the captain not have the knowledge to figure it out? Maybe next time someone would notice a loose switch instead of leaving people streanded and the mayhem that the dead boat in the slip brought the following morning. It was not pleasant to be crammed into the Gay Head for the first boat trip to the island elbow to elbow with 200 or so people at 7 AM

  2. wow– I see a new prescient here–That being that the ssa will compensate you for their incompetence if you have to incur additional expenses — this one is new..

  3. “The switch was determined to have become loose in the control panel”.

    That’s pretty slipshod.

    Someone was asleep at the switch, eh?

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