Chaos: Two SSA freight boats sidelined

Katama and Sankaty mechanical issues stifle crossings.

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Updated Oct. 18

The Steamship Authority sidelined two freight boats Saturday for mechanical issues. The loss of the vessels torpedoed the crossing schedule, and left numerous disgruntled walk-on and vehicle passengers stuck or delayed through Sunday evening.

While she was waiting in a queue of cars at the Vineyard Haven terminal, Linda Shumate told The Times that she began waiting in Oak Bluffs at 11 am with her husband. She and her husband had a 12:20 pm boat out of the Oak Bluffs terminal, she said. They’d come to the Vineyard from Rhode Island for the weekend to celebrate their anniversary. “It has been a mess,” Shumate said. 

Nobody came and told her and her husband their boat was canceled, Shumate said. They had to go to the booth to find out. 

“The other thing is I never got a text, I never got an email,” Shumate said. “Then they sent a whole 15 of us over here and told us that we were going to get on … What time is it now?”

When told it was 5:53 pm, Shumate responded, “5:53, do you see a ship?”

Shumate said she was very annoyed.

“You know how many times I said I’m going to get on the next boat?” she said. “I must have watched six boats leave. Then they said here comes the big double decker. Oh, they were all excited. [They] said, Oh, we’re going to stage you. Nope, we didn’t make it.”

Shumate said they were staged at various spots in the terminal lot as hours passed. She estimated it would take two hours to get to her home in Narragansett, R.I., once they got aboard, and a gathering her family had in store for her and husband would likely fall through, given that it was a school night and folks had kids. 

Shumate said she has been coming to the Vineyard for many, many years, and has considered retiring on the Island, but the events on Sunday may have changed her thinking about that. 

The first freight boat to suffer a problem over the weekend was the Katama. Just before noon on Saturday, a deck hatch failed on the Katama. The vessel was subsequently taken out of service. 

“The vessel was taken to the authority’s Fairhaven maintenance facility for repair,” SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll said. “The MV Sankaty, which was in standby status at that facility, was then brought into service to run in its place.”

However, the Sankaty suffered a failure of its own Saturday night, at about 8:30 pm.

“One of two main generators on the MV Sankaty lost power during a trip from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole,” Driscoll wrote. “The vessel crew immediately switched to the second generator, and ensured it was operational. The vessel then proceeded to Woods Hole and was then taken out of service.”

With one Woods Hole terminal slip down for construction, the sidelined Sankaty created a disadvantageous musical chairs–style problem for ferries that needed to come across from Vineyard Haven. 

“As the MV Governor had already ended its operational day, no slips were available in Woods Hole at that point for a vessel to dock,” Driscoll wrote, “so the MV Governor crew returned to Woods Hole to run service, thus allowing the MV Nantucket and MV Island Home to leave Vineyard Haven.”

The effects of the mechanical issues carried over into Sunday.

“The vessels ran late into Saturday night to complete their scheduled runs, and as such their first trips Sunday were canceled to allow the crews to receive their mandatory rest hours per U.S. Coast Guard regulations,” Driscoll wrote. “Additionally, the MV Island Home had to berth overnight in Vineyard Haven, not Woods Hole, so it could not make its first scheduled trip to the Island.”

In a telephone conversation with The Times Sunday afternoon at about 4:20 pm, Driscoll said repairs had been made to the Sankaty, and the Coast Guard was aboard the ferry to inspect those repairs. In a follow-up message at 5:15 pm, Driscoll told The Times the Sankaty had been cleared for service. Driscoll was unable to provide an update on the Katama. He did say the hatch that failed on the Katama was a watertight hatch, describing it as a “huge safety problem if it doesn’t work.”

While there may be some delays as ferries wait to enter slips, Driscoll said, by now they should be minimal. He said the Island Home was employing its lift decks to accommodate more vehicles, and tractor-towed baggage carts were not being employed in order to offer more vehicle space. Driscoll disagreed with the accusation that no alerts were sent. He said a travel advisory was sent out at 11 pm Saturday night, and alerts were sent out for each cancellation on Sunday. 

“Per its policies, the authority is accommodating vehicle reservations on canceled trips on a space-available basis after those customers with reservations are boarded,” Driscoll’s statement noted. 

At 5:45 pm on Sunday, the Vineyard Haven terminal was crammed with vehicles. A little after 6 pm the Sankaty pulled into Slip 1 with an empty freight deck. Vehicles were so crowded near the transfer bridge at the slip, the Sankaty couldn’t have been unloaded even if it had carried cars and trucks over from Woods Hole. An announcement was made that the Sankaty would be taking no walk-on passengers, and terminal personnel began to get vehicles aboard. The Governor came into Slip 2 just after the Sankaty, and had to wait to let passengers and vehicles unload, because there was no clear path due to the volume of vehicles at the terminal. However, a path was cleared fairly quickly. 

In a message to The Times over the weekend, two passengers recounted their ordeals and the ordeals of others they observed. 

“We have been at the terminal since 7 am, because four boats were canceled for unspecified reasons,” Kay Matschullat and Allan Arffa wrote. “We probably won’t get out till at least 5, and that is assuming nothing else goes wrong. They have not given any information on the sequence of events. Apparently boats malfunctioned last night, but no notice was sent to morning passengers about cancellations.”

The two recounted the travails of others. “A woman missed her father’s funeral. Another woman had medication she was trying to get to her husband, who was medevaced out,” they wrote. “They shrugged and said they couldn’t deal with any problems. People with many children have been waiting in the hot sun for seven to eight hours. As of 2 pm, as we write this, people who had reservations on the 6:30 am are still waiting. The [SSA] has done nothing to address the situation. The subsequent scheduled boats have gone, and people with reservations pull up 2 minutes before departure, and get on before people whose boat was canceled and have been waiting eight hours. It is a stunning example of the deep dysfunction of the current [SSA]. At some point [SSA] and Vineyard officials will be accountable. The lack of communication and lack of coordination of response is unacceptable. We have been coming to MV for 40 years, and have never had such an experience or seen people treated with such disdain.”

Later, they wrote to say their crossing, which usually takes about 45 minutes, was an hour and 10 minutes.

At 8:45 pm Sunday, Driscoll told The Times, “All the cars from the canceled trips are now off the Vineyard.”

Driscoll went on to say on Monday that Oak Bluffs remained in operation over the weekend, and the reason people were sent over to Vineyard Haven was “the bigger boats” were there. He also said such things are often done at the discretion of the terminal agents. 

As to why folks might not have been notified of cancellations, he said, “If we had your email or your phone number in our database, and if you opted into it,” you received a cancellation alert. 

Updated with comments from affected customers. -Ed.

26 COMMENTS

  1. let me keep plugging for electric ferries here– While electric ferries will of course have their issues , they do not need generators and they have a few thousand less moving parts.
    And if Capt Bob is reading this, please let me know what the downsides of electric ferries are.
    You didn’t respond when I asked that a few weeks ago.

      • Bill- Thanks for bringing that up. I am sure most people have no idea how big they would have to be. I was quite surprised a few years ago when I calculated the size of the charger. But that is not an insurmountable obstacle.
        In woods hole, it would fit nicely on the footprint of the existing terminal building that is going to be demolished. Of course if anyone ever had any common sense over there, they would leave that perfectly adequate building right where it is, and put the charger where they are planning to build the Steamship Mahal. Just doing that would save enough money to build a charger in W.H and V.H .
        Of course, since it is a large electrical device , it should be elevated.– there will be storm surges. Put it on pilings that are about 10 ft tall, and we only lose a few parking spaces.
        Might as well put solar panels on top of it also.
        In v.h there is an area to the north of the terminal that is used infrequently — Again raise it and only a few parking spots are lost. Ditto on the solar.
        Ob doesn’t get one..
        And just an aside, those chargers would generate a considerable amount of heat that could be harnessed for heating the terminals and supplying them with hot water.

        • Another downside….how big do you think those batteries in the boat would have to be…as an example, a Tesla battery weighs about 1500 lbs and takes up the entire under side of the car. Half the energy in the battery goes just to move the battery down the road. In the best of times the Tesla gets what, about 300 miles on a full charge and then an hour to fully recharge…think what the recharge on a 100 ton ferry would be…maybe smaller boats that don’t require such a massive battery array, then that would be less room for vehicles, passengers, etc. full recharges would, in all likelihood, reduce the number of trips in a day… and what will happen in the dead of winter when the efficiency of the batteries is reduced even further…the laws of physics are constant, have never changed and never will… wishing for electric ferries is admirable, but you liberals need to accept the many downsides that would come with electric ferries and not whine about it when the reality of it hits you square in the face.

          • Bill- Thank you for pointing out another downside..
            As for batteries on boats.. Do you know that 33% of the weight of the navy’s most advanced nuclear submarines is the batteries ?
            Do you know that Teslas get the equivalent of of about 130 miles per gallon ?
            https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/noframes/39836.shtml
            So Tesla’s push a battery down the road, and every other vehicle pushes an internal combustion engine down the road.. along with it’s gas tank, radiator, generator, exhaust system, various fluids etc.
            And they get an average of about 25 mpg.
            Your comments about the “many downsides” seem to be based on speculation.
            I specifically addressed your concern about the size of the chargers.
            It would be good to have a reasonable debate, rather than just point out things you are concerned about without doing any research on those unfounded allegations.
            The engineers working on these things know what they are doing. That is obvious, as there are hundreds of these things currently in service around the world.
            Your comment about “liberals” whining in the future does nothing helpful.
            This is about ferries–it is not about political views.

        • Tim– if you are addressing that question to me, here is a link to the worlds first electric car ferry. As an example.
          https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/worlds-first-electrical-car-ferry-in-operation.
          Their charging stations are relatively small, as the crossing time is only 20 minutes, and they have dealt with a “weak” power infrastructure. They got creative and added extra battery packs that undoubtedly added to the costs. The engineers can figure out the optimal size. Given the fact that power outages will occur and that the steamship provides a vital link to the mainland, a sizeable diesel emergency generating capacity would also have to be built into the system.
          It is my opinion that our chargers would have to be considerably larger than a small shack. But even with the added emergency generating capacity , it could all fit into the spaces I described.
          Physics in involved here after all.
          I appreciate Bill’s question– it is a valid concern.

      • the Tidal Power permit could be used and generating station could be afloat in Muskeget Channel…the floating station would become a hub of marine activity…and encourage more electric boat activity…I’ll provide the 5Mw generator anytime you are ready…this will lead to a new industry…coastal ferries everywhere will follow suit…

  2. Mr Malkin made a commitment when taking the MV Board position that he would support “boats not buildings”.
    What happened?

  3. When a boat is cancelled for any reason, mechanical or weather, the passengers who booked that boat, do not take precedent over the passengers who have reservations on the boats which are running. This has always been the case. The crews of the SSA will work hard to fit, (squeeze), your automobile, or your self, on a boat as soon as is possible. Many Islanders have made the best of having to stay in the Falmouth Holiday Inn, where we are given a discount when ferries are cancelled and you are stuck on the other side. We now have more spacious terminals in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, and outside canopies. Within walking distance of the terminals are the shops and restaurants of Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. When a boat is cancelled, it is for your safety. Please consider the factors involved in transporting Humans and vehicles across the sea. When I read this article, my first thought was, “Oh dear, I hope James Malkin will be able to make it to his guitar lesson on Monday”, (during which we work on the excellent songs he writes). The reason to mention a seemingly unimportant thought is: There are people who make personal sacrifices in order to keep the SSA running as smoothly as possible. The mariners and the team in the terminal work very hard. Yes, there are situations. Medication which needs to be transported, weddings, funerals, etc. The sea is the sea. Machines break down. There are still shipwrecks and sinkings. Most of the time, the Patriot boat in OB, is our go to, for boat cancellation emergencies.

    • I totally agree. I have always found the entire staff to be incredibly conscious at loading every possible car on any trip. They seem to just keep doing the best job they are able as long as not constantly pestered. Everyone could have a breaking point in stressful situations. And what are the expected to do in the moment when 2 boats break down. This might be worth future discussion but no point in criticizing in the moment. No value I can see whatever. We live on an island and they are visiting an island.

      • And-what would be the benefit of bumping people from a scheduled reservation. This weekend that would have caused cancellations of reservations from every following trip.

  4. And the SSA insists on building a brand new design for every new boat…. meaning no common replacement parts, no common training, and no maintenance lessons learned for the rest of the fleet. Can anyone name another large ferry service in the USA where every boat design is different?

  5. Driscoll says that if they have my email and tel in their database we get contacted by them. That is such B.S. My boat was cancelled the morning of Oct 7th (you guessed it mechanical problems). They have my email, tel & profile #. I received no contact from the SSA. None. Like many others we were left wondering what plan b was.

  6. I don’t understand the decision to leapfrog those with later reservations over those whose boats were cancelled. In fact, I don’t understand many of the loading decisions these days. Someone explain why I used to be able to arrive into Woods Hole earlier than my reservation, get in a line, and they would fit me on the next boat that had room. Now, you’re sent away with a phone number, find a place to park on the side of the road, make a phone call and THEN they give you an earlier time. Then you sit there and watch boat after boat leaving with empty spaces until your magical time comes and they let you back in the line. This is new and it’s stupid and infuriating.

    • Carla– The long answer to the cancellation policy is that they want to inconvenience as few people as possible. If they just put it as first come first served, it would affect more people and everyone would be late for whatever.
      The short answer to your second question is that they are not happy until you are not happy.
      I agree. The policy you describe is nothing less than stupid.

  7. The boats break down routinely, even the newer boats. Put the $$$ into the fleet and withhold raises, bonuses and all things golden in the WH terminal. SSA is a monopoly……..and without competition there is little incentive to improve service.

  8. Maybe they should operate the way I’ve heard other ferry services do, such as in Seattle, and just pull in, fill up, and leave. Those in the line get on and there’s no debating which reservations are taken first. There are no reservations and no schedules, which sounds a little scary but apparently it works!

  9. As to the complaint about boats allegedly leaving “with empty space” that the writer felt should have allowed them to travel early, there is a VERY important factor that many do not realize. All Ferries have rated capacities, for both vehicles and passengers, and once those capacities are reached, no more people/cars can be loaded. A ship (or any boat in reality) can carry only so much weight safely, any more risks making the vessel unstable and can also affect handling (ability to safely maneuver or deal with wind and waves). It is possible that when it appears that a ferry leaves with a less than full load, that the weight of the vehicles and passengers has reached the safe weight-carrying limit of the vessel, even though it appears there is still room. That used to happen very often with the old NAUSHON.

  10. When we were merchants in Tisbury and there was stand-by as standard policy we benefited from people waiting to board as they would come into town and make purchases. When the policy was changed business dropped off. For it to work it would help if more parking were available and moving the police station would free up a dozen or more spaces and there is talk of rebuilding it anyway. But times have changed, Martha’s Vineyard is much more popular and although the idea of a monopoly was to benefit residents’ transportation needs the SSA has become a massively successful tourism oriented business albeit with good intentions to residents, still, it is a mess. Something needs to be done – question is what.

  11. Reply to Don…you’re correct Don, the discussion is about ferries and not politics and I will stop if you stop injecting Trump into almost every comment you post, regardless of the subject. Deal?

    • Bill–I just looked at my last 14 comments over 4 recent topics. I did not mention trump once.
      but I’ll keep track of when I mention trump. My guess is that it’s not as often as you think.
      And I usually mention him when it is on a thread that has something to do with politics, or when he is directly impacting something that affects me or my community.
      I did actually share his statement about Colin Powell in a response to Jackie’s comment about Powell, but it seems George censored it. Not sure why.
      But I’ll keep an eye on myself.
      Thanks for the feedback.

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