SSA brass grilled on ferry failures

Board asks about communication with passengers.

The freight ferry Sankaty backs into Slip 1 in Vineyard Haven after being sidelined with a generator issue. The vessel crossed from Woods Hole empty to alleviate a logjam of vehicles staged at the terminal. — Rich Saltzberg

Problems with the MV Katama and MV Sankaty that left customers stranded over two days last weekend was the topic of conversation during Tuesday’s Steamship Authority board meeting.

Board members raised questions about what caused the vessels to be sidelined and the communication to customers about the cancellations and delays.

SSA director of marine operations Mark Amundsen also shed a little more light on what specifically ailed the two freight vessels.

On the Katama, Amundsen said, the support ring of a deck hatch failed due to the weight of a truck. He said he expected the Katama to return “in a day or so.” 

The generator problem aboard the Sankaty was due to a failed manual voltage regulator, Amundsen said: “We had a spare manual voltage regulator that we installed.”

Jim Malkin, the Vineyard’s board member, said the loss of the vessels “impacted a lot of people traveling to and from the Island.” He went on to say, “There has been a fair amount of discussion and concern [about] the communication to travelers from the authority during the course of Saturday night, Sunday.”

Malkin said he asked SSA general manager Robert Davis to “share with us the proactive communication that was taken by the authority.”

Malkin added, “Clearly some people didn’t hear or didn’t know how to handle the information provided to them.” 

Davis said Driscoll had posted a travel advisory in the SSA system Sunday night.

“So over 8,300 emails were sent out that evening around 11:15…,,” Davis said. He said a travel advisory was placed on the SSA website, and postings were made on Facebook and Twitter. The next morning, he said, ticket sellers also posted cancellation notices. Once the Sankaty was cleared for service, a notice was sent out about that specifically, he said. 

“So if anyone did not get any of [that information],” Davis said, “if they’re not signed up for our travel alerts, I would recommend that they do so, or that they follow us on social media pages, our Twitter accounts, our Facebook account, or on our website.”

Robert Ranney, Nantucket’s board member, said in these types of situations, terminal workers must convey a consistent message. He said people shouldn’t be receiving different answers from different people at a terminal. 

“I don’t know if there’s a way to make that happen,” Ranney said, “but I’ve seen it over here from time to time. Getting a consistent message out is really important. I don’t know how to get everybody who is working at the terminal on the same page.”

Malkin said he thought what Ranney touched on “really was part of the issue in Vineyard Haven.” He also said the timing uncertainties of mustering a stopgap ferry and crew can make it hard to provide answers to those who want to know when they are getting on a boat. 

Kathryn Wilson, Falmouth’s board member, asked Davis to explain the communications chain. 

In general, when there’s a vessel issue, Davis said, “Marine Ops — the operations center — will send out a message to a group, myself included, Mark [Amundsen], the port captains, Alison [Fletcher], reservations, advising that there’s an issue. Davis said some kind of confab will ensue “whether it’s discussions, whether it’s a group call, or whether people are knee-deep in resolving the issue…get updates.” He added,  “Sean [Driscoll] is also involved. We get Sean involved early in this. That way he can start putting together what messaging needs to go out.”

Davis added that following a contract vote the board took earlier in the morning for the development of a website and mobile app, the groundwork was being laid to reach more people with important messages. 

Wilson pressed Davis for how information trickles to the port staffers. 

“So on the dockside, it’s the agents that would be making the notifications to the ticket seller,” Davis said. 

“And what happens is whoever the agent is on duty,” Alison Fletcher, director of shoreside operations added, “I will personally call them and give them the information as well as send out emails.”

Malkin asked Fletcher if there was a way to guide “someone’s going to their father’s funeral or someone’s trying to get medicine to someone who’s been medevaced” so they know how to get help. This was a reference to the plights of some passengers that were highlighted by Kay Matschullat and Allan Arffa in a complaint to The Times about the cancellations and communication breakdowns. 

“Right and we are trying to look into those two specific situations and find out where they were getting their information from because … the agents on duty were never approached on this,” Fletcher said. 

The board took no votes pertaining to the events over the weekend.


  1. Just get rid of the unforeseen circumstances as a reason for cancellation. They were mechanical then coast guard regulated. Just say it. Why is that so hard. You let us speculate that someone is too hung over to work or some other crazy idea. Your average wedding attendee doesn’t need a profile to book a ticket. And most don’t look at their emails at 11 pm or first thing on their way to a boat on the weekend. You make it sound like the passenger is at fault if they didn’t research whether a boat is running. Not really the thinking you would expect from the customer service point of view. Keep trying.

  2. The SSA needs some competition, it’s that simple. Without competition, there really aren’t any repercussions for the litany of mistakes they make in every aspect of their business.

    • I remember remember when the Island was great.
      Before the SSA.
      When it was so hard and expensive to get to the Island.

  3. Guess who the license board for the competion is? The Steamship Authority! You must get their permission to compete with them. Nothing to see here folks. They got you over a barrel.

  4. The existing competition refuses to run in the winter.
    The SSA came into existence to provide reliable year around service.
    It does.

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