Ice blamed for V.H. cable break

Bridge sheave upgrade under review; Peter Jeffrey comes aboard.

Maintenance crews from the SSA were on the scene Saturday repairing a cable that snapped on the transfer bridge. -Eunki Seonwoo

Ice from a rapid deep freeze was identified as the cause of a cable break at the Slip 2 transfer bridge in Vineyard Haven on Saturday morning, Steamship Authority director of marine operations Mark Amundsen told the board. The cable break left the ferry Martha’s Vineyard stuck in the slip for about three hours, and delayed the crossing of a number of passengers. A redesign of a component of the transfer bridge is being considered as a result of the incident Saturday, Amundsen said. 

Amundsen described the break as directly related to frigid weather. The cable in question normally runs on a grooved wheel called a sheave, but layers of ice on the cable pushed the cable off the sheave where it was damaged. Amundsen said the transfer bridge operator had no way of knowing the cable had iced up and jumped off the sheave, because the mechanism was under the bridge, where it couldn’t be seen. 

Amundsen commended the repair work SSA maintenance crews did, noting they were in “10° weather,” and much of their work couldn’t be done with gloves.

Amundson said the same gelid weather caused the freight doors of the ferries Nantucket and Woods Hole to freeze shut. In the case of the Woods Hole, which was in Hyannis, Amundsen said blowtorches were used to thaw the doors open. 

“This is really a force majeure situation, where we just got such a cold blast so quickly,” Amundsen said. 

In response to a question by Vineyard board member Jim Malkin, Amundsen said transfer bridge cables are replaced every two or three years. He also said regular maintenance plays an important part in evaluating the cables and the bridge itself. Additionally, Amundsen said he personally inspects the bridges quarterly. 

In May 2020, a cable snapped and trapped the Martha’s Vineyard at the same slip. That cable held up a 20,000-pound set of counterweights. On Nov. 26, 2021, a cable snapped on the same bridge, crippling it. The next day a gap opened up between the bridge and the ferry Island Home while a minivan was crossing the bridge to the ferry. The minivan occupants were not injured, and eventually boarded and crossed without further problems.  

The SSA downplayed any connection between the minivan incident and the cable break at a board meeting in December.

“So was this mostly from rain or from bow waves, or both?” Barnstable board member Robert Jones asked.

“From rain coming down over the night,’ Amundsen said. “The temperature dropped so quickly, the cables were iced. They actually built up a coating of ice, quite thick actually, down in that area.”

“Has it happened in the past?” Jones asked.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Amundsen said. He described the freeze as “very, very rapid” and “not a normal weather event.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think these severe weather patterns are going to subside,” new Falmouth board member Peter Jeffrey said. “I think with climate change, it’s going to continue. I’m wondering, is there a way to go about creating inspection protocols at least in terms of this transfer bridge when we have these types of weather events?”

Amundsen said there is an inspection program. He also said a wider sheave design is under consideration to eliminate the gap on either side of a given sheave where a cable could jump to.

“Because, in my view, if the sheave was full-width of the entire space,” Amundsen said, “the wire wouldn’t have a chance to jump over, and it would have remained inside the inside runner of the sheave … Once it’s off the sheave, it’s going to be damaged almost immediately. So we are looking at upgrading the design to prevent that.”

In response to a safety question posed by The Times, Amundsen said there are three sets of cables on the transfer bridge and he saw injury danger associated with any of them breaking as a  “low risk” to employees and passengers. 

“There’s three separate cable systems associated with the bridges,” Amundsen said. “One being attaching the vessel to the bridge for alignment. The second set is the counterweights, which support the weight of the bridge. And the third being the lifting mechanism for the bridge. The cables are run in a way that they’re outside the operation area, away from the operator. So I would look at this as a low-risk area.”

The cable that broke was “from the electric winch which lifts the bridge up so the vessel can depart.”

When asked by The Times if the Martha’s Vineyard was essentially trapped under the bridge, Amundsen said, “We don’t move the vessel until the bridge is lifted off the freight deck. So the answer to that is no, we would not ever move the ship without lifting the bridge first.”

When the question was rephrased to ask if the ferry was specifically unable to move, Amundsen said,“Yeah, that is correct.’

Amundsen apologized for any delays that were caused by the cable incident.

“I just want to tell you, Mark, we’re lucky to have you at the helm to handle these events,” chair Moira Tierney, New Bedford’s board representative, said. 

In other business, the board welcomed Peter Jeffrey to his first meeting as Falmouth’s representative. Jeffrey replaced Kathryn Wilson, who departed in December. 

“Thank you for taking on this task, Mr. Jeffrey,” Tierney said. “And we welcome you. We all enjoyed very, very much working with Kate, and we expect we will feel the same about you as well.”

Jeffrey thanked the board for its welcome, and said, “I know I have some big shoes to fill, given Kate’s past tenure on the board.” 

In a 4-1 vote, the board approved a change order for the waterside portion of the Woods Hole terminal reconstruction project. The vote authorized SSA staff to permit J. Cashman Inc., the general contractor for the project, to proceed with the change order on a “time and materials” basis, as opposed to a lump estimated sum of just under $1.5 million. SSA general manager Robert Davis told the board the change order work was to make a reinforced concrete cofferdam to link three piles. The piles can’t be linked as engineering plans intended, he said, because the piles themselves aren’t plumb, and were anticipated to be so. Davis estimated doing the work — which he said would involve considerable use of divers — on a time and materials basis would save the ferry line up to 40 percent of the lump sum estimate. Tierney, long critical of change orders, was the dissenting vote. 


  1. Nonsense! The cable broke most likely broke because of poor maintenance, improper inspection, improper use by operator, exceeding the load of cable of something else the SSA did or didn’t do. What I am 100% certain of is that the DIDN’T break because it was “chilly”. Total BS from SSA trying whatever they can to shirk responsibility. First winter I spent on MV was 89′, December was downright frigid! Temps in single digits for weeks, VH outer harbor was frozen. Guess what didn’t happen? Yep, no cables broke! SSA is lying!

  2. Hmmm. I read the whole article carefully.
    I can imagine the problem. The explanation was pretty clear.
    One reality is that the engineers cannot anticipate every scenario.
    Another reality is that ice happens.
    I am in construction– I am not an engineer — but I know that someone should be thinking about “what happens when ” happens.
    Especially when it comes to weather. We will have extremes– that is a given.
    To be caught flat footed when an extreme weather event happens is unacceptable.
    It’s good that no one died– This time.

    • How come the steel cables weren’t snapping when Wayne Lamson was running the show? It wasn’t even that cold. I’m sorry but blaming the cold is absurd.

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