Ferries are headed toward obsolescence

Board hits pause button on New Bedford to Nantucket freight service.

The Sankaty, pictured here, along with the Gay Head and Katama, will be obsolete in three years, according to an SSA fleet survey. — Rich Saltzberg

One-third of the Steamship Authority’s fleet is nearing obsolescence, particularly the SSA’s freight ferries the Katama, Gay Head, and Sankaty, according to a study conducted by the Marine Safety Consultants.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the SSA’s board heard the report through general manager Robert Davis. Vessels typically only have a life expectancy of 35 years and all three of the ferries mentioned are more than 40 years old, Davis said.

It’s becoming difficult to repair the bow thrusters on the Katama and Gay Head because the company that manufactured them no longer makes the parts, Mark Amudsen, director of marine operations for the SSA, said.

Peter Jeffrey, Falmouth’s representative to the board, said the SSA needs a strategic plan for vessel replacement. “I think this is very useful information but a little harrowing to see that it appears that a third of our fleet will be obsolete in three years and we’ll need to replace 50 percent in seven,” he said. “We need to have a strategic vision of how we’re going to go about replacing these vessels.”

Incredibly, the MV Governor, the SSA’s oldest freight boat at 68 years, has a longer life expectancy.

Another ferry that is fast approaching its usefulness is the MV Nantucket, which is approaching 50 years old. According to the survey, it has about seven years of life left.
Earlier in the meeting, Amudsen issued a report on repairs that the Nantucket is currently undergoing. The $1.7 million in repairs includes deck coatings, a fire detection system, blasting and coating the hull, and repairs to the propulsion shaft, Amundsen told the board.

Later, during the discussion of the obsolescence report, Davis said there comes a point when they have to determine what to do. “We will be coming to a need to make a determination of whether it’s worth it to replace the steel or replace the vessel,” Davis said. Davis told the board there could be an opportunity to purchase vessels for cents on the dollar from the offshore oil exploration industry, which has slowed considerably. “There’s an opportunity to leverage that,” he said.

Financing for a new vessel would be an issue because the SSA does not have the bonding capacity, Davis acknowledged. “It’s a balancing act in terms of our financing and need for service,” Davis said.

Board member and Vineyard representative James Malkin said he would like the SSA administration to look for new vessels that are similar in propulsion systems and overall designs so that there is some duplication when it comes to maintenance and training.

Asked if the multimillion dollar Woods Hole terminal project is handcuffing the SSA’s bonding capacity, Davis said that project accounts for about half of the $67 million the SSA currently has bonded. Earlier in the meeting, the board heard an update on the Woods Hole terminal project. The waterside work has been completed and finished up at $59.5 million — $16 million over the contract price much of that due to change orders. The SSA’s bonding capacity is $100 million, which means there’s not enough capacity to have a new ferry built given that the cost of the Woods Hole, the SSA’s most recently built ferry, cost $46 million to build.

The SSA is also looking at alternative propulsion technologies — like electrification — but has not received the results of that study, he said.

In other business, the SSA board hit the pause button on licensing a freight service that would allow Nantucket to get its UPS deliveries this summer via New Bedford. The board wants more information about how much the licensing fee would be, what the loss of that freight would mean to the SSA, and some financial information about the company 41 North Offshore.

Moira Tierney, the board chair and New Bedford’s representative, made it clear to 41 North Offshore representative Jonah Mikutowicz, that this isn’t a reflection on the idea, just the lack of information brought to the board by SSA administration.

The freight service was concocted after UPS missed getting freight reservations on summer reservations to Nantucket. UPS has managed to get enough reservations to and from Martha’s Vineyard.

A public hearing was held prior to Tuesday morning’s meeting, but Davis said there was no public comment. He did get a letter from state Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, who asked that it be written into the licensing agreement that the freight service not include any waste or hazardous material.

Mikutowicz said he’s hopeful the five-month service can be a viable alternative to the SSA.
It was Jeffrey who suggested hitting the pause button asking if management was asking the board “to give management a blank check to write a license.”

Tierney asked to see the company’s financial statements. “I’m totally in support of the concept overall, but I think it’s premature to have us vote on this,” she said.

Malkin concurred. “We need due diligence, a draft agreement, and how Rep. Straus’ concerns get addressed in that agreement,” he said.

Tierney said she may call a meeting of the board before next month’s scheduled meeting so that 41 North can make the necessary adjustments to its barges for docking at the SSA slips on Nantucket.

“You’re not getting a negative response,” Tierney assured Mikutowicz. “We just want more information before we take a vote of this sort.”

Meanwhile, the board received an update on RFPs that were issued to provide freight service to and from Martha’s Vineyard. That service is in response to complaints from Woods Hole residents about early-morning ferries, noise, and congestion in their village.
Davis told the board that the RFPs have already generated more than 20 companies interested in seeing the specifications. The process is in the early stages and bids aren’t due until August and won’t be acted upon until late September, he told the board.
Work is wrapping up on dock repairs in Oak Bluffs. The $1.4 million project includes wrapping 236 pilings with a protective wrap, Amudsen said. Six new pilings have also been installed and the project should be completed by April 29.

Jeffrey asked how long the pilings will last. Amudsen said he expects the pilings, now that they’ve been either replaced or wrapped, will last 20 to 25 years.

Davis pointed out that the Oak Bluffs pier takes punishing blows from the weather because of its location. “It’s something that requires annual maintenance.”

In other business, Davis updated the board on the 2023 schedule which is similar to the 2022 schedule in the hours and number of vessels that are scheduled to make crossings. He said public notices have gone out for feedback on the schedules.

The board also heard an update on the new website and mobile app that are currently under construction. Board members urged functionality over flash, particularly when it comes to boat schedules and communication of any delays or cancellations. “We’re looking for this tool to improve the user experience,” Malkin said.

The board also put a pause on approving a waiver for Centerplate, the concession company, not to meet its minimum payment requirements under its current five-year contract citing problems caused by the pandemic.

But when Jeffrey noted that customer traffic is back close to pre-pandemic levels, he questioned the need to give the waiver without getting any other financial consideration from the company.

Davis said the company lost some employees due to the vaccine requirement and has had some supply chain issues as well.

Finally, Davis said the mask mandate remains in effect for the SSA vessels despite a federal judge lifting the federal mandate for public transportation. Davis said the U.S. Coast Guard has not yet lifted the requirement, which is what the ferry service is following.
Tuesday’s meeting started with a moment of silence for George Balco, the long time Port Council member from Vineyard Haven who recently died.


    • Because you don’t know anything about boats.
      The Govonor was designed for five minute runs on very protected waters.
      The Coast Guard does not get rid of things until they are used up.
      The SSA paid fair market value for the Govorner, essentially, zero.
      The SSA overpaid.
      The Govonor worked out surprisingly well, for the price.
      Free stuff rarely comes at no cost.

  1. One thing that I think is ridiculous is that ever ferry the steamship has is capable of accomodating full sized tractor trailer trucks. This obviously makes the ferries taller, less seaworthy and more expensive.
    Perhaps the next ferry should be built to accommodate passenger cars and light trucks only, with a maximum height of say 8 or 9 feet. And of course, electrically powered.
    Let the large trucks take the open air freight boats.

    • Don, the article states that , Governor aside, the other 3 are “fast approaching their usefulness”, along with the Nantucket. Katama, Sankaty and Gay Head are critical for moving freight, but also accommodate a significant portion of people and their cars. The vessels of the smaller part of the fleet are important for more than just the tractor trailers. Ever been in standby and grateful to board one?

      • William- I’m not sure what you are objecting to about my comment.
        I am not suggesting that freight trucks and freight trucks only go on the freight boats. My comment , if I may clarify is that if the steamship is going to purchase a new ferry, it could be a smaller — and by that I mean not as tall–passenger car only ferry.
        I am in no way suggesting that cars shouldn’t be allowed on the freight boats.

  2. It’s not incredible at all that the MV Governor has lasted 68 years and counting, with far fewer problems than the brand new MV Martha’s Vineyard. They just don’t make them like they used to!

  3. I recently commented on this story but you refused to post my comment, saying that I had made similar comment about the article earlier. How is that possible when I read the article for the first time today. My comment was not particularly positive to the SSA. Is that why you chose not to publish my comment? Is that balanced journalism? I think not!

    • On balance MVT did not think your comment worthy of publication.
      Do you see MVT comments that you think are unworthy of publication?
      The way to make certain you are always published is to own a newspaper.

  4. It would be nice if the Steamship Authority put the needs of the passengers first. We need safe, efficient, and clean vessels. We pay for the use of such and to be transported to the island.

    The Steamship Authority needs ivory towers.

    Maybe there can be some middle ground. A few less Monoliths for you and a few more vessels for the customers.

  5. NEW ALTERNATIVE FERRY Don’t Overlook Hydrogen



    *note google chrome will translate .

    We are looking forward to the ever-changing environment. We should bear in mind the operational costs of maintenance versus forecasting the new alternative options to ferry.
    Not a Bridge 🙂 Keeping with the unique system today with newer visions of alternative energy.
    The link is being built today and should be considered.

    • A bridge would use far less energy.
      There is nothing unique about the system today.
      Except for the 68 year old boat.

  6. Large capital assets (especially those that are at the core of the business/mission) should have a very long planning horizon…at least 10 years. Planning should include forecasting capacity requirements, assessing new technology, looking for new and different methods to meet the mission, and figuring out how to finance these needs. This is the responsibility of management and the board to get this done…so we should not blame either without blaming both. The absence of a COO should have nothing to do with this. Every year, constituents should ask for this information. If it does not exist, it speaks to the problem. How nice that half the borrowing capacity is dedicated to a fancy dock…

    • What did your plan for Woods Hole cost?
      What do you consider to be the excesses?
      Was it wrong to move the administration offices out of Wood’s Hole?

  7. As a Former 20 year employee I witnessed the decades long mismanagement prior to Mr. Davis’s tenure. The authority Has become extremely top heavy with office staff. in 1976 there were 6 people working in the office now there are several 100. Ridership has only increased 20% since then.. So many that they needed to build a new building to accommodate them all. Yet they don’t replace the boats. Every senior manager has gotten one of their friends a job for 6 figures. It’s no wonder they don’t have any money. They have also made many flawed decisions with regard to other capital expansion projects. Many such decisions resemble the federal government’s $10000 toilets. The woods hold terminal scattered $1600 trash cans around the parking lot. Quarter million dollar leantues for the passengers to stand under while boarding that go virtually unused. They spent a million dollars on hull restoration work to strengthen the MV governor so she could carry more weight but neglected to get the plans approved by the coast guard and got no increase in the tonnage evaluation. The list is almost endless. A ferry system With lavish office space but no boats.. The steamship authority would seem to mirror the state of affairs in Washington DC

  8. The report seems to make Mr Davis’s comments about bonding seem erroneous. The math doesn’t add up. $60 mil for WH Terminal and still no building? $100 mil bond capacity. Three boats needed? I’ll wager MASSPORT is licking its chops at taking over and jumping the rates! Somebody needs to be held responsible! Otherwise the Towns will be bearing the assessments on deficits!

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