The ghost of 2018 haunts peak season

Over seven days Island Home, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard fail.



The Steamship Authority’s fleet has suffered a string of mechanical problems which have stretched into a seventh consecutive day. The vessel woes and the delays they caused came as the Vineyard is in the busiest phase of the summer season, with the Agricultural Fair over the weekend, the Oak Bluffs fireworks Friday, August 19, and Beach Road Weekend coming up August 26 to 28. 

The Martha’s Vineyard was the latest ferry to be sidelined. The 6 am Friday crossing of the vessel was canceled. Software for a control panel needed updating, according to SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll. 

“We’ve been trying to do it for the last few days, but have not been successful due to the Nantucket, so we need to do it tonight in Woods Hole,” Driscoll wrote Thursday evening. 

An alert from the SSA that went out just after 9 pm Thursday indicated that despite the 6 am cancellation, “[t]here is enough vehicle space on the 6:30 am and 7 am trips from Vineyard Haven to accommodate all the affected passengers.” 

The alert also stated, “The 5:30 am MV Governor trip from Woods Hole will run late Friday morning due to other vessels being out of position.” 

Because of the diminished ferry capacity, Driscoll said, the Island Home would be using its lift decks Friday “as much as possible.”

However, that wasn’t for the vessel’s 6 am crossing from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven, because it had to berth in Vineyard Haven overnight. 

Thursday became the sixth day in a row the Steamship Authority had scheduling problems due to a mechanical issue with one of its ferries on the Woods Hole – Vineyard crossings. Meanwhile, MV Nantucket remained sidelined Friday morning after being pulled out of service on Wednesday by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

On Thursday, the SSA canceled several crossings of the Nantucket before finally pulling the plug on all of its crossings at midday. Driscoll told The Times a part needed to be repaired, and there’s only one place, in Maine, that does the repairs. The part was sent to Maine.

On Friday, the Sankaty did the Nantucket’s 5:30 am crossing, and then resumed its regular schedule. On Friday afternoon, following sea trials, the Nantucket pulled into the Oak Bluffs terminal with an empty vehicle bay, and returned to regular service. 

It followed a week of confusion by the SSA, which sent out incorrect notices to passengers, further exacerbating the frustration of customers.

At an SSA board meeting Tuesday, Jim Malkin, Vineyard representative to the board, criticized that flow of information to customers.


The ghost of failures past?

In the spring of 2018, the SSA suffered a meltdown on the Vineyard route. Hundreds of crossings were canceled. Mechanical failures were rife. The poster child of this fraught period was the Martha’s Vineyard. After that ferry returned from an $18 million midlife refurbishment, it seemingly couldn’t stop suffering glitches. The most serious of these were blackouts that occured on St. Patrick’s Day and on Cinco de Mayo in 2018. Those blackouts and all the other failures the ferry line fleet endured that year led to enormous public outcry, and eventually a top-to-bottom review of the SSA by an independent consultancy team. 

The observations, analysis, and recommendations of that consultancy team formed the HMS report. A year after the report and a supplemental communications report came out, the SSA had implemented the majority of the recommendations offered in those documents. Among the recommendations was adoption of a process-based management system and the addition of specialized positions. It’s unclear if the present series of breakdowns, which aren’t anywhere as numerous as in 2018, stem from prior problems pointed out in the HMS report or something else. Several SSA ferries have been prone to mechanical problems over the past two years. Age may be behind some of those problems. 

A marine survey report that came out in spring found several ferries had only a few years of usable life left in them. These included the Gay Head and the Katama, each of which have had cracks open up in their hulls due to metal fatigue. The Katama is currently in drydock in Connecticut for scheduled maintenance. For a short while, it had to be refloated so the Gay Head, which suffered its crack in late July, could undergo emergency repairs at the same facility, Thames Shipyard. Replacements for these two vessels were recently authorized by the SSA board. The offshore supply vessels Lode Star and Shooting Star will be converted into SSA freight ferries, with at least one of the two expected to be ready for the 2023 summer season. Both the Katama and Gay Head began their lives as offshore supply vessels before the SSA brass remodeled them to the freight ferry specs. 

Citing a need to get up to speed on what was happening, Oak Bluffs port council member Joe Sollitto declined comment on the recent bout of ferry failures. However, he did say he, fellow port council member John Cahill, and Vineyard board representative Jim Malkin were all pleased the SSA just acquired similar vessels. As sister ships, Sollitto said, that may go a long way toward interchangeability of parts. 

Driscoll didn’t chalk up the recent string of problems to lack of uniformity of parts, however.

“Bad timing,” he said; “inopportune timing for these things to happen.”


  1. Dear Martha’s Vineyard Times, are you opposed to the implementation of a fast ferry to and from Woods Hole? If not, why is it never discussed in any of the recent reporting on the SSA/ferries? If you are opposed, please explain.

      • George, my mistake. The reply post was under Nelson’s name. I thought it was Nelson, the individual, responding. Thanks for confirming your personal support.

        Arguendo, the cost of a fast ferry ticket to MV would be approximately the same as the existing cost of a fast ferry ticket to Nantucket.

        • The Island already has three fast ferries.
          The SSA was created to provide basic necessary service, not to accommodate commuters, in either direction.

          • Al, commuting for one’s livelihood is not a basic necessary service? That kind of thinking goes into the silly and bazaar column. Maybe the SSA should enforce the no commuters allowed clause in their charter. Just think how much space it would free up.

  2. The Beach Road Weekend Water Taxi would be happy to help the SSA out by getting passengers affected by the canceled trips.

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