The perks of having no bridge to the mainland


There have been a lot of complaints circulating about the reservation system for the Steamship Authority. A major point of contention last summer was that on the same day an Islander couldn’t get a reservation, there were vessels that had empty spaces on their freight deck as they embarked for Woods Hole, some with more space than others. 

There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing open space on a ferry that you can’t access when you really need to get off the Island, and it raises the question of whether the Steamship cares more about shipping companies than Islanders.

The complaint from last summer continues to be an issue today. 

But while there are valid complaints with the Steamship Authority management — over budget costs on its new website and freight-boat conversions, to name a couple — the issue of reservations and open space on ferry freight decks is more of a reality of living on a remote Island, and less to do with any failings from the Steamship. 

It’s a complex issue that the Steamship is taking seriously and trying to address.

The issue of open space on ferry freight decks is twofold: freight companies tend to book a summer’s worth of reservations, and don’t always show up. When one truck doesn’t show up, that leaves room for up to four cars.

Two, the reservation system is done in real time, which can lead to imperfections. Unlike airplanes, where each passenger fits nicely into one seat, trucks and cars come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and that leaves complications.

As for the freight companies, it’s the cost of doing business. Shipping companies, grocery delivery companies, lumber companies: They don’t always show up for a reservation, and they don’t bother calling to cancel. It’s baked into the cost of doing business on an Island. 

When there is a no-show, there are several options for the Steamship Authority. First, the Steamship will take any cars that have made reservations, or any travelers that are in an emergency. 

Next, staff will turn to the so-called blue line — spaces reserved for Island residents. 

Or, they’ll take trucks that are lined up for the next ferry, as is often the case. Taking trucks for the next ferry leads to a “snowball” effect. After several trucks don’t show up throughout the day, and the Steamship keeps pulling reservations from the next ferry, by the end of the day, the freight boats can become emptier and emptier.

Hence the frustration from Islanders who tried to make a reservation, and the bad optics of boats with empty spots.

Steamship officials say that this year has had some particularly difficult days. On the Monday following Juneteenth and Father’s Day weekend, there were close to 60 no-shows.

Steamship management has tried to make adjustments to address the issue. They are developing a screen tool that will show the number of feet available on a vessel, which will give an easy visual representation to the reservation clerks and staff. That will make it easier to see how many cars they can get on, and help staff deal with the complexities of different-size vehicles. 

The SSA has also taken steps to make it easier for Islanders to get a reservation before the season begins, and before the rest of the masses start booking. The so-called head start program allows Islanders to book up to 10 trips during the busy summer season, up from five from last summer.

Also, the blue line allows up to 12 vehicles to queue up at any given time, and gives preference for vehicles in the Steamship excursion program — again, for Islanders. While it’s much less convenient sitting in line compared with making a reservation, it is an option.

There’s also a preferred spaces program that sets aside areas for Islanders, which opens up seven days ahead of ferries, although that does require getting to the ticket office early. 

There’s also the staff at the terminals, who are patient and pleasant, and can find space for travelers in a bind, whether it’s a medical emergency or someone, for instance, trying to get to a wake.

Is the system perfect? Probably not. Could the Steamship be less favorable to freight traffic? Possibly. But some of those shipping items are vital to Island life, like medicine and food. 

Is there the possibility that the Steamship could charge a company a nominal fee if they don’t call ahead to cancel a reservation? While that might encourage companies to give the Steamship the heads-up and maybe make it easier for residents to get a ferry trip, we’d venture to guess that getting shipments to the Island might only get more expensive, and thus the price of goods would only get more expensive.

While these are real frustrations felt by Islanders, the difficulties of getting off the Island are a reality — call it a tax — for living on an Island. Some options might involve waiting in line on an early morning, but at least there are options.


  1. Obviously whoever wrote this puff piece doesn’t have to go off island very often in the summer. Freight companies know well in advance when they think they will have to cancel a reservation. Charge them a fee if they cancel within 48 hours. The price to islanders will be minimal and the opportunity to attend your aunt’s funeral will be priceless.

  2. Maybe years ago it was a perk. Today is hardly a perk with MANY more residents and tourists

  3. Obviously the solution is to have an off Island car if you consider the opportunity to attend your aunt’s funeral to be priceless. A good enough off island car will cost you around $2,000 a year. How much are you spending on car tickets?

  4. What a ridiculous op-ed, the only thing good about it are some of the facts — whose side is this paper actually on? Islanders should have any and every opportunity to get off from and come back to the island and here we have the local paper with a laundry list of logic as to why the m.o. is ok? For shame! This is the worst op-ed I have read of recent years in the MV Times, perhaps the very worst ever. And it is management that is the problem — beyond letting them off too easy, the MV Times provides cover for operational failure, dismisses poor decision-making, inadequate foresight, and technical savvy in a few sentences and blamed islanders for complaining. I’ll tell you one thing — you charge shipping companies and truckers large fees — nominal is a poor way of thinking through ofit – for cancelling. Not your average vacationer with a regular car. If truckers and their businesses are cancelling you deter them by doing so by getting serious. They will still come, because they have to, but they will learn that they need to be responsible. If they’re not, the SSA can reap the rewards and pass them on to us. I am stunned by this op-ed.

    • Everyone should have any and every opportunity to get off from and come back to the island 7/24, no reservation needed.

        • No, no bridge. Thank you for specifying. Very specifically the opportunity within the framework of the SSA, and the SSA without expansion.

        • Absolutely not.
          Boats every 15 minutes, 7/24, from Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and Menemsha (high speed catamarans).
          A bridge would ruin the Island, look at what the bridges have done to Manhattan.

  5. Let’s not just talk about cars. What about the passenger inconvenience? If you do pay the $800.00 a year to park in Palmer Ave lot, and why do those rates keep increasing, and they have the 15 minute prior to boat departure bus, and in the winter you get to the SSA and they have already pulled the passenger gangway. You then have to drag your luggage up the stairs because they’ve also loaded the luggage carrier and you can’t get to it. When asked why they say “ because it takes time to pull the gangway” really, it takes 30 seconds. Yet when I traveled via this system last week, at the peak of summer, miraculously the gangway was available. Lastly, why in heaven’s name, can’t the boat from Oak Bluffs dock in a slip in WH where you don’t have to drag your luggage up and over to the other side of the ship? We paid for three functioning slips in WH, one of them can accommodate this request. Come on SSA, please use some common sense. Maybe try traveling as a passenger under these situations yourself and you’d then correct them.

  6. Where else can you park for $2.16 a day, complete with transportation to you destination and a cart on which to put your luggage on, if you are on time.
    The vehicle gangway is what ties the boat to the dock, it has to be last.
    For safety reasons they should let no one on board, by foot, on the vehicle gangway.
    If you missed the passenger gangway, you missed the boat.
    When was the last time you saw a passenger gangway pulled before the scheduled departure time?

    “Lastly, why in heaven’s name, can’t the boat from Oak Bluffs dock in a slip in WH where you don’t have to drag your luggage up and over to the other side of the ship?
    Are you saying that the Oak Bluffs terminal should be shut down?
    Vineyard Haven does have three slips. Can you use all three simultaneously, safely?

    I don’t want to have to shelp my luggage from Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs.

    Maybe try electing County Commissioners who will appoint a Board Governors who will fire SSA management and replace them with someone who knows how to a run marine transport business. What is your current employment status?

    • Albert,
      1. The SSA touts itself as the “lifeline” but it continues to increase fees on things, like parking permits, the mostly islanders use.

      2. This winter on several occasions I was at the Palmer Lot, where I park, 45 minutes prior to the boat departure time, the bus sat there until the 15 minute mark, departed, and when we got to WH the passenger gangway had already been pulled. So to follow your logic, I should have had to wait another 1.25 hours for the next boat because I shouldn’t have been allowed on the car gangway, that’s not acceptable. This summer the gangway was still in place, if they can do it in the summer they can do it in the winter. Again, this occurred several times.

      3. What I’m saying about OB is, they load on the starboard side for passengers, in WH there is a slip that would allow disembarkment on the same starboard side so you don’t have to crossover, but they don’t do that. Slip 2 in WH can do this but they don’t. It’s just scheduling and could very easily figured out.

      4. My employment status is non of your business, but the ones who do run the SSA could listen to these issues and address them.

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