Steamship lacking transparency, accountability


The Steamship Authority’s explanation for what led to a boat becoming unmoored from a slip at the Woods Hole terminal earlier this summer has been comically vague. 

In late July, the Sankaty, a nearly 250-foot hunk of metal, drifted from the Woods Hole terminal a short distance before coming to rest at a nearby dock. No one was on the boat at the time, and no one was injured. In video footage obtained by The Times, the vessel — unmoored and at the whims of the tides and winds — barely missed crossing paths with the Cormorant, a ferry bringing passengers to Naushon Island. 

It’s scary to think what could have happened had the Sankaty become untethered a few moments earlier. Or if someone in a kayak had been paddling by. It’s lucky that the boat came to rest at a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution dock and that it didn’t drift into nearby establishments, like a crowded Landfall Restaurant. The Steamship can breathe a sigh of relief.

But so far, the only explanation has been that one line slipped off a bollard. The freight vessel was tied to the dock with four other lines, but Steamship officials say that those four lines also came off following the first rope slipping. Steamship officials say that it was windy and wavy, which likely didn’t help. 

The only thing that will be done differently going forward, at least what’s been said publicly, is that they’ll add a sixth line to secure the boat. 

But that’s it; that’s the explanation. Any more details of how or why any of this happened, we don’t know. 

We understand that the Steamship does not want to disclose personnel issues. We don’t need names, nor do we need to rat out a deckhand who might have messed up. But for a ferry line that plays such a prominent role in the lives of Islanders, the public deserves to know what happened. 

Was the line installed improperly? Was the rope compromised, or not properly inspected? Is this a management problem or a fluke? Is it going to happen again? 

While not surprising, the response highlights ongoing public concerns that the ferry line isn’t held accountable, and thus will never change.

Complaints over the ferry line are nothing new. The traumatic year of 2018 — with cancellation and after cancellation — still wallows in the minds of Islanders and commuters.

The through line in recent years has been that the Steamship needs a better way of answering to the public; far too often we are left without a clear explanation. 

Not all the complaints or incidents involving the ferry line make headlines, like an untethered boat. There are complaints of day-to-day operations, some more worthy than others: empty freight decks on summer afternoons; not being able to make a reservation when there are empty spaces; maybe a staffer is rude to a passenger or driver; late ferries. Often the only outlet is for the public to rant on social media, which doesn’t do much.

What would be beneficial is to have an official ombudsman. Someone the public can speak directly to, who actively listens to issues, takes these complaints under consideration, and holds the Steamship accountable. Maybe they give a solid explanation for what went wrong, pitch ideas to the Steamship board and administration. But ultimately, accountability would be the ombudsman’s main concern.

What Steamship officials might not understand, the way that Islanders might, is that the ferry line is undeniably a monopoly over one of the basic freedoms of commuters and Vineyard residents: Getting off a remote Island. The Steamship plays a role in making doctors’ appointments, getting to funerals, getting to work on time, birthday parties, and a furniture store, and enjoying a city escape — that’s all dependent on ferry service. And the Steamship needs to act with this in mind. 

Having an explanation for when things go wrong isn’t just a fun and convenient way to reduce stress, it gives us a sense that things can and will get better.


  1. It surprises me that the SSA hasn’t been mandated by its board to have an ombudsman already. These pathetic gestures at explanations, especially concerning this Sankaty error, would indeed be comical if this were not our “lifeline”, basically a continuation of the transportation system that gets us here and there. Quite probably, I think it’s time for the “private” part of this odd combination of quasi-private/public transportation to be rethought by the state legislature. To have this most important part of our livelihood overseen by a General Manager and the Board which appears to rubber-stamp his decisions with apparent little regard, apparently for the lives and professions of the people the SSA serves is to effectively support a private corporation.

    • “support a private corporation.”
      Would the Island be better off if the SSA assets were sold off to private interests with the proceeds returned to Islanders?

      The SSA is a very public operation. The General Manager and Senior Staff are selected by the Board of Governors who are selected by the County Commissioners who are selected by the voters. You own the SSA, you are not the only one.

    • There is nothing private about the SSA
      They are a very public eternity.
      Do you even know who the County Commissioners are?
      They run the SSA.
      They appoint the Board of Governors.

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