Updated Nov. 9
New details have emerged that offer insight into how the Steamship Authority freight vessel Sankaty drifted from a Woods Hole terminal slip and into a nearby dock on a July evening.
Records obtained by The Times through the Massachusetts Public Records Law process show that a Steamship employee said they alerted a captain that lines securing the Sankaty were not being properly tied days before the incident took place, and that a captain notified crew that the vessel might break loose about an hour before it actually did.
The documents used for an internal investigation by the Steamship paint a more detailed version of events than has been portrayed to the public to date.
What happened to the Sankaty
On Thursday, July 27, at around 5 pm, the Steamship Authority (SSA) freight ferry MV Sankaty drifted away from its mooring with no one on board, and traveled a short distance before coming to rest at a nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) dock.
Steamship officials say that no one was injured during the incident, and, at the time, they said that they escaped a potentially bad situation mostly unscathed. The SSA reported that the Sankaty experienced only cosmetic damage, and there was no damage to the WHOI dock or to the environment stemming from the incident. (The Times also received video footage of the incident from the SSA, showing the Sankaty drifting away.)
The SSA has since updated its safety and training procedures.
The U.S. Coast Guard did not investigate the incident, deeming it unnecessary to do so since the Sankaty was safe to sail after the incident, and no one was injured.
After an internal investigation, SSA leadership publicly stated in August that one of the lines tying the Sankaty to the dock slipped from the bollard, and the remaining lines followed — exacerbated by windy conditions — offering few other details.
According to the SSA board and Port Council meeting minutes from the time, there were five lines used to tie up the Sankaty on the day of the incident. Ferry officials say there are typically six lines attached.
A detailed look
A 6:30 pm entry in a Sankaty deck log from the day of the incident stated that “after the vessel was secured for the night, the bow lines, which were not placed on the bollard properly, had slipped off. With no bow lines, the bow moved freely to the north, parting the cable securing the vessel to the transfer bridge. The stern line was not secured properly, and the line slipped on the bit, allowing the vessel to drift out of the slip coming [to Dyers] dock.”
Among the employee statements and emails The Times obtained was a letter by a SSA captain who was working on the freight ferry Governor when the Sankaty incident took place. The name of the captain was redacted.
“Both transfer bridge cables had parted, the bow lines had come off, and the power cable was torn off,” wrote the captain. “The safety line on the stern was still attached, but not holding the vessel in place. The vessel drifted out of the slip, and the wind and tide took it broadside to lay on WHOI Dyers dock.”
According to the records, SSA staff and individuals from WHOI worked together to manage the situation. They called the bridge tender to keep the Woods Hole bridge closed to prevent additional vessels from entering the harbor, and notified incoming SSA ferries that only one slip was available.
Initially, the plan was to use another boat, potentially the WHOI research vessel Tioga, to tow the Sankaty back to its slip. Also, an SSA employee retrieved a ladder from behind the Woods Hole ticket office to possibly board the stranded ferry. However, staff members received a call to put the ladder away, because a tugboat was to be used. After waiting, and since the Tioga’s captain was still 30 minutes away, SSA employees on the scene used the ladder to board the Sankaty, opening the hatch to allow more personnel aboard to bring the boat back to its slip.
According to records from the internal investigation, some SSA staff noticed possible precursors to the Sankaty breaking away prior to July 27. One employee stated that on July 24, they noticed the Sankaty’s crew was not following the SSA’s standard operating procedures when securing the vessel, and said that they notified a captain about the violation. The employee also boarded the Sankaty later that day to talk with the vessel captain and pilot about standard operating procedures for securing a vessel.
“I also stressed the importance of properly securing the vessel at the end of each day,” the employee statement reads. Both the employee and the captain’s names were redacted in the documents received by The Times.
The same employee received a call from a captain that there was a belly in one of the Sankaty’s bow lines, and received a photo of the belly in the bow line from the Nantucket on July 27. The employee requested a captain to put out more lines on the Sankaty when he returned to Woods Hole at 3:54 pm. The employee also informed a captain at 4:10 pm about the Sankaty situation, and that someone was being sent over to the Sankaty when it came back to Woods Hole. After getting word about the Sankaty breaking away, the employee would later call the port engineer at 5:28 pm that the vessel’s shore power cable was damaged, and would need to be repaired or replaced.
Another employee also noticed the Sankaty’s bow lines were “not properly secured” while backing out of the slip on the passenger ferry Nantucket at 1:38 pm on July 27, just hours before the freight vessel broke free. “One line had all the strain, and the other had a belly,” the employee wrote. This employee said they called someone about the concern just before 3 pm, and later sent a photograph of the lines. It’s unclear whom the employee said they notified, because the names in the documents were redacted.
In a different statement, an employee wrote about being told by a captain at 3:47 pm that the Sankaty was “going to break loose,” a little over an hour before the Sankaty actually did break free. This employee offered to bring a crew and more lines to fix the issue, but the captain said “phone call was made[,] they will handle it,” the employee wrote in a statement as part of the internal investigation.
According to the statement, the captain later called the employee at 4:04 pm and said both crews can make the repairs at the next docking. “At 4:59 [pm,] as we were all standing at the end of slip [two] discussing the load for the 5:20 pm [ferry,] we heard a loud noise,” the employee wrote. “We all looked at the Sankaty, and everyone ran over, but it was too late[,] the Sankaty had already broken loose.”
Potential impact to service
Following the incident, there were impacts to ferry service, based on statements employees made in the internal investigation.
Two of the redacted statements, including a captain’s, say a decision was made to cancel the 5:20 pm Governor trip from Woods Hole. The statements say that the Steamship had already loaded 20 or so vehicles onto the vessel. “We decided to cease loading the Governor and unload what was on, and cancel the 17:20 Governor trip to possibly use the Governor for retrieval of the Sankaty,” the captain’s letter stated.
In July, the SSA announced there were no trip cancellations or operational changes caused by the Sankaty incident, other than the Governor’s evening trips being canceled because of “weather conditions.” An employee statement did note that there were southwestern winds blowing 20 to 25 knots, with a flood tide, on July 27. According to a weather report provided by the SSA, the average wind speed between 1 pm and 5 pm ranged from around 17 mph to around 22 mph, with gusts up to around 32 mph.
Receiving the documents
The Times filed a public records request to the SSA on Wednesday, August 30, for documents relating to the internal investigation of the Sankaty breaking away, including any analyses or conclusions coming from the internal investigation.
In the initial response to The Times’ request, the SSA provided photographs taken during the investigation alongside several other documents relating to the investigation, such as vessel operation procedures and weather condition reports.
However, the SSA stated in the letter dated to Sept. 14 it chose not to provide “copies of any statements made by its employees (or copies of any memoranda, personal notes, investigation notes, emails, or other records of communications regarding any of our employees), as they would constitute part of each employee’s personnel file.” The letter stated these types of personnel files were exempt from a public records request, based on state laws.
“This response should not be construed as implying that there are any such documents in existence with respect to the investigation that is the subject of your request,” SSA general counsel Terrence Kenneally wrote in the letter. “Accordingly, we are denying your request, in part, pursuant to the exemptions to the Massachusetts Public Records Law cited herein.”
The Times appealed this decision on Thursday, Sept. 28, to the Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records, pointing out the SSA could release these emails and statements after redacting employees’ names and other identifying information. The state agreed to review the matter.
On Wednesday, Oct. 11, the SSA sent a letter to Paul Sullivan, the staff attorney with the state’s Public Records Division assigned to this case, defending their decision not to release the records. The SSA’s October letter stated the authority interviewed employees and obtained written statements regarding the Sankaty, although email communication about the incident was limited.
“The purpose of the investigation was to identify the incident’s root cause(s) in accordance with the Authority’s Safety Quality Management System (SQMS),” Kenneally wrote in the letter. “Because of the potentially serious repercussions of a vessel drifting unattended from its berth, the investigation also had a disciplinary purpose in accordance with the Authority’s collective bargaining agreements with its unions.”
In defending the decision not to release employee statements, Kenneally also referenced the 2000 Massachusetts Superior Judicial Court case Wakefield Teachers Association v. School Committee of Wakefield, in which the court held in part that information falling into the “personnel and medical files or information category are absolutely exempt from disclosure.”
Two days later, Massachusetts supervisor of records Manza Arthur sent a letter ordering the SSA to release employee statements and emails regarding the Sankaty incident. Arthur wrote that the SSA had not sufficiently explained its reasoning to withhold the records. According to the letter, Exemption C, the part of state laws the SSA referred to in justifying withholding the records, applies to “personnel and medical files or information and any other materials or data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy; provided, however, that this subclause shall not apply to any records related to a law enforcement misconduct investigation.”
Arthur’s letter stated the exemption required a “balancing test,” and listed three main factors to assess the “weight of the privacy interest at stake,” which are whether disclosure would result in personal embarrassment to an individual of “normal sensibilities,” whether the materials sought contain “intimate details of a highly personal nature,” and whether the same information is available from other sources.
“The authority has not sufficiently explained its reasoning,” Arthur wrote in the letter. “It is unclear how all the records contain intimate details of a highly personal nature, or how disclosure would result in personal embarrassment to an individual of normal sensibilities. Further, it is not clear from the authority’s response whether this information is available from other sources. The authority must also clarify whether segregable portions of the records can be provided.”
The SSA released the redacted versions of employee statements and emails related to the Sankaty investigation on Friday, Oct. 27.
SSA representatives did not respond to The Times’ request for comment about the records.
Updated with a photo showing the belly in one of the Sankaty’s ropes and a change from Freedom of Information Act to Massachusetts Public Records Law process.