The Steamship Authority (SSA) is looking at ways to improve the use of deck space on its vessels for loading vehicles, and authority leadership shared plans that were underway during a morning Port Council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
The discussion took place with questions in the public still circulating about why some Islanders can’t make reservations when, at the end of the day, trips returning to the mainland have empty deck space.
SSA plans to review the loading process for the freight ferries to maximize deck space, and assess whether the “freight” designations should be amended for certain bookings.
The SSA also plans to develop a new protocol to maximize the mix of freight and car loads onto vessels. A system is also being developed to simplify the monitoring of trips and better utilize deck space.
The Steamship is focusing its plans so far on the freight boat, the Governor.
SSA General Manager Robert Davis said this presentation stemmed from inquiries at a meeting last month about differences between the realities and perceptions about vehicle allocations on vessels.
“We’d already been looking at this and doing a deep dive on some of the data that we have,” he said.
According to the data, each of the five vessels that run the Martha’s Vineyard route can carry more than 30 cars, or a “car equivalent unit,” as the presentation stated. Both the freight ferries Governor and Sankaty can carry around 35 cars, the Nantucket can carry around 48 cars, the Martha’s Vineyard can carry around 49 cars, and the Island Home can carry around 58 cars. Accounting for the number of trips the vessels make per day during the summer, the SSA has a daily total vehicle capacity of 1,400, which decreases to 1,330 on weekends, since the Governor doesn’t operate during that time.
Meanwhile, the number of same-day cancellations and reservations has remained “fairly consistent” between 2021 and 2023, according to Davis. In 2023, the SSA saw on average around 90 same-day cancellations, with an average of around 61 same-day reservations. Vehicle sizes have also remained consistent, with average car sizes being around 15 feet long and average truck sizes around 40 feet long.
Among the various vessels, the Governor was the one that SSA personnel took a closer look at. “As much as everyone loves it, including staff, it’s the most problematic … in terms of what vehicle allocation it can hold,” Davis said.
While the Governor has seen a slight decrease in average number of vehicles on board, it has seen an overall increase in freight trips. The number of hazardous trips, which automobiles are not allowed on, has remained steady.
Davis pointed out how many cars can board a freight boat will depend on the number of trucks coming aboard.
When councilor and Tisbury representative John Cahill asked how the review could apply to other vessels in the SSA fleet, Davis pointed to the fact that loading vessels was a balancing act between the space available and the weight capacity. This was particularly an issue for the freight vessels. Davis said some of this shouldn’t be as much of an issue when the new vessels — the Aquinnah, the Barnstable, and the Monomoy — arrive.
Cahill continued by asking what can be done about shipping trucks that just don’t show up. SSA Treasurer Mark Rozum said there is a penalty in place for no-shows. Additionally, Rozum said, a company that cancels more than 20 percent of its bulk reservations may not be able to ride on the SSA ferries the following year. “Keep in mind, these shippers are booking … from October to next October. A year in advance, trying to forecast what their demand models are going to be,” Rozum said.
SSA shoreside operations director Allison Fletcher pointed out that only a couple of shippers were “notorious” for last-minute cancellations, since many companies cannot afford to take on the costs of cancellation.
In other Steamship news, officials report there have been 275 trips diverted in 2023 from the Oak Bluffs route to the Vineyard Haven route. This was a decrease from 2022, when 307 trips were diverted, and was within normal parameters for the number of diversions the SSA had experienced between 2014 and 2023, which ranged between 156 and 320 diversions. The only exception was in 2020, which saw an anomalous 1,658 diversions.
“We had issues with the dock in 2020, so that’s why more trips were diverted,” Davis said.
For cancellations, the report showed the number of cancellations has decreased on the Vineyard Haven route so far, with 326 cancellations (2023 data was from January to October). There were 352 cancellations in the whole of 2022 on the same route. The number of total cancellations on the Vineyard Haven route has been decreasing since the high of 2,231 cancellations in 2020. Meanwhile, the Oak Bluffs route was seeing a steady decline in cancellations until this year; cancellations spiked from 28 in 2022 to 71 in 2023.
Davis pointed out that cancellations due to mechanical issues have decreased over the past few years, which he said may be a “testament” to some of the changes the SSA made to its safety quality management system and better maintenance.
While overall trip cancellations stemming from mechanical issues have dropped overall on the Nantucket route since 2019, the same cannot be said for the Martha’s Vineyard routes. Mechanical cancellations have seen an upward trend for Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. The Vineyard Haven route has been seeing an increase in mechanical cancellations every other year, with 37 trip cancellations in 2019, and 73 in 2023. Oak Bluffs has seen an increase in issues since 2020, from no cancellations to 36 cancellations in 2023.
There has also been an upward trend in budgeted trips for the SSA since 2014. Davis said that the numbers show that even with the canceled and diverted trips, there were more ferries running the Oak Bluffs route in 2023 compared with 2014, 2015, and 2016. Meanwhile, September is the month with the most diversions, which Davis attributed to storms.
“We understand the impact that it has on our riders in terms of where they’re going to be going, but we need to make sure we’re operating that facility in a safe, safe manner, and if the tides or the winds aren’t cooperating, we need to divert,” Davis said.
Port Council chair and Oak Bluffs representative Joe Sollitto asked Davis how cancellations or diversions of vessels go up the “chain of command,” referencing the cancellations the SSA experienced from mechanical issues with the ferries on Nov. 1 and 2. Additionally, Sollitto asked how the public is notified about developing situations. For diversions, captains make the final decision, with input from the terminal manager.
Davis said whoever was on the deck of a vessel would report an issue to an engineer and the captain on board. This information would then be relayed to port engineers and port captains; then it gets disseminated to maintenance staff. Davis said the SSA will continue to look for a better process for sharing travel alerts to customers.
When Sollitto asked if people could be notified by radio about any changes to boats, Davis said the SSA does utilize radio by sending out information through the 1610 AM station. Electronic signs are also posted along Route 28 with parking information.