The records obtained by The Times from a Steamship Authority internal investigation into what caused the freight vessel Sankaty to become untethered from its Woods Hole slip certainly do not make the authority look good.
The statements from Steamship employees raise questions about the public’s safety, and highlight ongoing communication issues between SSA staff and management. They raise questions about adequate training. And that it took a reporter to unearth the internal investigation shows an utter lack of respect from the administration for the public that it serves.
In July, the 235-foot vessel drifted a short distance from its berth to a nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution dock. Thankfully, no one was on board at the time, and no one was hurt. There was only minimal damage to the vessel. In other words, the Steamship dodged a major bullet when the Sankaty came to rest on the dock, and didn’t decimate another boat, or even worse, get loose in the busy channel of Woods Hole, where small sailboats and kayaks are frequent and the tides unpredictable.
When speaking publicly following the incident, top brass were quoted as saying that one line slipped off a bollard, and the remaining lines subsequently came off because of windy conditions. In one public meeting, a Steamship employee was discouraged by leadership from answering questions on the subject, the reason being that the administration was still pulling together an internal review. Between the Steamship board and Port Council, the issue was brought up four times, but with minimal explanation.
What the Steamship records reveal is that more than one employee — through witness statements from this internal investigation — warned in the days before, even the day the boat drifted away, that the boat was not being properly secured. One employee reported that one of two bow lines securing the boat had a belly, meaning that it was slack, and not taut as it should be.
Still other employees testified that they told a captain the day the vessel broke loose that the lines were not properly secured; one warned that the Sankaty would come loose about two hours before it did; a captain was quoted as saying that the crew was making an adjustment, but it appears that did not happen.
The failures can be blamed on improperly securing the boat, which could be the result of poor training, bad management, or inadequate responsibility. Securing a boat properly is a boating basic. Either way, the public needs assurances that staff at the Steamship can properly secure a massive and expensive boat, and that management will oversee that it’s done properly. The internal investigation doesn’t exactly build confidence that this won’t happen again.
In the days following the incident, the Steamship said they have changed their procedures for securing boats, and increased training. But as the investigation found, there’s also an issue with communication, which has been an ongoing complaint against the Steamship administration for years.
In his September review by Steamship Authority board members, well before news of the internal investigation broke, the grades for General Manager Bob Davis varied from very good to very bad. On the poor end, this lack of communication was a concern. Vineyard representative to the Steamship board Jim Malkin criticized Davis for a lack of communication between Steamship staff, and a need to collaborate with other departments. The Sankaty mishap is yet another example.
The other major concern that the release of these documents made very clear is that the Steamship has little regard for public transparency. First, Steamship representatives did not know about the results of the internal investigation until it was published on our website on Nov. 8, more than three months after the incident. That’s after multiple meetings where representatives asked for an update and an explanation. There’s a massive difference between a line slipping off and what the internal investigation found. Slipping implies something random, and not indicative of a wider issue.
How is a board supposed to manage an institution when they don’t know what’s going on?
Second, the Steamship administration arguably tried to rebuff our efforts to obtain the documents. They rejected our first request on the grounds that the internal investigation was a personnel issue. That’s fine. We have no interest in outing a seaman for not properly securing a line. But we asked that the records be given to us with names redacted. It took the state records department just two days to rule in The Times’ favor, ordering the Steamship to comply.
Third is timing. Both the Port Council and Steamship board conducted their reviews of the general manager at the end of the summer, right around the time of the internal investigation. Is it a coincidence that the results of that investigation weren’t shared before the review, or is that a cover-up?
The purpose of a transparent government is to make improvements, which the Steamship needs. Keeping these facts in the dark bludgeons any efforts to make service more efficient and safe.
The information is now in the hands of the appointed officials who are charged with overseeing the Steamship. The board is scheduled to meet next week. We have heard from one board member — the Falmouth board member, Peter Jeffrey, who represents the port where the Sankaty came loose — who did not mince his words when he said that he has lost trust in the management. He’s asking that the board consider not renewing Davis’ contract. What the rest of the board will want to do is to be seen, but Jeffrey is right to be frustrated.