SSA board split over Sankaty handling

No action was taken this week, but the discussion is expected to continue into January. 

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A belly seen in one of the Sankaty's lines, a part of the improper securing of the vessel. —Courtesy of SSA

Steamship Authority (SSA) board members had varying responses following new details released on the untethering of the freight vessel Sankaty, reported earlier this month

While some members said they felt misled by management following the incident, others said that a lesson has been learned, and they’re moving on. No action was taken during a meeting on Tuesday.

While it was initially reported by the SSA that lines slipping and bad weather caused the Sankaty to drift from its slip in July, a public records request initiated by The Times revealed that staff had informed officials that the vessel had not been properly secured days before. 

Since the new information was reported, board members who spoke with The Times said they were unaware about the new details, and the Dukes County Commission voiced its concerns over the findings. 

SSA General Manager Robert Davis, in his first public statements since the documents were released, said that the authority was not trying to cover up what happened. He pointed to “more than four hours of video,” and “hundreds of pages of investigation documents,” delivered to several media outlets, and how the SSA addressed the investigation and corrective actions during public meetings. 

Additionally, Davis said the “root cause” of the Sankaty incident remains that the crew and captain failed to properly secure the vessel. 

“At the Steamship Authority, we’re committed to transparency,” Davis said. “Yet, we also have a responsibility to maintain employee confidentiality.” 

Davis said confidential reporting of possible “issues, hazards, and incidents” is the foundation of the authority’s safety quality management system (SQMS). This is why unredacted versions of employees’ statements were initially withheld from the media, according to Davis.

SSA Martha’s Vineyard representative Jim Malkin and Falmouth representative Peter Jeffrey were the most critical of the Sankaty incident at Tuesday’s meeting. They were particularly concerned over the fact the board was not told the SSA had received word about issues with the Sankaty days before it broke away. 

“I was not aware, nor do I believe that our Port Council members were aware, that three days prior to the Sankaty breaking loose, the authority was aware the boat was not secured properly,” Malkin said, adding that he relies on information from SSA managers when making decisions. Malkin underscored he found out staff had reported the improper securing through an MV Times article, and not the SSA. He noted that he was asked by several people whether he was aware about the details in the story before he even read it. 

Malkin relayed that the Dukes County Commission requested the board take corrective action. The commission sent a letter to the Steamship, asking, among other things, to take corrective steps “necessary to restore the trust in Steamship Authority management that this community has lost.”

Jeffrey said his appointing authority, the Falmouth Select Board, was also “very concerned” about the transparency surrounding the Sankaty’s untethering. 

“In terms of the incident itself, we are exceptionally lucky nobody was hurt, killed, or any real property damage outside of the Steamship Authority,” Jeffrey said. “We’re talking about the height of summer in Great Harbor. This could have been an absolute disaster. And this is my home port … I can’t get over how angry I still am about the fact that we knew about this for three days.” 

Jeffrey said there were multiple opportunities for the improper procedures to be addressed before the incident happened. 

“I think a lot of credit should be given to the master of the MV Nantucket and his persistence in trying to report this problem,” he said. “If you think confidentiality is the core of the SQMS, I think it’s more listening to the people who reported it.”

Jeffrey added that even if confidentiality was an issue, SSA management should have given the full details to the board, whether that be through redacted employee statements or via executive session. 

A couple of board members came to the SSA leadership’s defense, saying they did not feel “misled” by what was shared with them. 

“The comment that the board was misled does not apply to me at all,” SSA New Bedford representative Moira Tierney said. “I never felt misled in any manner whatsoever by our board, and felt perfectly satisfied with the management actions that were taken.” 

SSA chair and Nantucket representative Robert Ranney said he would have approached Davis, the port captain’s office, and others in senior management if he felt misled. “I would not have waited to read about it in some other fashion,” Ranney said, continuing that the port captain’s office should have made more of an effort to address the issue. “But we’re learning from this, we’re moving on, and I think that’s where it stands.” 

SSA Barnstable representative Robert Jones took a more neutral stance, describing the issue as a “complicated maze.” However, he said the incident itself was simple, and didn’t even “raise the eyebrows” of the U.S. Coast Guard. 

“It’s unfortunate, it’s unacceptable, but I don’t go to the what could’ve happened, what might’ve happened scenarios that I hear floating around … I look at what happened,” Jones said. 

Jones did say that he was upset to find out the additional information through the newspaper, and improvements needed to be made so the board receives the necessary information. 

“I’m not letting anybody off the hook, but I’m not a headhunter,” he said, later adding that compared with some other incidents the SSA had experienced before, the Sankaty’s untethering just needed a correction. 

After further discussion, the board agreed to continue the discussion, including considerations of the Dukes County Commission’s request, at a January meeting. 

Meanwhile, the SSA also plans to adopt new protocols to communicate with the board about public records requests. 

Representatives from local entities were also present during the Tuesday morning meeting, like Dukes County Commissioner James Klingensmith and a staff member from State Sen. Susan Moran’s (D-Falmouth) office.