Crew shortage causes SSA cancellations

A deck officer was reportedly too ill to operate a freight vessel.

A crew shortage took out the Sankaty from the SSA schedule on Sunday. —Eunki Seonwoo

Updated March 6

One day before Island schools came back from February vacation, the Steamship Authority (SSA) was hit by cancellations throughout the day because of a crew shortage, prompting complaints from frustrated travelers. 

Approximately 150 vehicle reservations were impacted by Sunday’s cancellations, and the authority stopped accepting passengers in the standby line. 

According to an announcement from the SSA, an unexpected crewing issue took out the freight ferry Sankaty on the route between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard on Sunday, starting with the 11:05 am departure from the mainland and lasting the rest of the day. 

Steamship officials told The Times that a number of staff had called in sick on Sunday, which they were able to replace. But then additionally a deck officer was too ill to operate the Sankaty, resulting in the cancellations.

Jim Malkin, Island representative to the Steamship board, said that while there were 150 reservations impacted throughout the day, everyone who had a reservation who tried to get back to the Island on Sunday evening was able to do so.

But not necessarily everyone who wanted to get back that night did so. Sarah Toste and her school-aged son had reserved a spot on the 6:30 ferry after traveling for the school break. But when she got to the Woods Hole terminal, and with little assurance from the Steamship that she would get on a boat that night, she decided to book a hotel in Falmouth. With a child going to school the next morning, she didn’t want to gamble waiting until the last ferry, only to get turned down.

For Toste, the frustration comes down to a lack of communication. While she did receive a note that there were cancellations, she said that it was unclear if her reservation had been canceled. And arriving at the terminal, while she noted that Steamship staff were very nice, she said that not having a clear plan for when she might get on a ferry was frustrating.

“It’s cold, it’s dark and you’re hungry and you just want to get home,” Toste said. “To be told that you don’t know is unacceptable.”

Lasell University student Kayleigh Bollinand was among those impacted as well. She was traveling with her mother and sister, a high schooler trying to get back for school. 

“It just makes me worried, because I have spring break next week,” Bollin said. She added that it felt “ridiculous” that one person calling in sick could derail the ferry schedule, and the SSA should develop a backup plan. 

Malkin noted that he fielded several complaints from passengers following Sunday. But he says that everyone who had a reservation was notified of the cancellations; although he noted that some notifications may have gone to a spouse who ordered the tickets rather than the travelers. 

Malkin also noted that it can be difficult for staff at the terminal to line up trips when there are cancellations, especially when some travelers may decide to book a hotel instead. He said that can be particularly problematic in the summer with more passengers. 

As for the crew shortage, SSA communications director Sean Driscoll told The Times vessels have manning requirements, and crew members have mandatory rest periods set by U.S. Coast Guard regulations. This can limit the number of people available to replace an absent crew member. Typically, the Sankaty requires seven crew members to operate. In terms of union contracts, Driscoll also said that the overall manning requirements in the SSA’s labor agreement do not exceed the Coast Guard’s regulations. 

Driscoll also pointed out that other industries also have federally mandated rest periods for certain employees, such as airline pilots and firefighters. 

When a crew member can’t make it in, Driscoll said the SSA’s fleet operation personnel call crew members to find a substitute. But they had no luck on Sunday.

The Steamship did provide free parking for anyone who decided to stay over Sunday night.

On Sunday, the SSA told customers with reservations on the affected trips they should contact their terminals to be “lined up for travel on a space-available basis.” 

“Any affected customers who wish to travel as a passenger today may park their vehicles for free tonight at Palmer Avenue, and return on Monday to bring their cars back,” the announcement reads. “Please provide proof of your reservation on a canceled trip to receive the free parking.” 

Driscoll said some people opted to park in the Palmer Avenue parking lot, but he did not have a number of how many of the impacted customers chose to do so.

The Sankaty resumed service on Monday with the 6:30 am departure from Woods Hole. 

Sam Houghton contributed to this report.


  1. I don’t know if it’s Coast Guard regulations or mismanagement in the SSA, but I don’t understand why the SSA has so much trouble retaining employees. When I washed ashore in 1984 those were coveted jobs. You usually didn’t get one unless you knew someone.

    • Hess, great point. We would lose a lot of our employees when Amazon would open a new facility within a 10 mile radius. I would have to go to my clients and explain why we are losing our people and the only way to stop the bleeding was to match what Amazon was paying. Capitalism at its finest.

      • But the wind farm is going to drive down the price real estate causing a collapse of local government. Capitalism at its finest.

  2. SSA has a standby line for vehicles but no “standby list” for crew to sail? A simple fix, create an “on call” list for employees.

  3. How about implementing a new system for employees. Try a On call list where you are paid half time for a set of hours where you must be available to come in if needed where you then are paid at regular hourly rate. The on call means that you will not be able to drink alcohol or use recreational drugs as you may be going to work.
    You could also let the staff have those hours worked as comp time which they are able to save for sick time, vacation or pay, this might be an incentive to do on call.
    Just a thought that was used when I was in California with the County.

    • Brenda, you ideas are good
      Just to clarify if you hold a coast guard licence or work on a vessel like a ferry you can’t use recreational drugs at any time ever because you are subject to random drug tests
      This is one reason why finding crew members is so difficult

    • You have done the easy part.
      You have identified the problem.
      Do you have a one word solution?

  4. My son and I showed up for our 6:30pm Sunday reservation and had no idea there were cancellations until the boat left without us. We had to rely on the kindness of others in line to learn what was happening. Despite being signed up for email alerts, my inbox showed no evidence of communication from the SSA about the cancellations. The energy around us was that of confusion and frustration, like us, many people had no notice of the cancellations and no communication about a plan for getting on a boat. Since there was no guarantee we would make it home that night we ended up in a hotel, an unplanned expense. Thankfully, we made it back on the 7am boat (which left late) and my son was on-time for his first day back to school after break. It’s disappointing that the Steamship Authority has become unapologetically unreliable and is no longer trustworthy as the “lifeline” to the islands.

    • As bad as Spirt Airlines?
      Jet Blue?

      Do you remember what the Island was like before the State set up the SSA?
      Should the SSA have unbridled competition?
      Leave Island transportation to the free market.
      We had that, it didn’t work out.

  5. If only the SSA didnt succumb to the ridiculous and unconstitutional implementation of the Covid Vaccine mandates. Staffing wasnt a problem in the past; in fact, SSA jobs were coveted.

    • If the Covid mandates are unconstitutional why did the refuseniks fail to sue for their Rights?
      Staffing was not a problem during Covid.
      How many SSA refuseniks found employment in a CG licensed job?
      Staffing is now a problem everywhere.
      The major impact on SSA staffing is the windfarm.
      Lots of 120k+ a year boat jobs for guys, or girls, with no more than GED.
      The biggest impact on the Island will in real estate prices.
      The Wind Farm workers will be able afford to have summer places on the Island.
      They will enjoy siting on their porches watching the light houses and wind turbine clearance lights.
      They will be joyed by being able to see the means of production of electricity being consumed by their inground pools.

    • Mike– how many people were actually denied jobs because
      of their refusal to be vaccinated ?
      How many people don’t even bother to apply for these jobs
      because they can be fired if they fail the pee test for a legal
      drug that they may have had a hit of at a party 5 days ago ?
      You can quit beating that horse about the covid mandate —
      trust me it is really positively dead.
      Now, of course, you can keep things running for a bit
      longer, as this article didn’t say what the illness of the crew
      members was– given so many , one might think it was
      something contagious–
      Here’s an opportunity for you to speculate that they all
      had covid and “prove” to us the
      vaccines never worked to begin with.
      Good luck !

    • Mike, some restaurant bathrooms have little signs saying that restaurant workers must wash their hands before returning to work. Is that a ridiculous and unconstitutional mandate?

Comments are closed.