Stalled and stuck — these days that might as well be the real acronym for the Steamship Authority. The Steamship Authority describes itself as the largest ferry service from Cape Cod to the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. But during the past months it has earned a new distinction. It’s now the ferry service most likely not to be in service. A ferry that has had to be ferried to shore after multiple breakdowns. Multiple, multiple breakdowns — more than 500 in just the first four months of the year.
Now normally a disruption in ferry service would be an inconvenience at best, an annoyance at worst. But the service the Steamship Authority provides is not just a ride, it’s an economic lifeline to workers both on and off the islands who use it daily. And it’s a treasured part of the journey for the thousands of summer visitors who flock to the island resorts in the summertime.
I’m often part of the summer crowds making the 45-minute trip to and from Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard. And as so many others have long described, I race onto the ferry in a state of stressed out frenzy and experience a kind of calm easing of tension during the crossing. The Steamship Authority is so representative of the image of Martha’s Vineyard that artist Gwyn McAllister used it in her design of Martha’s Vineyard specialty license plates.
Lots of people fly to the islands but it’s a less wallet-friendly alternative. There are also private boats at the docks which potentially could be rented. But the ferries are the only affordable and practical public transportation on and off the island. These large boats, which can carry about 1,200 passengers and 50 cars, are running seven days a week, 365 days a year. Wear and tear is frequent, and more than a few times I’ve been on a boat when there have been non-weather-related delays. But even after the many recent issues, it is pretty amazing that the 58-year-old agency has not had more operational problems.
Steamship employees manage the small problems, while Rhode Island contractor Senesco did major overhauls on the boats. Senesco oversaw the $18 million refurbishment of the boat named Martha’s Vineyard. That ferry returned to service only to stall out because of a series of mechanical problems. Seventy-two passengers got stuck for seven hours and many other trips were outright canceled.
In a letter to the Steamship Authority, state Sen. Julian Cyr and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes called for “more systemic action to restore public confidence.” Now facing a potential massive hit to summer tourism, Steamship Authority administrators are scrambling to attend to mechanical and management issues and quell public anxiety. I worry that the potential for a huge blow to the bottom line is looking a lot more likely.
There’s a cheery note on the Steamship Authority website that declares, “This season and every season traveling with the Steamship Authority to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket is the way to go.” I fervently hope that statement is more than aspirational.