Steamship Authority Struggles After Power Outage, Ferry Delays

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A 2015 photo of the vessel Martha's Vineyard. The ship lost power the night of Saturday, March 17, 2018, but the cause is still under investigation. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
A 2015 photo of the vessel Martha's Vineyard. The ship lost power the night of Saturday, March 17, 2018, but the cause is still under investigation. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)

The Steamship Authority has been struggling to keep its ferries between Woods Hole and Martha's Vineyard on schedule due to a string of incidents, mostly recently when the vessel Martha's Vineyard lost power 15 minutes into its 45-minute trip Saturday night.

The ship left Vineyard Haven at 8:30 p.m. on its way from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole, but was forced to drop anchor at 8:45 p.m., said the authority. More than 70 passengers and the crew were on the boat, which was eventually towed back to Vineyard Haven at 2 a.m.

Mike Allen of Yarmouth was on the ferry Saturday after an afternoon of playing disc golf in a tournament on the Vineyard.

"Everything seemed like it was going normal," he said. "We were headed back to the Cape and we were going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day."

But 15 minutes into the ride, Allen said, "the power cut, lights went out, the captain came over the radio — and then we had some crew come up and tell us that it was a safety emergency, and then we actually helped pass out life preservers."

Allen said the crew told passengers to remain cautious and calm, and that they’d be drifting because the engines lost power. The generator kicked on, but, said Allen, there was no heat. He said he thinks the passengers and crew handled it well, given the circumstances.

"I’d never been in a situation like that — and so I didn’t know if we were going for a swim or not," he explained.

His friend Michael Hennen of Martsons Mills was traveling with Allen.

"We were kind of just floating out in the middle of the ocean for a while," he said.

The Coast Guard and three tugboats eventually towed the disabled ferry back to Vineyard Haven, the men said. Passengers were offered hotel rooms and a local offered to put Allen and Hennen up at her house.

Looking back, Hennen wishes the crew had provided more information. And like many he wants to know what caused the outage – especially because the 25-year-old ferry just completed a $18.5 million refurbishment.

"Whether it was a shorting in wiring, or something more mechanical-wise, I don’t know, but it seemed like they did have a clue as to what had happened from a previous repair," he said, adding, "I’m not sure."

As of Sunday late afternoon, Steamship Authority General Manager Robert Davis said it was too early to connect the vessel’s failure to its just completed mid-life refurbishment. The extensive renovations and upgrades included the replacement of two old generators with three new ones, as well an electrical panel.

"Until the inspections are completed by both our staff and the Coast Guard I think it would be premature to be speculating about that," he said.

Saturday night’s incident follows a grounding of another ferry last Thursday. That same vessel was out of service Friday and Saturday because of a separate operating error.

Davis acknowledges the effects that incidents like these are having on people who rely on the ferries.

"We’ve had a run here of a number of storms that have been causing some of the cancellations," he said. "We have some issues not only with the vessels, but also with some of the terminals as well, so we’re working on trying to get those all resolved and trying to provide the reliable service that the Islanders have come to depend upon."

Davis added that the Steamship Authority is looking into ways to maintain the public’s trust, and it's exploring how to keep travelers up-to-date beyond the postings and alerts on their website.

"I think we need to be doing a better job in terms of communicating what’s been going on with some of these storms and things like that," he said, "making sure notices are going out, to be able to let people know about service disruptions."

But some passengers are losing confidence, including Kara Yass of Westport, Connecticut. She has a house in Edgartown and explained on Sunday before boarding that she had waited hours for another delayed boat this past Friday afternoon.

"I had a 1 o’clock reservation and I got on a 4:45 boat," she said," so I stayed in Woods Hole from 12:00 to quarter of 5."

Even so, like a lot of people Yass is grateful she wasn’t stuck on a stranded ferry – out on the water – in the middle of a cold winter night.

As of Monday morning, the ferry to Martha's Vineyard was running normally, except for the 6 a.m. boat from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole, which was canceled.

This segment aired on March 19, 2018.


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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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