SSA Members Express Concern Over Troubled High Speed Ferry

By JULIA WELLS

After two years of breakdowns and mechanical problems on the high-speed ferry Flying Cloud, the Steamship Authority chief executive officer said last week that he had negotiated a nine-month extension on the warranty for the ferry's engine.

"Although the relationship is frayed and strained, the company continues to provide support," boat line CEO Fred C. Raskin told board members at the monthly SSA meeting on Nantucket.

The high-speed passenger ferry operates between Nantucket and Hyannis. Built two years ago at a cost of $8 million, the ferry has been plagued by so many mechanical problems that it has alternately earned the nicknames Black Cloud and Dying Cloud.

The latest breakdown came at the end of the busy July Fourth holiday weekend, when the ferry was taken out of service after a cylinder head failed.

The ferry is powered by Paxman 12VP-185 engines manufactured by a German company. Mr. Raskin has been haggling with the company over engine warranty issues since early summer. He told board members last week that there has been some dispute about whether the problems stem from the way the ferry is operated or whether they stem from workmanship problems in the engine.

He said the nine-month extension will give the boat line time to decide whether the engine needs replacement. If the boat must be repowered, Mr. Raskin said boat line managers will consider using a Detroit diesel engine. But he said the Detroit engine also is not tested and, under any circumstances, repowering will be costly.

"It could cost $1 million to repower, so the best of all worlds is to make these engines work," Mr. Raskin said.

In an incident earlier in the year the ferry lost power and ran into the rocks in Nantucket harbor, damaging the T-foil. A new T-foil had to be ordered from Tasmania.

At one point board members turned for advice to David Scudder, whose family owns Hy-Line Cruises in Hyannis and also the Grey Lady II, a private high-speed passenger ferry that operates the same route as the Flying Cloud. The Scudders are in the process of building a third new high-speed passenger ferry to replace the Grey Lady II. Mr. Scudder said they plan to use Caterpillar engines in the new ferry.

Mr. Scudder said the high-speed ferries require much more maintenance attention than conventional ferries: "It's like a race car; the wear and tear on the engine is much greater and you really have to pay attention to things."

Mr. Raskin agreed, warning the board that even new engines will not erase all the mechanical problems in the Flying Cloud. "It will get better, but you won't eliminate all the problems. It's like a Jaguar - when it's running it's great, but it spends a lot of time in the shop," he said.

In other business last week board members talked about moving forward on a number of projects, including the critical need to update the boat line's outdated web site and to develop a "real-time" reservation system, where automobile reservations are kept completely current through computer processing.

In the monthly financial report, Mr. Raskin said revenues continue to be up, but expenses are also up due to high legal fees associated with the lawsuit in federal court against the boat line by the city of New Bedford.

Total operating income at the end of May was $6.3 million, while total expenses were $5.65 million, leaving a net income gain of $677,000, or about $43,000 ahead of budget for the month. Net income at the boat line is about $1.8 million ahead of budget for the year. Legal expenses now stand at $822,338 for the year, with $443,674 attributable to the New Bedford lawsuit. The higher legal expenses were offset by savings associated with the elimination of the New Bedford freight run, Mr. Raskin said.

"I think it's going to be a good year," he said.