Boat Line Considers Merchandise Sales

By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer

The elusive Holy Grail of supplemental Steamship Authority revenue - the marketing of Authority cups, glasses, T-shirts and other marine-related items - reappeared Tuesday at the monthly boat line meeting in Oak Bluffs.

Nantucket governor Flint Ranney proposed issuing a request for proposals to market Authority-branded items.

"I think we're missing the boat," Mr. Ranney said about the SSA's mostly nonexistent efforts.

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In mounting his initiative, Mr. Ranney was walking in the footsteps of his Nantucket predecessor, the late Grace Grossman, who tried for years to get the boat line to sell Authority-related gifts.

In other action at a wide-ranging two-hour meeting, held for the first time in the Oak Bluffs Public Library, the board discussed how to proceed with the sale of the fast ferry Flying Cloud, reviewed capital projects including the ferry Island Home, and learned of proposed winter and spring 2007 schedule changes.

Authority chairman Robert Marshall of Falmouth declared himself impressed by the town library.

"This is a building far nicer than we're used to," Mr. Marshall said. "You keep treating us like this, we'll be here every month."

On the subject of merchandising, Mr. Marshall said he agreed the boat line is missing a huge revenue source.

But Mr. Marshall said the SSA should hire a marketing firm to advise the boat line how to proceed - what general counsel Steven Sayers called "a plan to make a plan."

General manager Wayne Lamson agreed that the boat line lacks expertise in that arena.

Questions that need to be explored, Mr. Lamson said, include whether the Authority itself or its retail food concession holder, Boston Culinary Group, would sell the items.

Under an amended motion passed 5-0 by the governors, boat line managers will return at next month's meeting in Hyannis with a proposal to bring in a marketing firm to draft a plan for selling merchandise.

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During the discussion, New Bedford governor David Oliveira recommended that the research involve asking nonprofits such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution how they pursue their merchandising efforts.

Barnstable governor Robert O'Brien said while they are at it, the Authority should explore getting a new logo.

Also during Tuesday's meeting, the board mulled how to best structure the sale of the Flying Cloud so as to get the most money. The high-speed passenger ferry operates on the Hyannis-Nantucket route.

The governors leaned toward a recommendation by Mr. Sayers that the boat line establish a minimum bid for the vessel in its current condition and location, and then accept the highest bid over that amount.

Mr. Sayers cited a hypothetical minimum sales price of $10 million, which he also said might be a reasonable price for the vessel, which received new engines earlier this year. Since the installation of the engines, which cost $1.5 million, Mr. Sayers said, the vessel has not had a mechanical breakdown.

Optimism was evident among board members that the Flying Cloud could fetch a good price.

The boat line plans to replace the vessel with the fast ferry Iyanough, now under construction at the Gladding-Hearn shipyard in Somerset.

Mr. Marshall said the Authority has spent a lot of time, effort and energy to renovate the Flying Cloud, nicknamed the Dying Cloud for its propensity to break down.

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"We've made a good boat out of it," Mr. Marshall said, adding: "If we don't act to maximize the purchase price on it, shame on us."

Mr. Lamson said the SSA has placed advertisements in trade journals that the vessel will be sold later this year. Prospective buyers, a number of whom are starting high-speed ferry services, have gotten in touch with him about the vessel.

Other potential buyers cited by Mr. Sayers and Vineyard governor Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs included a new Boston-Salem line and a ferry operation at San Francisco Bay.

Mr. Marshall bristled when Authority meeting habitué Arthur Flathers of Vineyard Haven suggested that the sale of the vessel would run into trouble because of the Flying Cloud's two-engine configuration. Unlike a four-engine ferry, the breakdown of a single engine on the Flying Cloud renders the vessel inoperable.

"We don't want to go there," Mr. Marshall said. "That kind of discussion serves no purpose."

During the meeting, Carl Walker, the SSA director of engineering, discussed the progress of construction on the Island Home and the Iyanough.

The VT Halter Marine shipyard in Moss Point, Miss., is building the Island Home, a double-ended ferry slated to replace the Islander in late November on the Vineyard run. Mr. Walker said the final module on Island Home, the pilot house for the Martha's Vineyard end, is scheduled to be installed on the vessel next week.

Halter plans to launch the Island Home in a side launch on July 21, and then complete the rest of the vessel.

"It will be set on sliding ways that slide down, and the vessel will be thrown into the water. It tips over, comes back a couple of times, and it rights itself," Mr. Walker said. Then, he said, the workers tie up the vessel and finish the work.

The planned launch method gave Mr. Ranney pause.

"On that kind of launch, has it ever..?" he asked, his question trailing off to laughter in the room.

"Keep going," Mr. Walker instructed the slide projectionist.

Although the engines and most of the vessel structure is complete, Mr. Walker estimates nearly half the work remains.

There are still many hours of work to go on the Island Home, Mr. Walker said. "Outfitting is a huge job."

Mr. Walker said work also is moving along on the Iyanough in Somerset. Generators and water jets are being installed on the vessel, with the engines ready for installation.

He reviewed two more capital projects: the installation of wider boarding ramps and gangways at the Woods Hole terminal, and the construction of a maintenance building at the Authority facility in Fairhaven.

Mr. Walker said the Woods Hole gangway will be six feet wide and ramps seven feet wide so as to allow two people to walk side-by-side. Below the gangway, one ramp will be used by people leaving the ferry, with another ramp by people waiting to board the ferry. The idea is to speed the passenger unloading and loading of the vessel.

The wider ramps and gangways are being prepared at the aft section of the wharf next to the Authority headquarters building. Mr. Walker said the Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Eagle and Island Home all will be able to use the new ramps.

The narrower gangway and ramp structure at the forward section of the ramp will remain in place for the time being for use with the Islander, which can't accommodate the new gangway and ramps. A wider ramp and gangway will be installed there following the retirement of the Islander.

A similar project is planned for Vineyard Haven later this year. The boat line has budgeted $170,000 for each installation.