Breakdown at SSA Continues to Grate on Those Stranded

By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer

As the Steamship Authority launched post-mortems on its performance when two freight boats failed last Saturday night, the experience has continued to rankle with visitors, some of whom waited up to 12 hours to leave the Vineyard.

"It was horrible," said Meg Evans of Warrington, Pa., who waited in Woods Hole from 6:45 a.m. Sunday to 6 p.m. later that day to board a ferry after her initial reservation was cancelled. "We're not coming back to the Vineyard because of the Steamship Authority."

SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said Wednesday that boat line employees did the best they could, given the uncertainty about when vessels would be able to come back into service, or when the MV Governor could be brought in as a backup vessel from the Authority's facility in Fairhaven.

Mr. Lamson said the failure Saturday evening of the Sankaty, followed by the failure of the Katama, stranded about 200 people Saturday evening and Sunday morning - 100 people each in Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole. On the freight ferry Sankaty, the problem was traced to a failed generator; a problem in the reduction gears on the freight ferry Katama led the SSA to take that vessel off-line as well.

On Saturday, a number of people spent the night sleeping on the beach next to the Vineyard Haven terminal or in their cars. People on Sunday spent hours in the terminal parking lot waiting to leave.

Mr. Lamson said Wednesday that he welcomed how a number of Authority employees stepped up to get the vessels working again and to coordinate their return to service. He said the staff has been reviewing the boat line's performance during the outage and seeing what steps, if any, could have been taken to clear out the backlog on the Vineyard route more quickly.

But the major complaint coming from a number of people left stranded by the failed vessels was not about the resumption of service - but rather about the lack of communication about the resumption of service.

"There was no effective distribution of information," said Monica Touesnard of Ithaca, N.Y., who with her husband was stranded overnight when their 11 p.m. departure was cancelled. "You had to go and seek out the information."

"There was no information," said Ms. Evans, who was traveling with her mother, her husband, and their three children, ages six, four and two. "No one apologized. More than one employee got combative."

At 6:45 a.m. Sunday, she was directed by an SSA employee into Lane 10 at the Vineyard Haven terminal to await the scheduled departure at 7:15.

No boat line employee said anything about vessel failures, she said. The first inkling that something was amiss came when she looked across the parking lot and saw her sister in law, Cathy Valinoti of Red Bank, N.J., waiting with a group of other travelers and their vehicles in another section of the terminal parking lot. She knew that Ms. Valinoti had been scheduled to leave on a ferry late the previous evening.

Mr. Lamson said Authority employees at the Vineyard Haven terminal, and across the water at the Woods Hole terminal, could not speak to the issue of resumption of full service because relevant facts, such as when the Governor would be coming onto the route, remained in flux for a large part of the outage.

The Sankaty's cancelled trips on Saturday were the 7:45 and 10 p.m. trips from Woods Hole and the 8:45 and 11:00 p.m. trips from Vineyard Haven.

The Katama discovered the problem with its reduction gears on the last trip of the evening back to Woods Hole. The vessel missed all seven scheduled round-trips on Sunday before coming back into service at the start of the day on Monday.

The MV Governor came from Fairhaven to go into service in Woods Hole about 2 p.m. Sunday. The vessel, staffed by the Katama crew, made four round-trips on Sunday to help with the backlog from the Katama.

But circumstances surrounding the arrival of the Governor just threw more salt into the Evans family's wound.

When the Governor appeared in Vineyard Haven, Ms. Evans wrote in a letter to the Authority, the boat line changed its policy.

"Instead of clearing the backlog, they decided to let those passengers with reservations for 1:30 p.m. board the boat," she wrote in a letter dated Tuesday to Gina L. Barboza, the reservations and community relations manager for the boat line. "The 1:30 group was no different from the 11 p.m, the 7:15 a.m. or the 9:45 a.m. group - the boat for that time was out of service. Instead of making them join the backlog, the Steamship Authority ‘resumed the schedule.'"

Last night, Mr. Lamson said boat line policy calls for slotting a replacement vessel into the original schedule, such that it takes over for the failed vessel from that point forward - in this case, picking up the people with 1:30 p.m. reservations. To move people ahead onto the Governor whose reservations previously had been cancelled, he said, would create a domino effect of delays into future reservations.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Lamson said the SSA could have pressed its two large ferries on the route, the Martha's Vineyard and the Islander, into service with extra trips early Sunday morning to eat into the backlog.

Under Coast Guard rules, however, using the same crews who already had been working on the vessels would have required those crews to stand down for part of Sunday's regular schedule, creating a new problem. The boat line did not come up with volunteers to staff extra runs early Sunday morning.

Asked why the reservations center did not notify people scheduled to leave Sunday that their reservations might be in jeopardy, Mr. Lamson said the Authority does not staff the center on a 24-hour basis.

Earlier this week, he estimated that the boat line's extra personnel costs over the weekend came in between $2,500 and $3,500.

Bridget Tobin, who manages the Island terminals in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, referred questions about the weekend to senior management in Woods Hole. Kevin Smith, who manages the Woods Hole terminal, could not be reached for comment.

On Wednesday, Mr. Lamson said the terminal managers in these situations are caught in the middle between customers who are frustrated and senior managers who are trying to draft a plan on the fly.

Mr. Lamson said all travelers and their vehicles whose reservations had been displaced Saturday evening or Sunday morning had reached the Vineyard by 6 p.m. Sunday, or had reached Woods Hole by the end of the evening Sunday.

Passengers are faulting the boat line for its customer service during the outage.

Ms. Touesnard said Authority employees were conspicuous in not sharing with the passengers what was going on, or what might happen in the coming hours.

"It was very frustrating," she said.