Next Tuesday will be different.

That was the pledge from the Steamship Authority this week after a series of website problems marred the opening day for online summer reservations on the Nantucket route, sparking ire and frustration among customers.

On Tuesday, Jan. 17, many would-be Nantucket travelers wound up stuck online for hours trying to book their car reservations for the coming summer.

“People were unable to get through the [online] waiting room,” SSA communications director Sean Driscoll told the Gazette a day later. “At the end of the day the reservations were made but it’s not much comfort to say that,” he added.

Online summer reservations on the Vineyard route are due to open Tuesday Jan. 24 at 5 a.m. Before that happens though, Mr. Driscoll said the boat line is determined to root out the source of the problems experienced this week for Nantucket and correct them. He said he could confirm that the problems were all internal and not due to any external event such as a cyber attack — but beyond that there were no details.

“As soon as we know more about what happened yesterday and what we have to do to fix it, we will be transparent and loud about that so people can be confident going into Tuesday,” Mr. Driscoll told the Gazette by phone Wednesday.

Sometimes likened to Black Friday, opening day is when summer vacationers queue up online to book their ferry passage for the peak-season travel months. (Telephone and walk-in reservations will not open until Jan. 31.)

But data provided by Mr. Driscoll shows that a substantial number of advance reservations have already been booked for the summer. The reason is the increasing numbers of people enrolled in the Head Start program, which allows customers with preferred excursion status to book reservations even earlier. Head Start reservations opened last week and closed on Jan. 16.

Preferred excursion status is available for year-round Islanders and Island property owners.

Like so many things with the boat line, the details of the Head Start program are arcane and require a careful reading of the fine print. The program was expanded this year, allowing customers to book up to 10 advance reservations (previously the number was five). And since rules allow 10 reservations per person — not per profile number — Mr. Driscoll said theoretically two people with the same profile number could book 20 reservations. The rule also allows for three reservations to be booked in another person’s name.

“So if my mom is coming I could book reservations for her,” Mr. Driscoll said, explaining the rationale.

Freight shippers also are allowed to book bulk reservations for their trucks ahead of time.

According to Mr. Driscoll, Head Start reservations are up this year about 29 per cent for car reservations and about 18 per cent for trucks.

How many spots are actually available? In raw numbers, for the period between May 15 and Oct. 23, there are 360,569 spaces still available on the five ferries that ply the Vineyard route, he said. (The boat line counts each space on the ferry as a one-way “segment”.) The number accounts for spaces in both directions and is based on the number of trips allocated and active in the reservation system, Mr. Driscoll explained. It does not include what’s already been booked for trucks through the bulk booking. It also does not include Head Start reservations, preferred spaces and space allocated for dollies and luggage carts, he said.

With the Head Start numbers up this year, Mr. Driscoll said: “It portends there is significant interest.”

But he added that the number of advance reservations would most likely be down from last year. "Last year we had historic numbers, so we very probably will not match last year’s high," he said.

Nantucket bookings on opening day were about flat with last year — coming in at roughly 9,000 reservations, he said.

As for ferry traffic this winter, without using hard numbers Mr. Driscoll confirmed that it has taken on a calmer pace compared with the past two years.

“We’ve kind of normalized into a pre-pandemic year,” he said. “Some of those Covid traffic patterns have started to dissipate . . . beyond that it’s hard to read the tea leaves.”

But for now, at the SSA it’s all hands on deck for Tuesday.

General reservations open at 5 a.m., but Mr. Driscoll reminds customers there is no advantage in trying to go online before that hour.

“We will have a virtual waiting room, but there is no advantage to getting up and camping out ahead of five o clock,” he said. “It will be busy — even when everything goes great, there will be a wait. And people who don’t get their reservations should remember to book on the wait list. People will cancel — this early, you will get an excellent chance of hitting your days. The wait list is one of our best and most talked about features.”