The Dukes County Commission took the rare step Friday of appealing to the full governing board of the Steamship Authority, calling events surrounding the incident in which the Sankaty slipped from its mooring this summer “extremely disturbing.”

“This is a huge safety concern – it could have occurred in any port utilized by the authority, and but for weather conditions and luck could have resulted in injury or worse. But it is not only a safety issue; the subsequent inadequate communication and lack of transparency speak to deep systemic problems in the organization,” the seven-member commission said in a letter signed by Chair Christine Todd.

The letter was addressed to the Robert Ranney, chairman of the Steamship Board, and the other members, with copies to the boards that appoint them.

Documents released last week by the Steamship Authority following a public records request reveal that the captain and crew of the M/V Sankaty were warned about securing the vessel three days before it broke free from its berth in Woods Hole on July 27.

On the day of the incident itself, three hours passed between the time the master of the MV/Nantucket noticed the Sankaty bow lines were insecurely fastened and when the ferry drifted 100 feet into a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute dock.

The internal documents, with names redacted, were provided to the Gazette after the Martha’s Vineyard Times filed a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, followed by a successful appeal to a state records attorney when the Steamship Authority was initially reluctant to provide crew members’ written statements.

James Malkin, Martha’s Vineyard’s representative on the authority’s governing board, has said the board was never given details of the investigation, calling it major lapse by senior management of the SSA.

“The only [prior] explanation seemed to be that a line slipped off...and a memo had been sent instructing people how to properly secure lines,” Mr. Malkin said Friday.

In a statement to the Gazette, SSA general manager Robert Davis denied that the authority intended to mislead the public or the board.

“The Steamship Authority’s decision to initially withhold employee statements regarding the July 27, 2023, incident was made to support and nurture the culture of openness that underpins our Safety Quality Management System, or SQMS. The success of the SQMS depends on the ability of employees to confidentially report hazards, issues, concerns, occurrences, and incidents, as well as to propose solutions and safety improvements,” Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Malkin doubled down on his comments Wednesday at the meeting of the Dukes County Commission, which appointed him to represent Islanders on the SSA. He said he intended to press the issue with the Steamship Authority board when it meets next week.

“There’s an issue of accountability, there’s an issue of transparency, there’s an issue of operational processes, there’s an issue of communicating proactively, not just to the communities we serve, but to the board and the port council,” he said.

Mr. Malkin distributed a timeline of the incident which he said he was given by Mr. Davis.

According to the timeline, the master of the Nantucket noticed that the bow lines of the Sankaty were not secured properly at 1:38 p.m. on July 27. The master called the port captain’s office 14 minutes later to report the concerns, and later texted photographs. The first of two bow lines slipped off the Sankaty at 4:49 p.m.

Three days earlier, on July 24, someone in the port captain’s office had advised the captain and crew of the Sankaty in person that they were not following standard operating procedures when securing the vessel in Woods Hole.

“I boarded the M/V Sankaty and had a conversation with Captain [name withheld] and Pilot [name withheld] about the SOP [standard operating procedure] for securing a vessel. I also stressed the importance of properly securing the vessel at the end of each day,” wrote the unnamed officer, adding that he also followed up by email.

The following day, the port captain’s office emailed a copy of a December 2021 memo detailing the proper procedures to the master of the Sankaty, according to the timeline.

Discussion of the incident occupied more than an hour of the Dukes County Commission meeting Wednesday. Commissioners expressed outrage over what they said was a lack of transparency by Steamship Authority management, and voted to send a letter to the chairman of the SSA governing board, Robert Ranney of Nantucket, outlining their concerns. They later agreed to send the letter to the other board members and to the select board in Nantucket, which appoints that Island’s representative.

"Underlying this is a crisis in confidence by the public,” said commissioner Peter Wharton. “We want to make sure that when these issues come along we are not left with the same level of opacity and stonewalling from the management side.”

“This last incident is a big deal,” said commissioner Don Leopold. “I’m concerned about the shake in public confidence, which is often shaken for not good reasons and this one strikes me as shaken for good reason.”

Pressed by commissioners about whether other members of the governing board shared his concerns about management, Mr. Malkin said he could not speak for them, but noted they have “different constituencies…different concerns.”

Nantucket, for example, has far fewer ferries than the Vineyard and uses the Steamship Authority as a boatline, while the Vineyard relies upon it more as a bridge.

The next regular meeting of the SSA board, originally scheduled for Nov. 21, has been rescheduled for Nov. 28 at 10 a.m. at its Palmer avenue headquarters in Falmouth, with online participation available.

Updated with details from the Commission’s letter and to give the rescheduled date for the next Steamship Authority board meeting.