The Steamship Authority’s general manager came to the Oak Bluffs select board this week to address several concerns the board had with the ferry line’s operations. 

Select board chair Gail Barmakian invited Robert Davis to the board’s Tuesday meeting after Oak Bluffs wasn’t notified about the potential of 41 North Offshore using the Steamship’s Oak Bluffs terminal to ship freight and heavy equipment to and from New Bedford.

The lack of communication kicked off a litany of complaints about the ferry line.

Select board member K. Mark Leonard asked Mr. Davis about the Steamship’s standard procedure for communicating with the towns. While Mr. Davis said that communications could be improved, he highlighted the fact that the Steamship’s board and the port council have monthly meetings open to the public. He added that the Steamship also had a public hearing regarding 41 North Offshore’s application.

“I acknowledge that it was a fail on my part to reach out,” Mr. Davis said. “We’ll work to make sure that going forward in these situations we will be able to have a better dialogue.”

The select board also raised concerns regarding the Steamship’s reservation system and website, both of which have been overloaded multiple times in recent years.

Updating the website and updating the reservation system are separate projects, according to Mr. Davis. The Steamship has had to delay the roll out of a new website and hopes to have it up in the fall. 

“It ended up being a little bit more complex in terms of all the rules that they need to be taking into account,” he said.

The Steamship is looking to also replace the reservation system, and Mr. Davis told the select board that a request for proposals is in development. The ferry line could solicit bids for the project later this year.

Mr. Davis added that a new reservation system will help the Steamship make more efficient use of the space on their ships.

“We have a category of trucks that could be anywhere from 35 feet to less than 55 feet. If we end up having a number of trucks booked for a boat and they’re only 40 footers, we’re going to be able to pick up a car space or two,” he said. 

The Steamship is looking to build a reservation system that can address those nuances.

According to Joe Sollitto, the Oak Bluffs representative on the Steamship Authority’s port council, the current reservation system dates back to 1998.

Select board member Dion Alley admonished Mr. Davis and the Steamship for not better prioritizing the reservation system before he went on to ask if the Steamship is able to keep up with the growth of Martha’s Vineyard given the ongoing crew shortage.

“Our needs are continuing to grow. We’ve got a larger senior population who require medical care that they can’t get on the Island. They have to get off the Island,” Mr. Alley said. “We have more people living on the Island now full time and require more freight and other things to keep the local economy going. Are we outstripping what the Steamship can actually manage?”

Mr. Davis replied that boats on the Vineyard route are around 85 per cent occupied, which he said is typical for the Steamship. He acknowledged that crew shortages have led the Steamship to change the operating schedule through September 5. 

Mr. Davis added that the Steamship has reached out to more maritime schools than usual this year to widen the pool of potential candidates and has offered incentives to current employees.

“We recognize that we have an aging workforce. We’ve been doing training courses in the offseason to be able to assist our mariners [rise through the ranks],” Mr. Davis said. “In the past, that always used to be something that was on the employees’ time. We recognize that we need to have some skin in the game, and that’s why we’ve been doing these classes.”

Ms. Barmakian told Mr. Davis that Steamship management should have foreseen these issues. 

Mr. Sollitto agreed.

“I think you have the same questions that I have,” Mr. Sollitto told the board. “They don’t anticipate problems. They react to problems.”