In the past few weeks, the Steamship Authority has struggled to maintain ferry service to Martha’s Vineyard. Its two large boats have suffered repeated mechanical issues, while another large ferry was undergoing a winter overhaul. A fast ferry was brought in to provide service in the meantime—and it’s gotten plenty of attention from ferry riders.
The ferry breakdowns left the entire vehicle reservation system pretty much in crisis mode. Island residents with travel plans, businesses with truck delivery schedules, and visitors in vehicles were put on hold as the Steamship Authority scrambled to fill the service gap with its remaining limited passenger capacity freight boats.
Marc Hanover, of Oak Bluffs, represents the Vineyard on the Steamship Authority board. “It’s been a nightmare,” Hanover said. “And it’s been unprecedented. The Steamship Authority has never had anything like this in the past, where two large boats have gone out at the same time.”
Hanover said he is well aware of the effect on truck deliveries.
“Oh, it’s been horrific,” he said. “I hate running out of anything, and we haven’t had the reliability of getting food. Last weekend I was supposed to get a large order on Friday, and it never came. [That means] going through your weekend, which is your busiest time, with half your product. And it’s not like you can run out and grab it from somewhere else. So it’s affecting everyone on the island, I’m sure.”
The life ring in this storm of trouble was the arrival of the fast passenger ferry Whaling City Express, operated by the SeaStreak company. In the summer months the company provides service from New York City and from New Bedford to both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. A little more than two weeks ago, the fast ferry began shuttling between Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole.
Monday afternoon at the Vineyard Haven terminal, regular commuters stood in line for the fast ferry, even as the recently returned ferry Martha’s Vineyard loaded vehicles and some passengers.
Tradesman Eric Fosser prefers the fast ferry for its speed and efficiency. “People come off, [new passengers] go right back on,” Fosser said. "There’s no waiting for cars to get off. The long wait just doesn’t happen.”
Edgartown water department superintendent Bill Chapman is a daily commuter from the mainland. “It saves a lot of time and just makes a lot of sense,” Chapman said. “It makes it a lot easier. The commute is much more bearable. If they put one of these in the rotation, it would make things easier for the commuters coming on the island. But equally so, it would make things more accessible to work off-island for people.”
Hanover struck a cautious note. “I understand it’s very popular, and we may look at it in the future,” Hanover said. “It’s certainly saving us right now.”
Hanover said it is not simply a question of adding service, given the complexities of crewing, capacity on existing boats, and cost. As to the future, Hanover says the Steamship Authority needs to take a good look at itself. He’s asking for a complete, outside assessment of operations.
“I want a fresh set of eyes on it to understand and see if we are doing it the best way possible,” Hanover said. “I was upset a few weeks ago before all this started, that the boats were leaving late. They were arriving late. It just didn’t seem to be as tight an operation as it should be. And obviously, with the interruptions in service now, we really have to look at the whole operation.”
One thing is certain. The experience of fast ferry service on the Woods Hole run has started a new conversation.