After more than a decade of wrangling which threatened to see the historic tall ship the Shenandoah removed from Vineyard Haven harbor, the ship’s owners and the Steamship Authority have reached an agreement which will allow the vessel to stay.
In deference to concerns held by SSA captains that the old ship presented a collision hazard to ferry operations, the owners, Black Dog Tall Ships, have agreed to move Shenandoah’s mooring within the harbor, to which it has added picturesque maritime charm since 1964.
Remarkably, considering the long history of animosity between the two companies, agreement was reached after only about a month and three meetings, following a decision by Tisbury’s newest selectman, Geoghan Coogan, to try to broker peace.
And peace, in the end, did not involve anyone having to concede a lot of ground — only about 50 feet, in fact.
Big battles, though, are often fought over small things and this one, at least in terms of its duration, amounted to drawn-out trench warfare.
The dispute’s exact beginning is hard to establish, but perhaps the best place to start is in 1998, when the Army Corps of Engineers formally permitted the vessel’s current mooring — right where it had already been for 34 years — but with the rider that if the SSA found the position affected its operations, the boat line could seek to have the ship moved.
Now, for the most part, the Shenandoah posed no problem, notwithstanding the fact that in October 1970, there was a collision in which the ferry Islander ploughed into Shenandoah. A sudden, dense fog was blamed for that accident.
But occasionally, perhaps three to five days in 100, some SSA captains complained that strong southeasterly winds caused the Shenandoah to swing on her mooring line, so she got in their way as they were preparing to dock.
It was for that reason that they sought the rider on the permit, according to SSA general manager Wayne Lamson.
But it was not until early 2006 that Mr. Lamson first raised the problem with the owners. “I had started getting letters from the captains of ferries saying they had to cancel this trip or that trip because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to make the docking with the Shenandoah in the way,” Mr. Lamson said.
There followed a series of meetings, with the Tisbury selectmen, the Coast Guard and the Army Corps.
“Right after that I got a letter from their attorney saying they were willing to put reflectors on the vessel and hoping that would satisfy our concerns,” Mr. Lamson said. “That’s as far as they were willing to go.”
Then, in November last year, the Army Corps, at the SSA’s urging, wrote to Shenandoah’s owners, insisting she be moved at least a boat length – that’s 108 feet – away from the channel.
Morgan Douglas, general manager of Black Dog Tall Ships, claimed that demand could not be met without “so drastically shortening the schooner’s chain, it would be a sitting duck” in bad weather, or removing other moorings to accommodate a repositioned Shenandoah, or taking her “out of the harbor altogether.”
Both sides dug in.
In January this year, according to Mr. Douglas, the Army Corps wrote again, seeking comment from local officials, primarily the town’s harbor master, Jay Wilbur.
“There was no response to that request from anyone in the town,” he said.
“The Army Corps came to me then and said I had an opportunity to avoid them making a ruling, which could result in the Shenandoah’s mooring being removed altogether,” he said.
“Then I would have to appeal that removal, hire lawyers, spend thousands and thousands of dollars and still face an unknown situation,” he said.
Enter Mr. Coogan.
As the lawyer and new selectman (elected in April) explained this week: “One of first meetings I attended, I saw a letter from SSA to Black Dog, which was requesting the Corps to intervene because the SSA had not got any response from the Black Dog.
“The board of selectmen mentioned it, but I remember us sort of saying, ‘It’s in their laps now.’
“It didn’t make sense that we as a town could potentially have lost them from the harbor over what seemed essentially not that big of a problem,” Mr. Coogan said.
So he met — once — with Mr. Douglas.
“Then I reached out to [SSA general counsel] Steve Sayers, whom I’ve dealt with previously, lawyer-to-lawyer, and who is on the ball,” Mr. Coogan said.
“He came right back; within a week or two we were sitting down with the Black Dog people....
“The issues were ironed out pretty quickly.”
The compromise was simple. The two sides would split the difference over how far the Senandoah would be moved, and split the cost of moving it.
Said Mr Sayers: “It’s all common sense. But you could have knocked me over with a feather when I got this email from Geoghan Coogan saying he wanted to try to resolve this thing. It was very welcome news after all these years.
“The process is that the Douglases will present new drawings to their permit, showing the relocated moorings and the swing radiuses.... Then we present that as a joint request to the Army Corps, asking for a voluntary modification.
“It will be moved hopefully by the end of the year,” Mr. Sayers said.