Senior managers at the Steamship Authority knew months in advance that the starboard engine on the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi was likely to fail, the Gazette has learned.

A professional marine survey prepared for the boat line three months ago reported in some detail on the worn condition of the engine. "The machinery, especially the starboard engine, is approaching the end of its useful life, with major overhaul due. The generators are of older vintage. Spare parts will be scarce," wrote Michael L. Collyer, a marine surveyor with Marine Safety Consultants Inc. The Fairhaven company prepared a condition survey report on the Schamonchi in early March of this year.

The marine survey was discovered by the Gazette during a recent examination of the public records at the boat line in connection with the Schamonchi purchase.

The marine survey stands in stark contrast with recent public statements put out by the boat line about the engine failure that put the Schamonchi out of service for the better part of a week barely after the summer season began. Among other things, SSA general manager Armand Tiberio said the engine failure took the boat line by surprise, and he said the SSA will not really know the state of the engines until this winter, when the boat is hauled for maintenance. He said the boat line had not received any maintenance records from the previous owner.

But in fact, the age and number of hours on the starboard main engine were available to Mr. Tiberio in his own marine survey. The engine was last replaced in 1979 and ownership estimates put the engine hours at over 40,000, the survey reported. The engine had had one cylinder and liner replaced recently, Mr. Collyer found.

Mr. Tiberio did not return repeated telephone calls from the Gazette yesterday.

Conflicting public and private reports over the Schamonchi come as the boat line board of governors is set to begin formal discussion about replacing the Schamonchi with a high-speed passenger ferry, less than six months after the boat was purchased. The first public discussion about the high-speed replacement project for the Schamonchi will be held at the monthly boat line meeting in Vineyard Haven on Thursday morning.

The SSA bought the Schamonchi from Janet Thompson in January for $1.6 million. The worn-out condition of the Schamonchi engine led some sources to believe the Steamship Authority overpaid for the vessel. Public documents at the time revealed little about the details of the sudden sale of the New Bedford ferry to the SSA.

The boat line has also spent money on repairs and refurbishment for the boat, although exact numbers have not been released.

A marine survey is a standard prerequisite before the purchase of any vessel. Typically surveys are done both for the reason of determining the condition of a boat and also for the purpose of determining value.

Mr. Collyer and his company are widely known and respected in the marine survey field.

In recent weeks boat line managers have begun to report that the Schamonchi is due for replacement and near the end of her useful life.

"[The SSA fleet] is an aging company. . . . The Schamonchi will no doubt be replaced by some higher speed vessel," wrote Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker in a recent opinion piece in the Gazette. In fact, the marine survey found that the Schamonchi hull is in remarkably sound condition.

"With a good maintenance program in place, the vessel should provide many more years of service to the owners," Mr. Collyer wrote.

The survey was conducted both while afloat and in drydock in Fairhaven beginning in mid-February.

The survey found that the port main engine had a top-end overhaul in 1996 and had about 10,000 hours on it since that time.

The work also included an extensive audiogauge survey with a separate report. The audiogauge survey is a measurement of the hull; the survey found that wastage on the steel hull has been less than 10 per cent - a very good reading. "The usually recognized standards for steel hull vessels published by the American Bureau of Shipping allows up to 25 per cent wastage on steel vessels," wrote marine surveyor Neil Rosen in the ultrasonic inspection report for the ferry.

Most of the recommendations in the survey centered on passenger safety (such as using nonskid deck materials) and cosmetic work for the ferry.

New Bedford city officials are pushing hard for the boat line to replace the Schamonchi with a high-speed passenger ferry, and the Vineyard boat line governor has all but promised that he will make it happen.

Three weeks ago a small group of senior managers filed a grant application for some $2 million in federal grant money to help launch an $8 million high-speed passenger ferry operation between the Vineyard and New Bedford.

The application is for federal Ferry Boat Discretionary (FBD) funds under the federal TEA-21 grant program.

The grant application contains detailed statements about the commitment to develop high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard, and it reports that the design for the new boat has already been approved and is ready to go.

Questioned about the application, boat line managers admitted that they had mocked up much of the information in the grant application from an old grant application for the Flying Cloud, the high-speed passenger ferry that operates between Hyannis and Nantucket.