How Two Islands View Boat Line

It Threatens to Become an Issue: Nantucket Is Feeling Isolated, After Long Run of Unity with the Vineyard

Gazette Senior Writer

Fresh fault lines at the Steamship Authority these days may threaten to undermine the traditional bedrock of unity between the Vineyard and Nantucket.

The 43-year-old public boat line is chartered to provide dependable year-round ferry service to the two Islands.

But much has changed at the SSA in the last year, from an overhaul of its enabling legislation and a change to a five-member board after three years of hostile politics with New Bedford, to the hiring of a new chief executive officer.

Today, with CEO Fred Raskin just 14 months into a six-year contract and with the June meeting of the boat line set for next Thursday on the Vineyard, there are new questions about direction.

Is the SSA adrift, no longer in touch with its core mission, plagued by poor customer relations and dominated by the emerging New Bedford agenda, or is it moving forward with a new set of goals and objectives?

The view is different, depending on which Island is your perch.

On Nantucket, the leading spokesmen for the boat line say they have been cut out of the loop, isolated from day-to-day affairs and neglected by management.

On the Vineyard there has been a buzz of activity around a laundry list of issues large and small, from a series of public forums on the design for a new ferry to replace the venerable Islander, to a meeting last night on a complicated and little-publicized plan to change the winter schedule. Here SSA issues bubble to the surface for a short period of time, and then disappear into the drink again, sometimes with no outcome or conclusion.

Both Island boat line governors agree on one subject: New Bedford has fairly dominated the agenda in the last year.

"It's all about New Bedford - I think we are in a very precarious position on the Islands and we could be gobbled up," said Nantucket governor and board chairman Grace Grossman.

"The Steamship Authority's share of Island attention has been focused primarily on possible high-speed service to New Bedford," said Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel in a commentary piece published in newspapers here last week.

Management has spent many months working on a plan to hire a private company to run high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer.

Today the tension between boat line management and Nantucket is evident on both sides of the sound.

Mr. Raskin denied that New Bedford has dominated the agenda.

"New Bedford hasn't occupied my time at all - what's occupied my time is putting a lot of effort into the periphery of issues that mean things to the Vineyard," he said, adding: "All these things take time and, frankly, Grace doesn't ask management here to do anything. There isn't the contact there," he said.

"It's so simple - the mission is to take care of the Islands. But I think that the vision and the mission have been abandoned and it seems that nobody understands what we're all about anymore," said Mrs. Grossman.

"I think we are just being kind of ignored," declared Flint Ranney, the Nantucket member of the port council, a 7-member advisory board that replaced the old financial advisory board under the new enabling legislation.

Mr. Ranney reiterated a list of concerns he raised at last month's boat line meeting about poor maintenance on the ferry Eagle.

"The Eagle has not been very well maintained. It has just recently come out of dry dock and already it looks shabby, the paint is peeling, there is rust showing and there are mechanical problems with the bow door," he said.

The problems were compounded early this month when it was discovered that the Eagle had dropped one of its 2,500-pound rudders en route from Hyannis to Nantucket.

More problems popped up on the Nantucket run recently when some passengers traveling on the ferry with their dogs were suddenly told that they had to stay on the freight deck or the mezzanine deck. Mr. Ranney said the policy about people and their dogs surfaced without warning, and Nantucket residents, who frequently travel with their labradors, golden retrievers and terriers in tow, were relegated below decks.

"If somebody is bringing a dog, why do they have to be hassled and sent to a place on the boat where it is cold and windy and dirty?" Mr. Ranney said.

There is no such policy about dogs on the Vineyard run, and evidently the rule on the Nantucket run was short-lived.

Mr. Raskin said it was all a misunderstanding.

"I think the crews started to enforce an old policy but when I learned of it I stopped it," he said.

But the public relations damage was done.

"This person that I spoke to who had his dog and was told he could not have it on the main deck - he went over to the Hy-Line, where they not only welcomed him but they gave the dog a biscuit," Mr. Ranney said. "It's things like this that drive passengers to the Hy-Line and the airline," he added.

"I think we are losing ridership because of our dictatorial policies," Mrs. Grossman said.

Mr. Raskin defended the boat line agenda and denied that Nantucket is in any way neglected, although he sidestepped questions about how many times he has visited Nantucket since he became CEO. "I have been on all the boats," he said.

"He's been here about four times," said Mr. Ranney. "I know it's a pain to get to Nantucket but we're 40 per cent of the business and 40 per cent of the revenue. I know New Bedford feels they should get some attention, but this boat line is for the Islands, it's not for New Bedford."

Mr. Raskin had sharp-edged remarks about Mrs. Grossman.

"Issues are communicated, but Grace chooses not to discuss them with me," he said, adding: "Grace had problems with the previous manager and she's going to have problems with the next manager - she chooses to gripe to rather than to work with me."

Ms. Roessel chose her words more carefully.

"Isolated? Yes, I'm not surprised that Nantucket is feeling isolated, but communication is a two-way street and I think the Nantucket representatives, if they search their souls, might conclude that there's a lot they could do to improve the general atmosphere," she said.

Ms. Roessel admitted there have been problems.

"There are a lot of areas in which the Steamship Authority can improve - customer relations, maintenance and trying to address some of the issues that need to be addressed to keep our fares from going up," she said.

She returned again to what she termed the New Bedford distraction.

"As we all know we've been in large part distracted from moving forward on those fronts by extraneous issues having nothing to do with our core business that take on a life of their own and consume the board and the staff's time and energy. I think we're beginning to move slowly in the right direction toward addressing our true goals and objectives. But we won't pick up steam until we put the New Bedford issue behind us, until we forge a new working unit out of a five-person board that used to be a three-person board."

Mr. Raskin questioned whether the Nantucket representatives really represent Nantucket.

"I think this is just the perception of Grace and Flint - I don't get any calls from Nantucket people who say they are unhappy," he said, adding: "I've said, ‘Let me know what you want to accomplish on Nantucket,' and I've gotten no response."

Mr. Ranney had another view.

"Most of my communications with management have been ignored," he said.

Mr. Raskin appeared to be stung by Mr. Ranney's decision to raise concerns about maintenance problems at the boat line meeting last month.

"I was surprised that Flint raised issues at the last board meeting - if he was really concerned about resolving them, I would have expected him to give me a call ahead of time," he said, adding:

"I am suggesting that these people are not solely concerned with some rust on the Eagle."

But Mr. Ranney said it is in fact that simple.

"Nantucketers would like to be able to just get on the boat and go to Hyannis and come back. I would like management to pay more attention to the Nantucket run and find out what the problems are and correct them. They're correctable, most of them, and they should pay attention to the maintenance of the vessels," he said.

Ms. Roessel said she remains committed to preserving unity between the Vineyard and Nantucket, as well as Island control of the board, which comes through a weighted vote.

"I believe in the Islands speaking together. It's a different dynamic with the weighted voting and the expanded board, but it's still really key and more important than ever for the Islands to stick together and for each Island member to continue to support the other Island member on her specific issues," she said.

She concluded:

"We really do care about Nantucket service and we all wish that our dialogue with the Nantucket representatives was more productive. It's a two-way thing, but with great power comes great responsibility."