Two Freight Boats Fail on Busy Weekend

Gazette Senior Writer

The nearly simultaneous failure Saturday evening of the two Steamship Authority freight vessels on the Vineyard route stranded about 200 people Saturday evening and Sunday morning - 100 people each in Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole.

SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said the generator failed on the freight ferry Sankaty, and after the boat line took that vessel out of service, a problem developed with the reduction gears in the freight ferry Katama, leading the Authority to take that vessel off-line.

Witnesses said the shutdown of service was attended by a lack of disseminated information at the Vineyard Haven terminal about what had happened or when service would resume. A number of people spent the night sleeping on the beach next to the terminal or in their cars.

"It was crazy," said one of the affected travelers, Narine Chalumyan, who lives in the Boston area. "It was very unorganized."

The Sankaty returned to service Sunday morning, and took over the Katama's Woods Hole-Oak Bluffs route. Later that day, the Authority brought in the freight ferry Governor, which the boat line has been keeping in Fairhaven as a back-up vessel, and put her on the Sankaty's Woods Hole-Vineyard Haven route.

The Katama returned to service yesterday morning.

Mr. Lamson said all travelers and their vehicles whose reservations had been displaced Saturday evening or Sunday morning had reached the Vineyard by 6 p.m. Sunday, or had reached Woods Hole by the end of the evening Sunday.

To ease complications from the breakdowns, Mr. Lamson said the Authority offered to let people go ahead on foot, and drive their vehicles on and off later ferries as spaces became available. The boat line also cancelled day-of-sailing reservations to devote those spaces to the displaced travelers, and ran an extra trip with the Sankaty to help get the affected travelers and their vehicles across Vineyard Sound.

The failure of the two freight vessels on a reservations-only summer weekend displaced travelers waiting on the Vineyard and in Woods Hole with reservations to board those vessels. Under Authority policy, displaced travelers are not given priority, but have to wait for spaces to subsequently open up on future trips.

Mr. Lamson, who was returning from an out-of-state trip Saturday evening to his Falmouth home, got to the Woods Hole terminal around 11 p.m. He said the crews on the other Authority ferries operating on the route had reached the end of their shifts, and that the Authority did not succeed in putting together a crew to offer additional runs that evening or early the next morning.

No general announcements were made to the stranded travelers in Vineyard Haven about the reason for the cancelled trips or when they could expect the trips to resume. A timed recorded announcement, however, continued to remind them that Coast Guard regulations forbad them to leave their luggage alone at the terminal. Mr. Lamson said he did not know why no general announcements were made on the situation.

Ms. Chalumyan, who was visiting the Vineyard with her sister and their parents, had a reservation to leave the Island at 11 p.m. She said the Authority did not notify her that the boats had broken down, even though the breakdowns had occurred hours earlier.

She said she arrived at the Vineyard Haven terminal only to learn that the boat might not be running. She then had to wait another 45 minutes to learn that no boat, in fact, would be running that evening.

Ms. Chalumyan returned with her family to the home of a friend with whom they were staying, leaving her car in line. She was back down at 5:30 the next morning to await the resumption of service.

She finally got off the Island with her family on a trip out of Oak Bluffs at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. She said she likely would have had to wait several more hours, but was able to plead successfully on behalf of her father, who has Alzheimer's and whose condition was deteriorating.

"They should have been more organized," she said of the boat line workers. "None of them wanted to take any responsibility."

But Mr. Lamson said: "I think the terminal managers did a great job under the circumstances."

He said Authority machinists and electricians worked all night on the Sankaty and long into Sunday on the Katama to return the vessels to service.

Holding up the repair on the Katama, Mr. Lamson said, was the lack of parts on hand to complete the repair. The parts, flown in from Louisiana, did not arrive at the dock until Sunday afternoon.