Here we go again. By the time that you read this column, the northeaster of the week will be just the latest in a string of wild winter gales to batter the Islands. You would think that by now everything that could be broken is already broken. Just as the electricity gets completely restored another snow storm comes along with high winds and heavy sticky snow. There are still plenty of fallen trees along the roadsides. That part of the clean-up will go on for a while longer. There are still plenty of leaning trees from the first northeaster. I can think of a few that might get finished off by the next big blow.

Only five more CCC potluck dinners to go. Sign up to be a host by calling Lynn at 508-627-8222 or by putting your name in the book the next time that you are there. Potlucks are scheduled for the first and third Wednesday evening of the month.

I watched with great interest the unfolding of the recent adventure of the ferryboat Martha’s Vineyard. As Bridget Tobin says, “We’re in the same business, Cap!”

The Chappy Ferry does perform the same service of getting vehicles and people across water, but at a different scale. It’s still all about dependability and predictability. Dependability has to do with the functioning of ferry boats and the equipment that they require to do their job. Redundancy and preventive maintenance help with dependability but sometimes a few things going wrong at the same time together and will foul things up when one at a time they would not.

Predictability has to do with anticipating traffic flow, both from the perspective of the traveler and the operator. Then there is the weather. The most dependable way to get from one side of a body of water to the other is by tunnel. All other methods are subject to severe weather, even bridges. And the tunnel only works as long as it’s not full of water. Around here we depend on boats almost exclusively. On my outgoing message for Chappy Ferry information regarding the schedule, I always throw in a couple of weather-permittings.

The construction and operation of a large vessel like our gleaming white ships requires the composition of a vast array of materials assembled according to a vast array of engineering theories and laws of physics. Diesel engines in the old days didn’t do any thinking. If they started, they ran until you starved them of either air or fuel. Now-a-days, every engine has a computer attached to it which uses a bunch of sensors to decide how much fuel it should be getting and whether or not it should keep running at all. Some engines are set up to shut themselves off.

The Martha’s Vineyard was lucky her engines quit out in the open expanse of the Sound. It would have been a lot more exciting if that happened in the tight quarters of Woods Hole. She would have been chasing seals off the rocks. Imagine the chagrin of the crew and passengers as the rumbling of the engines died away and the vessel slowed to a standstill. The comment by the SSA management that to have both engines quit as being unusual is very true. It also makes finding and fixing the problem that much harder, plus you have people on board with plans that don’t include anchoring off East Chop for the evening.

One of my ferry captains listened to the incident as it occurred through marine radio transmissions. I watched the positions of the ferry and tugboats change through the night with a computer application called Marine Traffic. Eventually the ferry was pushed back into the slip from whence it departed in Vineyard Haven. The conversations amongst mariners centered around what went wrong. The next day I half-jokingly commented that she got a brand-new bridge and that it’s probably just a loose wire. It wasn’t just a lucky guess. I have learned from personal experience that sometimes that’s all it takes to stop a complex machine from operating. It’s a cautionary tale similar to the one about a battle being lost for want of a horseshoe nail.

It’s wonderful that they found the problem, that it’s clearly the problem and that it can be fixed. Millions of dollars in improvements to the Martha’s Vineyard included lots of electrical connections. Since those connections were made by mere humans, it’s not surprising that some weren’t perfect. Through the whole episode she did look like a million bucks in her shiny fresh coat of paint.

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