Ferry breakdowns, website woes and customer complaints are nothing new for the Steamship Authority, which has been carrying passengers, vehicles and freight from Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket year-round since 1960.

Islanders have generally — if not always graciously — accepted ferry service interruptions as an inescapable feature of offshore life, but in 2018 the problems accumulated so rapidly that boat line officials were forced to seek expert advice. The ferry line hired HMS Consulting, a Seattle-based firm, to conduct an exhaustive review of the Steamship Authority’s operations. The firm later released detailed recommendations in a hard-hitting 140-page report.

Five years after the report’s release, the Steamship Authority says it has acted on many of its recommendations, hiring new managers and adding procedures and training programs aimed at improving safety and reliability throughout the organization.

The Steamship Authority has implemented new training protocols and created several new positions at the recommendation of HMS. — Ray Ewing

“We’ve held that report pretty close, step by step, improvement by improvement,” said general manager Robert Davis, in a Gazette interview last month.

Others in positions of leadership are not so complimentary.

“A number of recent incidents show we still have a way to go on accountability,” said James Malkin, the Vineyard’s representative on the ferry line’s governing board.

One of the key outstanding issues is the state of the Steamship Authority’s information technology systems, which both inform customers and handle reservations. A long-planned upgrade to the SSA website has suffered repeated delays and is well over budget. Just last month, a consultant told the board that upgrades to the system are dangerously overdue.

“You’re at a point where you must change. You must transform. You have a technology debt,” said Thomas Innis of Gibbous LLC, the Belmont-based consultancy engaged last June to study the authority’s IT systems after a series of breakdowns in the online reservations system.

The HMS report identified an entrenched culture at the Steamship Authority that was committed to service, but lurched from emergency to emergency without an overall plan.

“Decisions are uninformed, avoidable incidents occur, employees work toward different goals, and opportunities are missed,” because the boat line has no “clear strategic vision,” according to the report.

Among the recommendations proposed, HMS said the ferry line needed to implement a long-term strategy, revamp its training programs, create new managerial positions, overhaul its information technology systems and improve the company culture, which tended toward “penny pinching.” 

“[The year] 2018 was not an anomaly,” said John Sainsbury, then-president of Seattle-based HMS Consulting, as he presented the team’s report that December.

Other key recommendations were to add new positions including a health, safety, quality and environmental (HSQE) manager and a chief operating officer (COO) and overhaul the information technology system to improve communications.

The HMS report did offer some praise for the boat line’s commitment to serving its customers.

Concerns over the Steamship Authority's information technology systems are outstanding. — Ray Ewing

“While public backlash was justified by the series of incidents in early 2018, it wasn’t due to a lack of commitment by the employees of the SSA to provide reliable service. This is deeply ingrained in the SSA’s culture,” the consultants wrote.

In the years since, the Steamship Authority has installed new training protocols, added the COO and HSQE manager, created new engineering positions, made an effort to recruit externally and is in the process of creating a new strategic plan, according to Mr. Davis.

Formerly the authority’s longtime treasurer, Mr. Davis was promoted to general manager in 2017 and had initially resisted hiring a COO, first saying he’d rather not add another layer of management and later suspending the process due to pandemic pressures.

“We were just concerned about keeping our operations going, with our limited funds, [so] a lot of this was put on hold,” he told the Gazette last month. “We were hanging on for dear life.”

After the Cape and Islands legislative delegation filed a bill in 2022 that would change the Steamship Authority’s 62-year-old enabling act to require a chief operating officer, the boat line board of governors voted to create the position and Mr. Davis hired former Maine State Ferries executive Mark Higgins last March.

The boat line also has stepped up its recruitment efforts for other positions, Mr. Davis said.

The Steamship Authority now takes part in job fairs at maritime academies as far away as California and offers paid training for prospective deck officers who formerly had to fund their own Coast Guard certifications, he said.

The estimated cost of putting the HMS recommendations into practice has risen above Mr. Sainsbury’s 2018 estimate of an initial $1 million followed by $1 million a year, although Mr. Davis could not immediately say by how much.

“There were some one-time costs for certification firms to perform audits and the consultants for the strategic plan,” he said.

Ongoing expenses have also gone up with the addition of new staff positions such as the director of marine operations, the HSQE manager and the chief operating officer, said Mr. Davis.

Vineyard officials say accountability needs to be worked on. — Ray Ewing

Meanwhile, ferry passengers continue to wrestle with unexpected trip cancellations, difficulties with the reservation system and a lack of communication when ferries are late or sidelined.

“People are complaining about it,” said Joe Sollitto, who has ridden the ferries for more than 50 years and now represents Oak Bluffs on the authority’s advisory port council. 

“There’s no reason why, if something happens on the boat, the GM can’t call shore operations to notify the ticket takers and notify the [terminal] agents, so they can tell people,” he told the Gazette. “It’s a simple thing to do, I think.”

Mr. Malkin also sees the need for better communication with the traveling public.

“Hopefully that will happen when the new website is finished,” Mr. Malkin said of the long-delayed project, now expected to launch early this year.

Mr. Sollitto praised the authority’s HSQE department, which recently received an international certification, but also noted that much remains on the boat line’s to-do list.

“We have this new website coming up, but we really have to have a new way of doing reservations,” he said.

Mr. Sollitto touched on another theme that has been a motif of Mr. Davis’s leadership: the general manager’s reluctance to cede responsibility to other executives.

“Mr. Davis works very, very hard, he’s very, very knowledgeable and he takes a lot of responsibility on himself,” Mr. Sollitto said. “He’s got to delegate.”

The Steamship Authority also needs to plan the future of its fleet, including electrification, Mr. Sollitto said.

“The cost is going to be enormous,” he said.

While funding remains a conundrum, the Steamship Authority will most likely start off with hybrid propulsion, with a diesel backup for an electric engine, Mr. Davis told the Gazette.

“It seems the most reasonable approach for us,” he said. “Mark [Higgins] brings a wealth of experience.”

While expressing pride in what the authority has accomplished over the past five years, Mr. Davis said the SSA’s development is an open-ended process.

“It is a culture change, in terms of continual improvement,” he said.

Ethan Genter contributed reporting.