On Sunday, the Steamship Authority canceled all of its Nantucket fast ferry trips because a pilot called in sick and the ferry line was unable to find any other qualified employees for the boat. 

Cancellations due to a lack of crew have become a regular pattern for the ferry line, with more than two dozen canceled ferries in the first four months of the year. In response, the boatline last week announced, for the second year in a row, that it would have to slim down its summer service due to crew shortages — adding new wrinkles to vacation plans, doctor’s appointments and the delivery of essentials to the Islands.

The rocky start to summer is emblematic of the Steamship Authority’s staffing woes, several Steamship employees said, and on any given day ferries can be one sick-day away from being tied up at the docks.

The authority has struggled to get enough licensed captains and pilots for the last two years. — Ray Ewing

“Obviously this weekend it was Nantucket,” said Tisbury select board member Christina Colarusso, who graduated from Massachusetts Maritime Academy and has worked aboard boats for years. “But next weekend it could be us.” 

The Steamship Authority’s current lineup of about 50 captains and pilots — the highest ranking officers on each ferry — falls about 10 people short of what management would want in an ideal world.

“We continue to be somewhat on the edge of who’s available,” general manager Robert Davis said in an interview with the Gazette this week. “We thought it was best that we consolidate some of the service to minimize the number of times we had to cancel unexpectedly.”

Mr. Davis has said that the Steamship Authority’s struggles mirror those across the maritime industry. Washington State Ferries, the largest ferry operator in the country, earlier this year said it was facing an unprecedented shortage of workers, and it has had several cancellations due to a lack of crew. 

But three Steamship captains, some with more than a decade of experience with the ferry line, said they think the Steamship Authority isn’t doing enough to attract new employees, potentially leading to dangerous sailing conditions. The current issues, they claim, are symptoms of prior staffing cuts, long hours and lower pay rates than comparable ferry services. 

“I think for them to strictly say this is a maritime industry issue, that’s their talking point,” said one of three captains, who all asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “I don’t think that’s the whole story . . . . This was where we were headed long ago.” 

The captains, whose union is in the midst of contract negotiations with the Steamship Authority ahead of the current contract’s July expiration date, pointed to long hours that industry experts say they have not seen elsewhere, as well as cuts in staffing that have made the ferry line less attractive to incoming workers.

The standard for most boatlines is 12 hours of work, followed by 12 hours off. But with a special exception from the U.S. Coast Guard, Steamship pilots and captains can work 18 hours split between two watches in a 24-hour period. The officers work 12 hours, get six hours of rest overnight, and then have six more hours on duty.

The schedule results in many officers sleeping on the boats between shifts, and the captains all feared that continuing to maintain this schedule, in addition to overtime to cover for the crew shortage, could eventually lead to unsafe sailing conditions.

“The quality of life has gotten so bad,” one captain said. “It’s a genuine safety issue.”

This schedule has been in place going back to at least 1999, and was a major sticking point in union negotiations at the time. In 2018, a consultant hired to take a top-to-bottom review of the Steamship Authority also flagged the officer schedule, and said it is outside industry norms.

The Iyanough, left, will have its schedule reduced and the Woods Hole, right, will be pulled off the Nantucket run to ply Vineyard waters. — Ray Ewing

“The industry has embraced a strict adherence to the 12-hour rule primarily due to the acknowledgement and understanding that crews are frequently faced with extenuating circumstances which require their rest periods to be impacted,” HMS Consulting wrote in its landmark report. “While the 12-hour rule ensures some flexibility regarding these circumstances, the current schedule being utilized at the SSA does not allow for any margin of error.”

Mr. Davis declined to delve into the schedule discussions, saying the Steamship Authority met all the Coast Guard standards and the issue was better suited for the negotiating table. 

“How that plays into it or not, I don’t want to get into any negotiation positions like that,” he said.

The captains said the 18 hours of work in a 24-hour period may have worked in the past, but the current smaller crew sizes have made it harder and the Steamship Authority now regularly relies on overtime — which is limited by the Coast Guard —  to fill in the gaps.

“As a transportation company, you shouldn’t run a schedule that relies on overtime,” one captain said.

One thing all sides acknowledge is that there is no quick fix to the current situation. Even if the Steamship Authority could immediately find new captains and pilots to hire, it takes time for them to get familiarized with all the different ferries and the different routes. For most, it takes years to work through the ranks. 

“It seems to me that the Steamship Authority should have been more proactive considerably earlier on, working on recruiting and retention,” said James Malkin, the Chilmark select board member who serves on the Steamship’s board of governors. 

He said the ferry line needs to create an environment where people want to work. 

“It appears to me that coming in as a younger person and working your way up is something that did happen in the past and is not happening like it used to,” Mr. Malkin said. “The Steamship Authority does not seem to be the employer of choice the way it once may have been.” 

The Steamship Authority says it now recruits at maritime schools far and wide, and, in an attempt to get more people to move up the ranks, has begun to pay for employee training. 

About 12 cadets from Massachusetts Maritime Academy, just a stone’s throw away in Buzzards Bay, are coming to work for the Steamship Authority this summer, and the ferry line has visited SUNY Maritime College in New York, Maine Maritime Academy, Cal Maritime and Texas A&M in search of crew members. 

“We are hitting the major maritime academies to try and recruit people,” Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Davis did note that there is more competition for these cadets now, including new jobs at offshore wind farms. In general, he saw fresh graduates wanting to travel the world and go out to sea.

“We may not get them straight out of the academies, but hopefully they remember us for the next job,” Mr. Davis said. 

With the union negotiations ongoing, the captains who spoke with the Gazette said that pay is another major factor in getting people to work at the Steamship Authority. 

According to union documents, Steamship Authority captains make $58.23 an hour, while Staten Island Ferry captains make $83.95, and staff masters, a similar position in the Washington ferry system, make $88.38 an hour.

The current contract negotiations came up at this week’s advisory port council meeting after the Nantucket member on the Steamship Authority board of governors told the Nantucket Current that there were indications of a so-called overtime strike by the licensed deck officers.

Steamship captain Scott Matoian took umbrage with the insinuation at the port council meeting. 

“I’m trying to support my captains and pilots and this [is a] statement from a board of governors saying that we don’t do our jobs, and saying that we purposely ruin the service to the Islands,” Mr. Matoian said.

But one thing remains certain: while negotiations are hammered out and hiring lags behind, there will be fewer vehicle spaces on the boats as a result of the ferry shuffle. 

Hardest hit will be freight trucks that frequent the Governor and the Sankaty ferries. Both of the ferries are being pulled from the route; the Governor is being replaced with the Woods Hole ferry and the Sankaty’s three daily round trips are being dropped altogether. 

The boat cancellations have led to customers receiving last minute notices that a vehicle reservation they may have made months in advance is no more. The Steamship Authority’s call center in Mashpee has been working to reschedule bookings, if possible on the same day of sailing as the reservation but if that doesn’t work, putting customers high on the waitlist for other times. 

The new schedule is set to start on June 17, and after rebooking June, the Steamship Authority will move on to July, August and September.

As part of the reshuffling the boatline will put more trucks on the 5:30 a.m. ferry from Woods Hole to the Vineyard — a controversial voyage that has received pushback for years from Woods Hole residents.

The swaps are not ideal, Allison Fletcher, the director of shoreside operations, told the port council Tuesday.

“By doing this, unfortunately, both Islands are going to take a slight hit in regards to space availability,” she said. “But this was one of the better options that we had.” 

While the process may be painful all around, Nantucket port council member Nat Lowell said the Vineyard was coming out with fewer scars than its sister island. 

“You’re getting a pretty good deal out of this, just so you know,” he said to his Vineyard colleagues. “We are not, but it’s the right thing for the whole Authority . . . . This is a brave new world of solutions and hopefully this is the last time this has to happen.”