Stranded in standby: Martha’s Vineyard residents share Steamship Authority struggles

"It impedes my ability to do what I do," says Rebecca Mayhew, longtime resident.

OAK BLUFFS, Mass. (WLNE) — Missing work, flights, and even important doctor’s appointments, residents on Martha’s Vineyard say they’re stressed out by the Steamship Authority – who, in the company’s own words, provides a “lifeline” between the island and the mainland.

From overbooking boats to under-communication on why or when the next one will be, residents say they’re feeling the impact of recent ferry cancellations. At times, several say they’ve waited hours in standby watching boats come in and out as they sit waiting.

One resident, Jennifer Held, says a flight she had booked to get off-island was cancelled so she chose to wait in standby for the next available boat. When she found out she was first in line, she hoped she’d catch one of the next few boats – and watched in disappointment and confusion as the ships continued to sail in and out without her. “When you try to get off the island, you don’t know. It’s sort of a mystery, right? You show up, you get staged in line and then you really have no idea when you’re going to get on a ferry or why you will or why you will not. You don’t know how many people are in front of you,” says Held.

In Held’s situation, that next boat she was supposed to be on was cancelled. This meant that all 50 passengers meant to be on that vessel were bumped to the next available ahead of her, making her number 51. “That’s kind of what happens at the Steamship often is, if you don’t make it on a ferry you just kind of get forgotten about.”

A second woman, whose family history on the island dates back as far as an original settler in the 1600’s, says the struggle to travel off-island for work has caused so much stress she’s ready to leave the place her family has called home for generations. “In order for me to just do my general vet appointments, I need to go to a special vet over on the Cape. And it’s just become so difficult to be able to, I can’t rely on the ferry to go when it’s supposed to go.”

What’s causing the mess? A perfect storm of factors.

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the island saw a housing stock shift to year round accuracy of 51% in 2020 for the first time in five decades, adding more people to an island whose transportation hasn’t changed. “Just walking down the street in the off-season when I used to be here, you didn’t even have to look both ways when you crossed the street. There’s just no cars. Now, on every street you have to really be diligent,” says Held.

On top of more people traveling, Held says over-booking of ferry reservations has been a consistent issue that’s bumped many off the boat and into standby. This, she says, makes the line longer for those who hop in standby with the hope of getting off for a last-minute appointment or to travel for work. “The reservations are over-booked. So there is no space on the ferries for these people that do have these emergency situations at the last minute that go standby.”

Sean Driscoll, Communications Director for the Steamship Authority, says employees have done their best to help travelers with extenuating circumstances especially in medical emergency situations. “If people have an urgent medical need, there are many ways that they can contact us or go up to people at the terminal and we’ll get them on the next available vessel even if it means having to bump somebody,” he says, urging customers to come forward should they find themselves with an urgent need. “That’s something that we do every day.”

Driscoll also acknowledged the population increase, and says they have no immediate plans to add more boats or trips. “We have not increased our service level, at this time of year or really at any point in the year for the last four to five years.”

The last reason for cancellations? Maintenance. Driscoll says each one of the ten vessels is required to undergo routine maintenance, and more often if a repair is needed and the boat has to be dry-docked. During those times, alerts are sent out to those with existing reservations to notify them of the cancellation and reason. “Vessels have a lot of moving parts. So there are going to be times where we have to cancel a trip and we take it very seriously and it’s always done in the name of safety.”

Driscoll told ABC6 News the Steamship Authority does expect to implement digital signs at some terminals in the near future, to give those in standby a more accurate expectation of when they will be able to get on the next boat.

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