Not Stranded

For days I’d been planning to head off-island this past Sunday afternoon for State Rep. Dylan Fernandes’s 2018 campaign kickoff in Woods Hole. The venue, the Captain Kidd, is an easy walk from the ferry dock, so no big deal, right?

Ordinarily the Steamship Authority (SSA) ferries are drop-dead reliable, at least for walk-on passengers. All you have to do is know the schedule, get there on time, pony up $8.50 each way (frequent travelers get a discount by buying 10-ticket books), and, well, walk on.

Lately, however, it’s been harder to take passage across Vineyard Sound for granted. Saturday afternoon the ferry Martha’s Vineyard lost power shortly after leaving Woods Hole. It managed to get back to the slip, but that caused further complications. Due to the ongoing construction of a new Woods Hole terminal, there is only one working slip at Woods Hole. This meant that the Island Home couldn’t leave Vineyard Haven for its 5 o’clock run because there was nowhere to dock on the other side.

People were stranded for up to four hours on one side or the other, and the boats weren’t back on schedule again till Sunday morning.

State Representative Dylan Fernandes speaks; State Senator Julian Cyr (left) listens.

Taking the 1:15 boat to a 2:00–3:30 event and hopping the 3:45 home is not a big deal. Having it turn into an overnight stay would have been a very big deal, not least because my writers’ group meets every Sunday at 7. Also Trav was out on the deck and would be looking for his supper around 5:30.

As it turned out, the trip over and back was uneventful, the kickoff was fun, Travvy got fed (and walked), and I got to my writers’ group on time. As usual, we Vineyarders got extra creds for making it to an off-island event. This time we might actually have deserved some of it. For sure there were a few cracks about where we could spend the night if we got stranded.

Maybe the only thing all Vineyarders have in common is a relationship with the SSA. The ferry docks in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, and in Woods Hole across the water, are on the psychic map of every one of us. We grumble frequently about the inconveniences, and the more knowledgeable express concern about SSA management’s long-running lack of transparency, but mostly we get along OK.

So the ALL CAPS headline in the March 22 Martha’s Vineyard Times was startling:


The two front-page stories above the fold — “Martha’s Vineyard out of service” and “Passengers stranded for five hours” — were devoted to the tribulations of the ferry Martha’s Vineyard, the same one that screwed up Saturday, some six weeks later. Below the fold the front page chronicled the mishaps of the Woods Hole: “Ferry runs aground, bounces in and out of service.”

At the time, the third full-size ferry in the fleet, the Island Home, was out of service for scheduled routine maintenance. The freight boats are much smaller. Their main purpose is to carry, you guessed it, big trucks back and forth across the sound. Of course they carry passenger vehicles as well, and a few walk-on passengers, but they’re meant to supplement the scheduled ferries, not substitute for them. So a fast ferry (which doesn’t carry cars) was pressed into service to transport passengers to and from the island.

To put it mildly, it was a mess. And it went on, and on, and on. As another M.V. Times story put it: “14 days of chaos — and counting.”

March was a trying month weatherwise. Plenty of ferry runs were cancelled thanks to high winds from our several nor’easters: the one that rolled in as families were returning from school vacation was especially disruptive. Weather-related cancellations we generally take in stride, though a few will second-guess the SSA, the Coast Guard, and the weather reports and insist that such-and-such boat should have run.

These ongoing mechanical problems are something else again. If gale-force winds had been blowing on Sunday, that would have affected my calculations: If I manage to get there, will I be able to get back? But these breakdowns and run-agrounds come out of nowhere. It’s disorienting.

For many, it’s worse than disorienting. Plenty of off-islanders are employed on the Vineyard, and quite a few Vineyarders commute regularly to work elsewhere. Tourism isn’t a huge deal in March, but when the snafus happen in May, everyone with a connection to the summer economy — in other words, most working Vineyarders — gets nervous.

My connection to the summer economy these days is minimal: As I blogged in “O is for Online” last month, I do most of my traveling in the virtual world. Clients send me work electronically and I return completed jobs the same way. So I was a little surprised by how very many people I know have been caught up in one or more of these mishaps, going to or from work, coming back from or going on vacation, heading off for medical appointments, etc.

The mid-March mess affected the dozens of Vineyard high school students who were traveling to D.C. for March for Our Lives, to demand more effective gun control. The two buses they’d chartered would be waiting on the other side, and the schedule didn’t leave much wiggle room. We all held our breath and crossed our fingers. (They made it, some having taken earlier-than-necessary ferries to make sure they got to Woods Hole.)

The Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamship Authority is a quasi-public agency, but its lack of transparency has been an issue for at least as long as I’ve lived here. It’s very much subject to the political winds blowing on Beacon Hill, and though residents of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are the most affected by its operations (or non-operations), we’ve had very little clout at the state level.

The short version is that in this intensely political year, we’ve got another battle to make our voices heard, and I’m glad we’ve got legislators who’ll help us do it.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Not Stranded

  1. I always thought it weird how we always work opposite of where we live…It’s like we WANT to commute…


    • Me, I’m the opposite. During my work life I’ve managed to steadily reduce my commute time, to the point where for the last almost 20 years I’ve worked from home and not had to go anywhere.

      The number of people commuting to and from the Vineyard has increased a lot in the three decades I’ve lived here. Housing is a significant part of it: lower-wage jobs don’t pay enough to live here unless you’ve already got a place to live. The island’s economic opportunities aren’t very diverse, and many of them are seasonal. It’s definitely had an effect on “the community.” Once upon a time most people lived and worked in more or less the same place. Now there’s more of a city-suburb dynamic: work in one place, live/sleep in another. And people retire here who never worked here.


  2. Karen says:

    We have been very lucky as frequent vacation visitors that the ferries have been on time and consistent for us. We make our ferry reservations six months in advance and I guess we’ve been lucky, no snafus. We’ll return in July and I sure hope the mess is sorted out by then. I didn’t know they were building a new ferry terminal. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for those who depend on the ferries for work commute, etc.


  3. I’ve been stranded on Nantucket once with my family. We had been spending a week there during the holiday season and a sudden storm shut down the ferry services. We were lucky since we had the possibility to stay an extra night. And watching the snow fall while we were in this lovely cottage was amazingly gorgeous. But it made us realize that island life was not made for everyone 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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