Ferry service moving closer to full steam ahead in 2021

After a devastating pandemic that resulted in the lowest ridership in 13 years, the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority is banking on a strong rebound this summer, with a return to normal business by fall.

There’s a pent-up demand for travel, said Steamship Authority Marketing Director Kimberlee McHugh, who added that the fervor was evident on Jan. 12 – the first day of online bookings for the 2021 season. “People were flocking to the website to book summer reservations to the islands,” she said.

For trips between Hyannis and Nantucket, the Authority processed 5,151 transactions during the first day of advance internet sales this year, representing $2.8 million in revenue. That’s 434 more trips than customers had booked during the first day of internet sales in January of 2020 – at a time when most people were still unaware of COVID-19.

“Things are looking up,” she said. “We’re obviously not where we were in 2019, but we are definitely on an upswing. And our thought is that by the fall, we are optimistic that we will be back to normal ridership levels.”

McHugh cautions that the Steamship Authority still has pandemic-related restrictions in place, but some of them are likely to be lifted as the state eases limitations on businesses and social gatherings. Gov. Charlie Baker announced earlier this month that the state’s COVID-19 restrictions will all be lifted as of May 29 but masks are still required when using public transportation.

  • You need to wear a mask on the ferry, she said – both indoors and on deck. The Authority keeps a supply of disposable masks available for ferry customers and shuttle-bus riders who do not have a face covering with them.
  • While masks are mandatory, prepackaged food and beverages will be available on several of the Steamship Authority’s passenger/vehicle ferries.
  • The ferry service is still operating at partial capacity, allowing for safe social distancing.  

Across the U.S., the novel coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the travel industry during 2020, resulting in a loss of $1.1 trillion, according to a report released in March by the U.S. Travel Association. The pain was felt in jobs as well, with travel-supported employment losing 5.6 million jobs in 2020, the travel industry trade group said.

The drop in business for the Steamship Authority was significant. Combined ridership on the Hyannis to Nantucket ferries and the Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard ferries had been tracking between 2.8 million to 3 million in recent years, McHugh said. But in 2020, the Authority only reported 2,067,301 passengers.

McHugh speculated that ridership numbers will begin climbing above pre-pandemic levels during the 2022 season.

The Steamship Authority, established by the state Legislature in 1960, runs multiple trips from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard Island and back, as well as a fast and slow ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket. The schedule, which changes throughout the year and ramps up during the busy summer months, can be found at the Steamship Authority’s website.

The fast ferry, M/V Iyanough, is a great option for day trips, covering the 26-mile ride across Nantucket Sound in one hour, which allows more time for exploring the island, McHugh said. The 154-foot aluminum catamaran normally carries up to 400 people, including passengers and crew, but it’s operating at lower capacity to allow safe social distancing. There’s also room for luggage and up to 30 bicycles. The Iyanough features wi-fi service and flat screen TVs. This year, travelers can take advantage of a special $55 day-trip fare, which allows them to travel on the same day, round-trip, Monday through Thursday.

For a more leisurely trip – roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes for the 26-mile ride – choose the M/V Eagle, which carries up to 768 passengers and crew members, along with 52 vehicles. The Eagle allows lots of space on deck and indoors, and also features wi-fi access.

Whether traveling between Hyannis and Nantucket or Woods Hole and Falmouth, the Steamship Authority has recently implemented eFerry Ticketing, a contactless e-ticket system that makes it easier for walk-on passengers. You can buy a ticket online, load it onto your mobile device and scan the device when boarding. The e-ticket systems vary slightly for traditional and high-speed ferries. Find more information on the Steamship Authority’s website.

The Authority is also purchasing new electric buses to shuttle riders from remote parking lots to the ferry. Two environmentally friendly vehicles should be in operation for the 2022 season, McHugh said.

Find general information about parking, remote lots, trips to both islands, and safety requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the Steamship Authority’s website.

Andy Tomolonis is a textbook author, travel writer and freelance multimedia journalist.