Steamship Prepares To Sell Aging Freight Boats With New Vessels On The Way

Jason Graziadei •

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The M/V Gay Head. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove |

With two new vessels nearing the completion of the retrofitting process at an Alabama shipyard, the Steamship Authority is preparing for the sale of two of its aging freight vessels that will be replaced: the M/V Gay Head and the M/V Katama.

At Tuesday morning's Port Council meeting, the representatives of the various port communities voted unanimously to recommend to the Steamship Authority's Board of Governors to initiate the process that will end with the sale of two vessels that have been part of its fleet for decades.

Steamship Authority general manager Bob Davis told the Port Council Tuesday that the boat line hopes to "declare the boats to be surplus property to allow management to issue an invitation for bids for their sale. After a survey of the vessels, management will place advertisements for their availability in different publications."

Davis said it was not practical for the Steamship to continue to maintain the vessels given the impending arrival of the offshore supply vessels the boat line purchased in 2022 that are being retrofitted in Alabama. He also cited the cost of insurance ($130,000 annually) and maintenance ($1.75 million annually) as reasons why the Steamship intends to sell the vessels rather than keep them on hand.

The M/V Katama Head. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove |

The M/V Katama was named after the beach area on Martha’s Vineyard, and like the new boats coming to the Steamship fleets, the vessel started as an offshore supply vessel running to oil rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1988, the Steamship Authority converted the ship to ferry service, adding a rounded stern to fit loading ramps and a small passenger area. Ten years later, the Katama received an additional upgrade as a 50-foot midsection was added along with more powerful EMD engines. The vessel typically serves the Martha’s Vineyard route as a truck and backup car carrier, transporting the majority of general cargo necessary. The 235-foot vessel was originally built in 1981 and can accommodate up to 39 vehicles and 150 passengers and crew. 

The M/V Gay Head - named after the clay cliffs located on northwest Martha’s Vineyard - is considered the "sister vessel" to the Katama. It was added to the Steamship Authority’s fleet in 1989, a year after the Katama arrived. In the late 1990s, it also received a 50-foot midsection upgrade, as well as a new engine upgrade. The 235-foot boat can carry up to 39 vehicles and 147 passengers and crew.

Nat Lowell, who is Nantucket's representative on the Port Council, stated at Tuesday's meeting that the two freight boats would be the first vessels to be sold by the Steamship since the sale of its troubled fast ferry the M/V Flying Cloud in 2008. During the formal process of selling that vessel, Davis said, the Steamship received no formal bids and had to seek other opportunities to unload it. Lowell urged the Steamship's management to allow prospective buyers the opportunity to essentially take the freight boats for a test drive during the sale process. 

The Steamship Authority's new freight boats are set to launch from the Alabama Shipyard, where they are undergoing a $27 million conversion. Both vessels recently received their hull coatings (pictured below). The M/V Barnstable and the M/V Aquinnah - which are two of the Steamship's three new freight ferries acquired in 2022 - are former offshore supply vessels that were previously used to service the oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The conversion project to rebuild them for carrying freight, vehicles, and passengers to the islands has been underway for months. The M/V Barnstable hit the water last month but still needs additional work before the conversion is complete. The goal is for the Barnstable to make the eight-day journey from Alabama to Massachusetts in June, and start on the Nantucket route that month. The M/V Aquinnah is likely to make the trip north in September.

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The M/V Barnstable and the M/V Aquinnah in the Alabama Shipyard in Mobile, Ala. Photo courtesy of the Steamship Authority.
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