The Steamship Authority opened summer ferry reservations to Nantucket Tuesday morning at 5 a.m. to massive demand, and users immediately began reporting a host of issues and problems with the online booking system, including long waiting queues and getting kicked off after accessing the site.
Many seasonal residents and visitors set their alarms for the crack of dawn on Tuesday, ready with multiple browser windows open, in order to book a reservation for their summer vacation on the specific dates they need. But many reported that after being assigned a number in the virtual waiting room, they got kicked off and went to the back of the line - some as high as 12,000.
"What a disaster," said Mary Ann Goodell, a summer renter from Massachusetts who is planning to visit the island in late June as she has done for the past 10 years. "So sad that this organization can't find a way to update their reservation process. Makes me feel like the boats themselves are no safer than the ticketing. After many terrific summers, I now feel it's time to find a new place to vacation."
After providing a handful of updates about the situation throughout the day on social media, the Steamship Authority issued a formal statement just before 6 p.m. asserting that the issues had been resolved by around 12:30 p.m., while acknowledging the problems with the web site earlier in the day.
“This is obviously an unexpected and unacceptable performance for one of our biggest single days of the year,” Steamship Authority general manager Bob Davis said. “It is not what our customers expect, and it is not what I expect. I apologize to our customers for their experience today, and I want them to know it will be my top priority to address it before the next phase of our summer reservation openings.”
By 5:30 p.m., the Steamship had processed approximately 8,550 transactions totaling $4.53 million in revenue. By comparison, during last year's opening day for the Nantucket route, the Authority completed a record 9,499 transactions representing nearly $4.7 million in revenue.
Davis added that the Steamship Authority is now working with its IT team and vendors "to fully understand the cause of Tuesday’s incident and identify necessary steps that must be taken to address it." The boat line emphasized that there was no evidence of a cyberattack.
Steamship Authority customers inundated social media sites with complaints, posting screenshots of their virtual waiting room numbers, and berating the boat line about the poor service and the amount of time it took to book reservations, if they could be completed at all.
Anna Silbey, of Cambridge, MA, has been coming to the island every summer for two weeks for the past 20 years. Like others, Silbey logged on at 5 a.m. to find she was 1,567th in line. By 5:38 a.m., she was first in line. Good news, she thought. But the screen stayed like that for the next 15 minutes.
"It was no longer refreshing, then went blank," Silbey said. "Then the server stopped responding. Then it kicked me out and I was at 12,267 (in line)."
She was finally able to book a reservation around 7 a.m., but "by then the dates I needed were unavailable. What do I do for two days when my rental date has passed? The waitlist is a joke. Stanby is a joke. This is all a joke. But hey, the real estate agents and restaurants get their people reservations before all of us. Great."
Silbey, who plans to come to the island for the peak of the summer - the first two weeks of August - said she longed for the days when she didn't feel like she needed to bring a car, but now with kids, bringing the vehicle is now a must.
"It used to be such an easy, fun adventure," she said. "I still love Nantucket, but the logistics are a nightmare."
Similar issues were reported last year, as the demand for summer travel to Nantucket continues to be huge. Rob Ranney, Nantucket's representative on the Steamship Authority's Board of Governors, said he had been hearing about the issues all day, and was unsure why the system had failed.
"This opening, they look forward to this every year and they’re running tests on the system," Ranney said of the Steamship's administrative and IT teams. "They set up the online waiting room to moderate how many people can get in at one time so the system doesn’t crash. That worked last year. I don’t know why it’s not working this year. When something like this happens and you have your vendors trying to fix it when everyone is trying to use it, it’s a tough thing. It’s not something the Steamship is happy about."
In addition to the virtual waiting room, Ranney said the Steamship Authority had also made the move several years ago to stagger the opening days for Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard so they weren't happening at the same time, reducing the possibility of overloading the system.
But that still didn't spare the system from a deluge of demand and issues on Tuesday that sent ripple effects through the island community.
"I have tenants wanting to cancel their rentals because they couldn’t get anything all day and rental cars are $500 a day," said Sam Parsons, an island real estate broker with Great Point Properties. "Tough when you’re a little family of four saving for your annual Nantucket vacation and it’s this hard."
Brian Fuller, of Atlanta, GA, told the Current on Tuesday that it took him nearly seven hours of getting "kicked out" of the virtual waiting room before he was able to book his reservations for August.
"This is ridiculous," Fuller said. "There are so many more efficient and better ways. Sign-ups with a lottery for an appointment time and appointments span over days, requests of reservation dates which are put into a lottery when requests exceed capacity, etc. I also called customer service about halfway through and they told me there was nothing they could do. I had 'to just keep trying. The website is overloaded.' I responded 'well, I hope they're planning to improve this process in the future.' And she responded 'yes, me too'."
The Steamship is in the midst of building a new web site, but that likely won’t be launched until later this year or next year.
Another person attempting to book a reservation Tuesday morning, Stef Spina, of New York, told the Current at 10:35 a.m. - approximately five-and-a-half hours after reservations opened - that the experience had been "a complete nightmare. Total mess since 4:30 a.m. and still no reservation."
Spina was attempting to book travel in mid-August to the island.