Vinalhaven residents take on 1950s federal ferry rule that hinders common sense
Last fall, the Maine State Ferry Service (MSFS) proposed a reduced winter schedule to Vinalhaven. The proposal met with a lot of opposition, including an ultimately fruitless petition to then Commissioner David Bernhardt, signed by virtually every one of the 535 island’s adult residents.
The proposed schedule having resulted from concerns about nighttime navigation, the MSFS invited the Coast Guard (USCG) to witness those perceived hazards during a ride through the islands. While underway, they noticed that the engines of several passenger vehicles on deck were running in violation of a federal law 46 CFR § 78.40-5 which states: ‘The master shall take all necessary precautions to see that automobiles or other vehicles have their motors turned off when the ferry is under way.’
Islanders had been running their vehicle engines while underway for decades and with neither knowledge of nor concerns about prohibitions. If any among the crew had been aware of the prohibition, concerns about enforcement, way out here where less attention is often paid on many fronts, faded. But whereas many of us were simply too lazy to go into the cabin and preferred to sit in our warm (or cool) cars during the hour plus ride back or forth or both, there were, as quickly became apparent, some whose comfort was much more critical and, in a few instances, was a life or death issue.
The federal law provided for no exceptions to the prohibition but, in response to an urgent request that an exception be allowed for ambulances whose patients’ lives often depend on integral components of the ambulance to run and keep them alive, the USCG Sector Commander, Captain Brian LeFebvre, sensibly granted an exception for those vehicles identified by Maine Title 29A as emergency vehicles which, of course, included ambulances.
As it happens, however, there were and are, other than medical patients, some whose comfort while underway is critical and, in a few instances, life-threatening. That and the fact that most ferry cabins are not wheelchair accessible, the elevators to the upper level (and only) passenger cabins on the newer vessels are often inoperable and that exiting a vehicle after the ferry is loaded, to try and navigate to a passenger cabin, is impossible for some handicapped passengers, made the ‘no engines’ policy an issue of critical importance.
On March 11, a Vinalhaven selectman alerted our Congressional delegation to the urgency and asked that something be done quickly to provide for the continued safety and comfort of those whose lives were adversely and dangerously affected by the prohibition.
Regional representative Chris Rector of Senator Angus King’s office responded immediately that Senator King’s office had been in conversations with representatives from Senator Collins and from Representative Pingree’s office, as well as with our local elected representatives and USCG Sector Northern New England about finding a common sense solution to what has become a very serious problem for some island travelers.
He suggested that all concerned meet with representatives from the King, Collins and Pingree offices by mid-April.
Accordingly, the promised meeting with Rector, Pam Trinward from Representative Pingree’s office, several USCG representatives, including Sector Commander LeFebvre, State Senator Dave Miramant, and State Representatives Genevieve McDonald and Ann Matlack, and Vinalhaven and North Haven town officials, was held at the Rockland terminal on Friday, April 12, from 10:00 a.m. till noon.
At that meeting, three of those most seriously handicapped testified to the insurmountable obstacles presented by the no-engines policy and there followed a productive discussion among those gathered during which all seemed interested in finding a common sense solution.
Sen. Miramant proposed that the issue be addressed on the state level by expanding the scope of emergency vehicles defined by the aforementioned Maine statue, to include vehicles identified as having to have engines running. He and Rep’s McDonald and Matlack will give it their immediate attention.
1) An island mother, Joanna Reidy, has abandoned her island home to devote her life to giving life to her special needs daughter, who is suffering from Rett Syndrome and who requires immediate access to the (very often urgent) care only available at a mainland facility such as Maine Medical.
The only way to transport her daughter now and then back to her island home is to do so in her own vehicle which is equipped with all the life-saving devices that have too often had to be used to revive her daughter during a seizure or to stabilize her until more sophisticated medical attention can be found.
There is no way this hour and a half ferry ride can be managed unless mother and child are allowed to remain in their vehicle with the engine running. Beyond that the mother has been cautioned against exposure to others, in a crowded ferry passenger cabin, for instance, where others infected with cold or flu or worse might compromise her daughter’s delicate condition. And still further, the cabins are not handicap accessible.
2) An island woman transports her elderly veteran husband traveling home after chemotherapy twice a month. He can only make the trip comfortably in a reclining position in the passenger seat and, in the winter, with the heat on (engine now and then running). He can absolutely not make the trip in one of the uncomfortable, upright steel seats in the crowded passenger cabin, particularly with a seriously compromised immune system.
3) An island woman, Kathy Morton, regularly transports her husband who, a victim of Beurger’s Disease, has lost both legs, back and forth to mainland medical appointments. He stays in his vehicle during the ride because it would be impossible for him to get to the cabin, which is not handicapped accessible once the ferry is loaded. During the winter it’s necessary doe him to remain in a heated vehicle to maintain optimum circulation to his remaining digits.
Enacted in the 1950s, the original prohibition against running engines was surely conceived with safety in mind but the danger imagined has never been realized on a Maine State Ferry and weighing that safety concern against the equally important concerns of folks like those I’ve cited is not unreasonable. Islanders are hopeful.
Phll Crossman lives on Vinalhaven