Long lines of cars and trucks and long waits for fewer barges did a lot to slow the pace of travel of people and goods between St. Thomas and St. John at Festival time.
Delays of at least two to four hours each way and sometimes up to six or seven hours were caused by safety problems cited during U.S. Coast Guard inspections. Another vessel that serves motorists crossing Pillsbury Sound was taken to dry dock, a required step on the way to the annual certification, leaving only one barge running.
Residents, commercial vehicles and tourists all endured long waits. Dock officials coaxed cars into queues, aided by Port Authority police. Then they all waited and waited.
At the height of the bottleneck, by July 6 postings on Facebook/St. John Tradewinds said it took until 1:30 a.m. to finish moving vehicles from Red Hook, St. Thomas. That’s six hours past the normal time for the last run.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard, Sector San Juan said it was not up to them to send one of the barges – the General II – to dry dock. Instead, said USCG spokesman Ricardo Castrodad, it was the responsibility of barge owners at Global Marine, Inc. to do so as part of their preparation for annual certification.
Attempts to reach operators at Global Marine for comment were not successful.
Transportation delays became apparent around June 30 when the General II went to dry dock. At the same time the Cap’t Vic — owned by Love City Car Ferries — was undergoing inspection.
“Cap’t Vic had an inspection last Thursday,” said Castrodad. “It was a scheduled inspection and they had a series of deficiencies that needed to be addressed. Our role is, whatever vessel is out there delivering the service they can must deliver the service safely.”
Love City Car Ferries owner Lew Sewer said he could see the Coast Guard’s point of view.
“The Coast Guard is just doing their job,” said Sewer. “They’re all about safety.”
Love City Car Ferries officials brought in a specialized marine mechanic from Puerto Rico to work on the problems. They also brought up a second barge, the Island Vic.
Because inspectors determined the welds on portions of the barge ramp were weak, only cars, not trucks were allowed on the Cap’t Vic. Island Vic took delivery trucks, trash and gasoline trucks.
But by the time the extension expired all problems except one were solved.
The car barge was sidelined again.
St. John residents and visitors spent more than three hours waiting to travel with Island Vic on Tuesday. By that time it was the only game in town.
Motorists posting on Facebook the next day cited V.I. Port Authority officials at the barge dock, saying the last trip came into Enighed port well past midnight Wednesday.
Others reported four hour waits to board Island Vic by Wednesday at noon.
Eric Smith, a visitor from Texas, waited two hours Thursday to set out for Cyril King Airport. For him and his family and about 30 other vehicles waiting on St. John, things had improved.
The bilge pump on Cap’t Vic was repaired overnight and an early morning inspection by the Coast Guard won official favor.
Smith and family were on their way by Thursday, at 9 am.
“I haven’t had it too bad today, as long as I get on, I’ll be okay,” he said.
The Texas visitor wondered why the government did not step in to alleviate the problem. Senator-At-Large Almando Liburd and Castrodad agreed.
“I don’t know what we can do because the barge is a private entity,” Liburd said.
But knowing there was a problem lasting almost a week, the lawmaker said he checked in with St. John Administrator Camile Paris and Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe.
By Wednesday, Liburd said he would engage Sen. Justin Harrigan, head of the 31st Legislature Committee on Government Operations in hopes of exploring the matter further in a public hearing.
The owner of the barge service that was left standing said the long days and nights of work were not that bad. In spite of it all, Sewer said supermarkets, hotels and restaurants got food and gas stations never ran out of gas.
“We’re doing our same run, we’re just doing an extra run,” he said Thursday. “We finished last night about 8 p.m. We made sure everybody got home.”