The Capt. Vic, the larger of the two barges operated by Love City Car Ferries, was back in operation and running its regular schedule as of July 7, according to CEO Anecia Sewer.
That was welcomed news to drivers who, two days earlier, had waited in lines for hours to transport their vehicles between St. Thomas and St. John on Love City Car Ferries’ smaller barge, the Island Vic.
Love City Car Ferries is the only one of the three barge companies that is currently making regular trips between Cruz Bay, St. John and Red Hook, St. Thomas.
The largest barge, Mister B., owned by Boyson Inc., has been out of operation since it was seized in a court action in January. The General II, owned by Global Marine, has recently gone into dry dock to undergo repairs.
The timing for the barges being offline couldn’t have been worse. St. John residents have come to depend on the barges for routine trips to St. Thomas to see doctors, shop, or run errands, while St. Thomas businesses make daily trips to St. John to restock merchandise or provide services. With the advent of St. John July 4th Festival, the demand for barge service reached its peak.
“It was a ‘big mashup’ at a very busy time,” said Andrew Rutnik, a longtime resident of St. John and the vice-chair of the Public Services Commission. “Barges have become a necessity for bringing food, drink, fuel, materials for building, even the mail.”
“Considering that we got down to one barge, and what it did to our commerce, we have to look at some form of regulatory authority,” said Rutnik. “If that comes down to franchises, okay.”
Sewer agreed that something needs to be done.
“The Pillsbury Sound [between St. Thomas and St. John] should be a national highway; these vessels are really capital-intensive and barge service should be subsidized,” said Sewer. “These [barge owners] are private families fulfilling a public service.”
Rutnik speculated that the barge crisis was the reason this year’s July 4th parade ended several hours earlier than last year’s parade; troupes from other islands could not find transport for their trucks, floats, and equipment.
The problem became critical as the Capt. Vic was scheduled for a regular annual Coast Guard inspection on Thursday, June 30.
“Usually, we would pull the barge out of service several days prior to an inspection to take care of any routine maintenance,” said Sewer. “But this year, with the other barges being down we didn’t want to take it out of service.”
Sewer said the barge company tried to complete the maintenance tasks in the evenings after the Capt. Vic finished its last run at 7 p.m., but they ran into two problems.
“First, because of noise ordinances, anything that involves banging we can’t do after 10 p.m.,” said Sewer. “ And on some nights the Virgin Islands Port Authority locked the gates [to the barge terminal in Cruz Bay] at 8 p.m., and we don’t have a key.”
When the Coast Guard completed their inspection Thursday, June 30, they determined that some repairs could be postponed until after the parade and allowed the Capt. Vic to continue its runs.
Sewer said that on Thursday night the company transported for free all the vehicles that were delayed because of the inspection.
On Tuesday, July 5, the Coast Guard returned to continue the inspection of the Capt. Vic.
“We thought we had completed [repairs for] everything on their list, but they found things that had to be fixed,” said Sewer. “They said they had other inspections to complete and would come back later.”
When the Coast Guard didn’t return that day, Love City Car Ferries had no choice but to keep the Capt. Vic out of service.
That left only the Island Vic, the smallest barge in the fleet, to cope with the backlog of vehicles. That’s when the lines of vehicles on St. Thomas stretched down towards Sapphire Beach, and the lines on St. John went to the tennis courts in Cruz Bay.
Reports of hours-long waits were rampant on social media. One St. John construction manager said he had to lay off his crew because he couldn’t get concrete delivered to St. John.
Kurt Nose, general manager of Heavy Materials, a St. Thomas company that supplies concrete, confirmed that his business was affected.
“We informed our customers that we had to postpone all deliveries on St. John until the barge situation is resolved,” said Nose. “We need more barge capacity. It’s unfortunate for everyone.”
“People have been cussing Love City Car Ferries, and it breaks my heart,” said Sewer. “They’re acting like Love City Ferries created this situation.”
She said her husband, Capt. Llewellyn Sewer, left home at 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning and didn’t return until 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. He, along with Capt. Travis Bartlette, went back and forth on the Island Vic until all the vehicles awaiting transport made their crossings.
Sewer publishes a blog on Love City Car Ferries’ website to keep the public informed about delays. Travelers who want to insure passage on a particular barge can make a reservation and prepay.
She said under normal circumstances the company tries to load vehicles on a first-come-first served basis, but when other barges are out of commission, barge captains have to make decisions.
A patient needing dialysis, a garbage truck that needs emptying, or a customer who’s prepaid and is catching a flight on St. Thomas will be given priority in boarding.