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Anxious car buyers find themselves watching the same (smoldering) boat

The merchant ship Felicity Ace, whose 22 crew members were safely rescued yesterday, remains stable, about 90 nautical miles southwest of the island of Faial, in the Azores.Portuguese Navy

It’s one thing to have the money to burn on a luxury car, but quite another to have your new toy go up in flames. On a ship off the Azores.

That’s the predicament many auto buyers and dealers find themselves in as they follow the saga of the Felicity Ace, a 650-foot cargo ship loaded with 3,965 vehicles that caught fire Wednesday on its way to the Port of Davisville in North Kingstown, R.I. Crew members were rescued after the blaze of unknown origin broke out, but the fate of the cars ― including Audis, Lamborghinis, Porsches, and nearly 200 Bentleys, according to the shipping company ― remains unknown.

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MOL Ship Management, the operator of the Felicity Ace, said Friday that salvage teams were on their way to assess damage to the vessel and its cargo.

Joshua Vavra and his wife, Lyndsey, have been waiting since November to climb behind the wheel of their $65,000 Porsche Macan SUV. Vavra, who lives in Chester, N.H, says he found out about the fire while visiting Rennlist, a website frequented by Porsche enthusiasts.

“Wouldn’t it be terrible if my wife’s car is on there?” he wondered.

Sure enough, a phone call to his Porsche dealer in Stratham, N.H., confirmed the suspicion. He doesn’t know whether the Macan is unscathed or reduced to a burnt out hulk.

“For now, they’re recommending that we re-place the order,” Vavra said.

John Kennedy, regional vice president of operations for the McGovern Automotive Group, received a push notification on his phone Thursday alerting him to the fire. He estimates that between five and eight cars bound for the company’s Audi dealership in Shrewsbury are stuck on the ship, based on previous shipping estimates from the Volkswagen Group, which owns Audi, and the fact that most of his shipments arrive in Rhode Island.

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Inventory at the dealership is already at an all-time low due to pandemic-related global shipping disruptions and computer chip shortages. Audi Shrewsbury would normally have 175 to 200 vehicles in stock, Kennedy said. Lately, he’s lucky if there are two dozen.

“If you hear five to eight cars might be on that ship, that’s a very large percentage of cars that we would have available to sell,” he said.

Several customers have called to inquire about the status of their cars, but Kennedy doesn’t have much to tell them.

”We don’t know anything yet about whether there were vehicles that were burned,” he said. “But if 4,000 cars were headed for New England, and if all of those were to be lost, I think the impact would be devastating.”

Andrew Dunn, general sales manager at Porsche Norwell, said maybe six Porsches earmarked for customers at the dealership are on the ship.

“They’re ordered vehicles that they’ve put deposits on,” Dunn said. “It’s outside of everybody’s hands, so they’re understanding of it.”

But Dunn said the fire won’t put too much of a crimp in his dealership’s operations.

“Might be a little speed bump, but it’s not going to impact us that much,” he said. One reason: He’s expecting another shipment on a different ship.

Village Automotive Group in Boston had more than 20 Porsches and Audis on the Felicity Ace, all of which had been sold, said president Ray Ciccolo. That means at least 20 difficult conversations with customers, including his brother and sister-in-law, who were waiting on a new Audi.

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“We have to be honest with them and tell them, ‘You know that car we said was coming? Well, it’s not coming,’” he said.

Ciccolo expects the situation will take a toll on the company’s finances in the short term, but he hopes he will be able to recoup the losses whenever manufacturers are able to ship replacement vehicles.

“Customers have already been waiting so long,” he said. “We’re hoping that they will be willing to wait a little while longer.”

Mike Barsamian, known for the beauty empire he built in Boston, learned Saturday that the $177,000 Bentley SUV he ordered last summer was aboard the Felicity Ace. So was a two-door coupe his Dedham neighbor George Violin, an ophthalmologist, purchased, and the four-door sedan his friend Ernie Boch Jr., chief executive of Subaru of New England, had been waiting on. 

Barsamian met with his dealer in Naples, Fla., where he now resides, to confirm the news.

If the vehicles on the boat can’t be saved, Barsamian’s dealer told him Bentley would “fast track” new cars, either during its April or June manufacturing periods.

“The cars might be totaled, or there might be smoke damage,” Barsamian said. “If there’s any kind of damage, they said we won’t get it.”

Captain Michael R. Burns Jr. doesn’t have a car on the Felicity Ace. Nonetheless, he’s been paying close attention to the at-sea blaze. The Massachusetts Maritime Academy official, who has captained ocean-going vessels, said a fire on board a ship is the most frightening and dangerous circumstance a crew faces during what is already a dangerous profession.

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”I don’t think there’s that much of a risk for just, you know, blowing up like a like a bomb, though the fire certainly can spread,” Burns said. “I’m sure there’ll be a professional salvage company that will come and take control of the vessel and they’ll probably try to get the fire under control before they tow a burning ship into port. I don’t think anybody would let them in.”

Meantime, people like the Vavras are anxious for more information. Joshua Vavra said he and his wife opted for a Porsche because “we just kind of decided to splurge” on a replacement for an aging Audi.

“If we’d ordered a new Audi,” he said, “we might have been in the same boat. Literally.”

Updated to include details from Mike Barsamian.

Carlos Munoz of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism. Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab. John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.