There’s one blunder sure to snarl summer travel plans to Nantucket: forgetful vacationers failing to book ferry reservations months in advance, then having to scramble to figure out how to get themselves — and their vehicles — to the island.
This year, United Parcel Service has joined their unlucky ranks.
During the early priority booking window the Steamship Authority makes available to freight shippers, UPS neglected to request reservations for its trucks, said James Malkin, a member of the Steamship Authority’s governing board. By the time the apparent error came to light, ferries to Nantucket for the busy season — from May to October — were booked close to capacity for large shipping trucks.
Now the Steamship Authority and UPS are rushing to make contingency plans, and some Nantucket merchants are starting to panic. Clothing, televisions, hardware, bathroom tiles, most things that can fit in a box usually reach the island on a UPS truck.
“It’s going to put us in a world of hurt,” said Shantaw Bloise, business manager at the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce.
UPS is the biggest carrier of standard deliveries to the wealthy enclave, Bloise said. “I can’t imagine how we’ll be able to function just relying on DHL, FedEx, and the Postal Service.”
Stephanie Correia, who runs Stephanie’s, a clothing and home goods store on Main Street, said she relies on UPS for most of her inventory. And in the summer, when she makes approximately 75 percent of her annual profits, it’s especially important that those goods arrive. She relies on UPS for deliveries to her home, as well.
For an island community 30 miles out to sea, she said, “it’s a lifeline for business, for homeowners, for Amazon.”
Failing to make ferry reservations is practically an unthinkable error for residents and merchants, she said.
“You cross your T’s and dot your I’s,” Correia said. “I’ve been in business for 26 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The Steamship Authority has a system in place that is meant to ensure this type of disruption — first reported by Nantucket Magazine — never occurs.
Every fall, the authority sends a packet of paperwork to freight shippers. The companies return the paperwork with their requests for ferry reservations for their following summer. That way, spots for the shippers’ trucks can be reserved before booking is opened to the public in January.
Last fall, UPS didn’t respond, Malkin said. When the Steamship Authority reached out to ask why not, it didn’t immediately hear back. “Someone at UPS dropped the ball,” he said.
At some point — Malkin said he’s not quite sure when — “the light bulb went off” and UPS discovered the error and scrambled to grab whatever reservations they could. The shipping company has secured some summer slots for its eighteen-wheelers — the vehicles it uses to transport deliveries to its Nantucket distribution center. “But they don’t have what they need,” Malkin said.
A spokesperson for UPS said, “UPS has ferry reservations and is working on other transportation options to ensure packages are delivered on time to the island during the busy summer season.”
Some on the island have a sense that all will work out in the end.
“In Nantucket, if you make enough noise, they deal with it,” said William D. Cohan, a writer who owns a house on the island. “The summer folks are going to have to get their twee outfits they ordered from Hermès online.”
Vanessa Moore, a customer service representative at Nantucket Housefitters, said she is sure the Steamship Authority will find a way to solve the problem. “Usually they’ll put another ship on” in the case of a scheduling disruption, she said.
But the authority says adding capacity might not be possible.
“We’re basically at the maximum number of routes right now in terms of the number of boats and the number of crew members,” said Sean Driscoll, a spokesman for the authority. “There might be a couple of trips here and there we can add, but not on any kind of systemic basis.”
“There’s no secret tunnel for the freight shippers,” he said.
One problem is that traffic to the island has increased during the pandemic, with pent-up vacation demand combining with a surge of city dwellers lured by the chance to work remotely.
“The reservations for this year exceeded any prior year by significant percentages,” Malkin said.
UPS appears not to have a problem with its ferry reservations for Martha’s Vineyard, even though bulk reservations for both islands are typically requested on the same form. Driscoll, the authority’s spokesman, said that it may be easier to resolve a scheduling issue on the Martha’s Vineyard route, which has more trips and more boats. (He said he was speaking generally because he was not permitted to comment on a specific customer.)
On Nantucket, disruption in UPS’s service, if it is not resolved by May, is expected to hit retailers and households the hardest. The island’s only hospital relies on FedEx for supplies. Food, fuel, and large shipments, such as refrigerators, are typically handled by other carriers.
“We get two UPS deliveries a day,” said Moore, of Nantucket Housefitters. “Our clients won’t be getting the tiles for their bathroom floors.”
Bloise, of the Chamber of Commerce, said “people are going to have to get creative.” One store owner, whose vendors are based in New York, told Bloise she is considering bringing her goods to the island herself.
But creativity can only take one so far. For tourists who miss the winter booking rush, there are workarounds.
“You take the fast ferry and leave your car in Hyannis,” said Cohan, the island homeowner. “But having the UPS guy leave his truck and walk onto the ferry with his packages isn’t going to work.”