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HOW NOT TO RUN A FERRY SERVICE By David Walker

posted 4 Jun 2017, 05:22 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 4 Jun 2017, 05:24 ]

On the morning of Thursday 1st June, 2017 I awoke early to travel to Port-of-Spain from the West of the island in order to acquire a confirmed ticket to Tobago on the afternoon sailing. My late booking was normal for me as I have a very fluid business schedule that forces late decisions about travel times. The ferry service is therefore ideal and welcome. I also love the sea and enjoy the journeys. 

 I arrived at the port at about 8:30 am and was able to acquire a confirmed ticket with no fuss. I did observe that there were a few travellers seated in the lobby, which was unusual as the passengers for the early sailing (6:30) should already have departed. I paid little attention to it though, and departed for other business in Port-of-Spain.

On my return shortly after 3:00 pm, I found that the boat had already been boarded for the 4:00 pm sailing. I checked in and boarded smoothly, moving quickly in the hope of finding a convenient seat (the a/c unit does not work well in some areas). I was again pleased to find a seat that I was happy with, in the company of three ladies whose company I would have readily chosen had I known the joie-de-vivre that they exuded so effortlessly.

At the scheduled departure time, I heard the engine start, then stop again abruptly. A lot of frenzied activity followed for about a half hour whereupon we were informed of an engine problem that needed to be resolved. It was said that we should be on the way by about 5:00 pm. At 5:00 pm we were still moored at the dock, and this pattern of promises of “sailing soon” followed by further similar announcements was to be repeated ad nauseam.

Finally, at about 8:00 pm it was announced that the engine problem could not be solved and that the sailing was being cancelled. Patrons were instructed to disembark. I should add that some exasperated passengers had already left by then, as those who wish to do so were allowed to leave. It was at this point that a group of the remaining passengers declared that they had no intention of leaving as they had no alternative accommodation at which to wait for the morning sailing which was promised to be at 07:30 on a Water Taxi, hurriedly commissioned for the purpose.

Through all of this time, the lack of clear management was palpable. There was no person on board to whom passengers could go for authoritative answers. I got the impression that the staff themselves did not have access to a person of unquestioned authority. We, and the staff, were faced with a crisis situation without the help of a crisis management plan and with no person on board with the authority to take necessary action to deal with the problem in a timely manner.

It was during this period that other stories started to be related. The most distressing to me personally was the fact that some 

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passengers had arrived for the early (06:30) sailing which did not sail. Some of these people had young children including babies, in tow. What were they to do? How would they be accommodated overnight? The offer of a few slices of bacon on dry bread, as was provided, hardly counted as a meal in the circumstances.

I personally spoke with the manager at the terminal at this point about what was to be provided for his stranded passengers. His response was illuminating. Managers had been specifically instructed that they had NO AUTHORITY to provide any form of compensation or to provide any extra services to passengers in the situation which prevailed. I phoned another terminal manager who confirmed the existence of the instruction from “higher up” as described.

It is nothing short of remarkable that managers were instructed that passengers should be left to their own devices while there was no contingency plan for dealing with a crisis of this nature. Given the known problems with the boat, this was always likely to occur and in fact will probably do so again very soon. I repeat, there is clearly no contingency plan in place to deal with it, other than to ensure, through specific instructions that vulnerable passengers are made to suffer.

Had passengers not stood firm and remained on board, I shudder to think what would have been their experience, especially those with young children. I salute them, as a great deal of pressure was placed on them to vacate the boat, including not so subtle threats. They showed us all what can be achieved when disaffected people stand as one in the face of malevolent authority. I especially salute those who took a leadership role. They know who they are.

On Friday morning we all returned to the check-in area as instructed. The systems were clearly not desigImage result for tobagoferry terminalned to deal with tickets being booked in twice and the manual process was tortuous. Once again, it appeared that management was unprepared. The manual process could be much faster with a little thought. Given that the need for re-bookings is likely to recur, I respectfully suggest that a process be devised and documented. This is not the first or last time it will be experienced.

After the slow re-booking, we were told to wait until we received instructions to go to the area where we would board the water taxi. Shortly before 6:00 am we left the booking area for the water taxi terminal as instructed. Upon arrival, we found the terminal locked. More woes for passengers: only partly alleviated by the welcome sight of Breakfast Shed next door. Thank you to some of the owners and staff there who were very understanding and helpful.

At around 6:00 am, a person from the water taxi service turned up. She politely explained that they had been asked to assist the ferry service and were making every effort to do so. She then told us that the vessel would arrive not at 7:30 but at 8:30 and that we would depart at about 9:00. Naturally passengers were disappointed and angry and some expressed their feelings forcefully. Nevertheless, we were allowed into the premises to await our journey.

The water taxi arrived at about 8:30 as indicated and we set off at about 9:00. The sailing was rough but we made it in good time and docked shortly before 12:30. You would think that was the end but sadly it was not. It was another 15 minutes or so before they could get the ramp properly in place for us to disembark and another 45 minutes before our luggage was taken off so that we could retrieve it. Finally, it was over.

Image result for tobagoferry terminalI am left with a multitude of feelings after the ordeal. One was shame and embarrassment that this is the best that we could do as a nation. I know from having seen the data that we spend more than enough to have a first class service, with the capacity to deal with contingencies such as this. Through every step of the way during this experience, the incompetence and callousness of senior management shone through. Likewise, with few exceptions I have nothing but praise for the staff who had to face angry customers without adequate information or guidance. The problems have their genesis at the top.

Every aspect of management failed. The notion of contingency planning seems to be alien to those in charge. Out of this experience could and should easily come a set of recommendations for improvement going forward. Does the leadership, does the Minister, have the requisite fortitude to deal  with the realities that we suffered or will they allow themselves to be further embarrassed by acting on the advice of those who mislead them either deliberately or through incompetence? We need a radical change,not tinkering at the edges or even a new boat. 

As a human being it was a traumatic experience. As a finance and management professional I gained an education that could not be obtained by other means. Management is the problem. Fix that and we're on the way to improvement. I have much more to say and offer. If there is a will to move forward, I can be reached at d.walker@alcindorwalker.com. 

The boat is not the problem. Management is.
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