Waiting for that Ship to Come In
Visiting Kauai in a post-Hawaii Superferry world while paying last respects to the recently-departed concept known as Title XI.
Kauai, Hawaii: Standing on the pier this past week, clutching my $7 bottle of spring water, I scanned the horizon over and over again, searching in vain for the arrival of the Hawaii Superferry. It never came and it never will. The reasons for that have been hashed over a hundred times, but given the opportunity to nose around a bit for myself while also fulfilling my obligations here at a “destination” wedding; I revisited the scene of the crime. What I found out isn’t all that earthshaking, but for me, it did put the final nail in the coffin of this saga. You can probably also kiss Title XI goodbye, while we’re at it.
It has been almost three years since a bunch of gnarly surfer dudes defeated the Coast Guard in the battle of Nawiliwi Harbor. Protesters on surfboards blocked the harbor entrance and because the Coast Guard was unable to control them, HSF executives then made the wise decision to turn around and head back to Honolulu with a full load of disappointed passengers. Service was suspended indefinitely at that point, and ultimately, never recommenced. A temporary security zone in waters of Nawiliwili Harbor, Kauai and around adjacent jetties came too late, as did a weak law enforcement response to those protests. The courts eventually finished the job and today, the average Hawaiian citizen is all but prevented from traveling freely between the various islands. But, you knew all that.
I spent much of the past week exploring this beautiful place. In between wedding-related functions, I also asked a lot of questions. Typically, this involved a casual query – specifically, “So, what was the deal with this Hawaii Superferry thing and what’s your take on all of it?” – to local residents, bartenders and even the guy who parked my rental car. Their comments spanned the full spectrum of logic and stupidity, anger and frustration and, predictably, some triumph in the demise of former Navy Secretary John Lehman’s attempt to deliver practical, unquestionably environmentally correct and affordable transportation solutions to Hawaii’s 1.2 million residents.
A short cruise on a 60-foot boat provided the perfect nautical backdrop as an excuse to be suitably nosey. A young deckhand was the first to speak up. “Nobody wanted that thing,” I was told firmly. Really? Why? “Well, we had to keep out the frogs.” Frogs? “Yes, they come over in people’s cars.” Wow. You mean like invasive species? “No, frogs.” The Superferry could hit and kill whales, the crewmember continued. I replied that this was certainly a legitimate complaint, but wasn’t it possible that our boat might do the same thing as we hurtled through the swells at 17 KT? “No, we’ve got lookouts.” Oh – well, who is the lookout then? “Me. Would you like another chardonnay?” Yes, please!
With my drink sloshing dangerously like an overfilled bunker tank, I lurched my way up to the conning station where I hoped to drag something a bit more lucid out of our helmsman. The boat’s senior officer proved to be exceedingly open and pragmatic. “The superferry would have saved us a ton of money in terms of getting supplies and spares to the island. The airfreight is expensive and the local interisland water freight service is no better.” He then advised me that he was all for the Superferry, but they had gone about it “all wrong.” Really? How so? “Well, they should’ve waited for the EIS to be completed.” Fair enough. Did you have to get an EIS completed in order to start or keep running in these trades? “Well, no.” I glanced down at his handsome diesel display panels, engines running smoothly in our run back to the dock. Are you running green, low-sulphur diesel? “Well, no. We’re supposed to but we can’t get it right now so they let us operate without it.” Oh…
I wanted to continue the conversation, but at that very moment, another, more attractive passenger had muscled her way onto the wheel and our driver was temporarily distracted in his opportunity to show her, up-close-and-personal, the proper way to execute a lazy turn to starboard. Disappointed, I returned (below deck) to find our knowledgeable whale lookout, a lifejacket and another glass of California chardonnay. We finished the cruise without hitting anything and returned back to the pier to continue on with our excellent adventure.
The next morning, and back at my none-too-cheap condominium, I took the kids down to the pool for a quick dip before another mandatory wedding event. We met a very nice elderly couple from the mainland who, six or seven years previous, decided to move to Kauai permanently. We exchanged pleasantries and I wasted no time in launching into my mission. “They never had a chance,” the older gentleman deadpanned. “The protesters – small in number – were too well organized.” As it turned out, they were apparently well-financed, too. I was told that local, wealthy and longtime residents simply did not want anyone else on the island. Our new retired friends were otherwise neutral on the concept. One way or another, so they claimed, it made no difference to them.
Back at the condo, I toweled off in full view of six of the fourteen signs posted at various intervals inside the two bedroom unit, all admonishing us to “turn off the air conditioning whenever possible.” On the other hand, and since I had specifically requested this amenity (you really have to dig for A/C) in my Internet search for accommodations, I had little sympathy for the news that Kauai is supposedly saddled with some the nation’s highest electricity rates. It also turns out that the juice is supplied by a diesel generator on the island. No word (yet) on what percentage sulphur fuel they are running, but maybe Kauai isn’t nearly as green as our secretly-funded-gnarly-surfer-dude-protesters would like you to think. I’m not too sure how safe the whales are, either.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. It was tremendous week spent in one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been, punctuated by a terrifying but exhilarating “zipline” ride over a 1,200 foot gorge. It was also the most expensive place I have ever been, starting with – and I am not making this up – a $23 glass of white wine (my bother-in-law, tongue-in-cheek, chided me for getting the least expensive glass on the menu) and a $19 BLT made with a pasty tomato that had likely been flown in from the mainland, despite the most fertile growing conditions on the planet. But, there’s virtually no way to get that produce quickly or economically to the mainland, or even the other islands, for that matter. Not since the superferry departed, that is. A leisurely drive across the island provides, in addition to the spectacular mountainous landscapes, a full view of acre upon acre of rich land, no longer farmed and lying fallow. That’s the way it will probably stay, too.
The final local input of the week was also the most illuminating. A local contractor out of Honolulu insisted that he loved the ferry, primarily for the quick mobility it allowed him in his business. He also said that what killed it was the front money provided by others, helping the environmentalists to sue. Sadly, it was never Lehman’s intention to cater to the tourism trade or compete with established freight services.
The Future for Alakai; the End of Title XI
The twin-hulled, $85-million ferry Alakai now sits idle with its sister ship in Norfolk, VA, awaiting possible sale. The environmentally groundbreaking, Jones Act compliant 450-foot ferry was designed to carry about 285 vehicles and more than 800 passengers between the island of Oahu and two neighboring islands, Maui and Kauai. Arguably, the service would have brought to life a myriad of small businesses that could not otherwise make it under conditions that make inter-island commerce all but unaffordable. That sounds like shortsea shipping to me.
The two Superferry vessels also languish under a $150 million lien from the U.S. Maritime Administration, who originally guaranteed the Title XI loan to get the project started. Back in Hawaii, though, local politicians are today making noise about reviving the project, but according to the federal Maritime Administration, that’s unlikely. MARAD Chief David Matsuda was recently quoted as saying, “The Maritime Administration is planning to bid on the vessels on behalf of the federal government, given the investment we have made, and we expect that to happen any time in next month or so." Matsuda further indicated that the federal government valued the two hulls for their military utility. Fair enough. That’s the first bit of wisdom out of MARAD in months, if you ask me.
The Superferry’s demise was, in part, precipitated by its alleged potential environmental impact on the local ecosystem and the possibility that the fast-moving boat might hit whales. HSF backers said that the ferry was ultimately treated unfairly because other harbor users did not have to go through the same extensive environmental reviews. In sharp contrast, local cruise ship traffic has not received nearly as much attention from activists, despite the increased environmental footprint left by larger vessels, handling far more passengers. The inequities of the two positions ultimately made no difference. And, to be fair, there was plenty of blame to go around as the Superferry took “last line” for the final time in this island paradise.
This one can’t be blamed entirely on the local people and business community in Hawaii. Had MARAD followed – or insisted upon – standard NEPA protocol and reached a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) before agreeing to the loan guarantee, we might not be looking at a bargain basement auction in Norfolk for two of the most environmentally sound vessels ever constructed in the United States. And you can’t blame this situation on Secretary LaHood or MARAD Chief Matsuda, either. They are here only to clean up the mess and hopefully make sure that it doesn’t happen again. As for the Superferry’s original business backers, they took a chance, plunged ahead and I’m quite sure the local anti-Superferry contingent would say that they got exactly what they deserved. I don’t necessarily agree with that premise. Had the playing field been leveled for all waterborne platforms in this market, I might change my mind.
A Happy Ending for Some
With my week in paradise sadly at an end, wedding vows exchanged and the party over, it was time to head home. I herded the kids into my dented and scratched rental car and puttered back – past all that abandoned fallow farmland – to the Lihue Airport for the flight home. It then occurred to me that car rental companies might not have been exactly thrilled to see the superferry, either. I mean, after all, that would entail (faced with someone who had another choice) providing a reasonably priced vehicle with less than 17,000 miles on the odometer. No; Kauai will remain out of reach for all but the wealthiest of Hawaii’s residents and the usual influx of tourists. Kauai’s local elite, worried that their private, unreachable world might be visited every day by * gasp * regular folk, can now breathe a heavy sigh of relief.
The Superferry vessels will no doubt and very soon find a new lease on life somewhere else. The high-quality hulls are simply too versatile and valuable to let them perish in a MARAD reserve fleet. The rush to find a “good news shortsea shipping Jones Act story” has, however, led us to this somewhat unhappy ending. Beyond this, it is difficult for me to imagine that the federal government will, any time in the foreseeable future, even remotely consider guaranteeing another high-dollar Title XI loan. That said, stranger things have happened at DOT and MARAD. And, you don’t need me to tell you that. – MarPro.
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.