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Hawaii Superferry Underway Ahead of Schedule, but Cancels Future Sailings

Under the watchful eye of the United States Coast Guard and packed with passengers paying a discount fare, the long-awaited Hawaii Superferry kicked off this week with a maiden voyage to Maui. The innovative, but locally controversial ferry departed with more than 500 passengers and 150 automobiles. Although the Coast Guard had to help clear out a few protesters to make it happen, former Navy Secretary John Lehman’s dream of bringing regular, affordable and practical transit service to the Hawaiian Islands got off to a good start. That ended just as abruptly as Hawaii Superferry indefinitely canceled all future Kaua'i trips following protests that prevented it from docking on Monday night.

The island’s first-ever passenger ferry service among the Hawaiian Islands still faces uphill court battles related to the vessel’s potential environmental impact. In a press release issued on Tuesday, Superferry executives said that they had suspended service to Kaua’i and would resume only “when Coast Guard and Other Agencies Can Assure a Safe Operating Environment.” At a press conference held at its offices, Hawaii Superferry management said that the U.S. Coast Guard would not be able to assure safe passage for the vessel into Nawiliwili Harbor. On Monday, several hundred protesters prevented the 350-foot catamaran from entering the harbor for three hours. Eventually, the vessel turned around and headed back to Honolulu.

On Wednesday, Superferry executives got more bad news when a state judge denied a request to lift a temporary restraining order that bars Hawaii Superferry from using Maui's Kahului Harbor. The company and the state maintain that the ferry should be allowed to operate while a required environmental assessment is done. The next hearing is scheduled for September 6, the day the temporary restraining order is set to expire. Previously, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the state should have required an environmental assessment of publicly-funded projects related to ferry operations. Hawaii Superferry spokespersons told MarEx today that, “The voyages between Oahu and Maui are suspended, at least, until September 11. The voyages between Oahu and Kauai are suspended indefinitely until Hawaii Superferry receives assurances of a safe passage into Nawiliwili Harbor from the Coast Guard.”

“Our top priority is to operate a safe and reliable ferry system for Hawaii’s residents. When that can be accomplished, we will resume service,” said Hawaii Superferry president and CEO John Garibaldi. For passengers who had traveled on the O‘ahu/Kaua‘i service that are impacted by this suspension of service, Hawaii Superferry also said that it would pay for their return air fare, ground transportation, hotel accommodations, car shipment and other related expenses.

Intended to connect Hawaii’s islands, communities and people by providing an affordable and convenient inter-island travel and transportation alternative, the Hawaii Superferry has not been without its detractors. The Superferry had already been barred from operating the route from Honolulu to Maui because of a temporary restraining order issued Monday by 2nd Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza. And Tuesday’s decision preceded a crucial hearing before a Maui judge who will consider what could be a suspension of the company's Maui service until the state completes an environmental assessment.

Although Coast Guard officials conceded that protesters were breaking the law, they also said that the situation in Nawiliwili would not have permitted a safe transit into the harbor. “In this instance, the risk level was too high for the vessel, its passengers and for the protesters," said Capt. Vince Atkins, the Coast Guard's Captain of the Port, Honolulu. But in the wake of Monday’s protest incident, local news reports were indicating that the Coast Guard was ramping up its forces to prevent similar occurrences. A 110-foot cutter and its crew of 18, as well three 25-foot, semi-rigid-hull boats and a 15-member Marine Safety and Security Team were to be dispatched to augment the 20 Coast Guardsmen stationed on Kaua'i and another 87-foot patrol boat, based at Nawiliwili Harbor.

At issue for the opponents of Superferry is the potential environmental impact of the new service on the local ecosystem and the possibility of the fast-moving boat to hit whales. But supporters say the ferry is being treated unfairly because other harbor users such as cruise ships did not have to go through the same extensive environmental reviews. They contend that the standards should apply to all players in this market. The Superferry’s design incorporates many environmentally-friendly design features, including the ship's water jet propulsion system that eliminates exposed propellers which might strike aquatic animals.

Opposition to the Superferry appears to be emanating from a small, but vocal group of protesters who are couching their objections to the Superferry under the guise of environmental issues. But the Superferry’s goal of allowing all Hawaiians to travel freely between islands in an economic fashion, as well as to promote local business ventures, also has the local elite -- who see their private, unreachable world suddenly impacted by everyday residents -- worried. 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 have not gone unnoticed by Hawaii Superferry and its supporters. Before Sunday’s inaugural voyage, the only local travel option available to the state’s estimated 1.2 million residents was by local airlines. Based on the events of this week, they may have to wait a bit longer for that to change permanently. - MarEx