Hundreds of Kauai protesters block ferry
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Hundreds of protesters on surfboards, swimming in the harbor and lining the docks held the Hawaii Superferry at bay for nearly two hours yesterday at Nawiliwili Harbor on Kaua'i, setting the stage for a legal showdown in a Maui courtroom this morning.
The U.S. Coast Guard used force to secure waters around the harbor where swimmers and surfers created a human blockade that had prevented the Superferry's 350-foot-long vessel, the Alakai, from entering the harbor.
The clash came as the beleaguered Hawaii Superferry launched its inaugural service yesterday with $5, one-way fares that attracted more than 2,200 passengers.
Kaua'i swimmers and surfers, cheered on by nearly 300 protesters on shore, occupied the middle of the harbor channel and turned back the Superferry.
At least 34 people swam out into the path of the ferry during the late afternoon. They stayed until three Coast Guard rigid-hulled inflatables, with a Coast Guard cutter standing by, began powering between the swimmers and surfers, appearing to charge at individual swimmers, taking one surfer's board and apparently trying to haul some of the group out of the water.
"They had a hook," said one female surfer. "I splashed them, and they told me that was illegal. They tried to hook me, but I paddled away as fast as I could."
Some of the protesters were arrested, but it was not known how many.
Earlier, the ferry backed out of the harbor about 6 p.m. after a half-hour standoff with 16 swimmers and surfers during which only a single Coast Guard vessel was present. As people on shore cheered and chanted slogans, the ferry remained on station a half-mile outside the harbor.
A second Coast Guard boat left the Coast Guard Station at 6:30 p.m. and a third about 6:45 p.m. During the same period, more and more people from shore began swimming and paddling into the harbor. The boats moved among the surfers, photographing them and telling them to leave.
"They (told us) that we needed to leave," said swimmer James Gerard Trujillo.
"I was saying to them, protect our waters. I told them I had a right to be here," said Pua La'a. She said she had to repeatedly dive to keep from being grabbed by officers.
Surfer Dennis Chun said he tried to tell Coast Guard officers that the group was acting in defense of the Hawai'i Supreme Court, which ruled last week that the Superferry needed an environmental assessment.
About 150 people had been holding signs and participating in a rally during the afternoon, but the crowd grew as the time for the ferry arrival approached. By about 5:30 p.m., with the ferry visible on the horizon outside Nawiliwili Harbor, more than 200 people, many with anti-ferry signs, lined the end of the Nawiliwili Jetty, and nearly 100 more milled up and down the road leading to the jetty. Soon, swimmers and surfers began swimming out to the harbor ship channel.
As the ferry came in, about 16 men and women were in the water, holding position. The ferry stopped in the harbor's outer channel. A Coast Guard boat patrolled, but the swimmers did not leave. About 6 p.m., as its passengers crowded against an upper deck railing to watch, the big ship backed out of the harbor, until it appeared to be about a half-mile outside the entrance.
"Push 'em back, way back," the crowd chanted.
RETREAT, THEN ADVANCE
The ferry stayed offshore for more than an hour, and then came back in once the Coast Guard presence had been fortified. It passed the end of the harbor breakwater at 7 p.m.
"Go home," members of the crowd yelled to the ferry passengers. The ferry moved into the bay with one Coast Guard boat to starboard and two to port. The ship stopped, and the Coast Guard vessels moved into the group of protesters in the water.
The orange Coast Guard boats appeared to be moving randomly among the swimmers and surfers, with an officer standing by a deck gun on one of the boats, and others wielding boat hooks. Some surfers were paddling hard to stay away. Some swimmers dove repeatedly to escape as the Coast Guard boats powered toward them.
About 7:15 p.m., there was enough room, and the Superferry moved forward, swinging around the south side of the protesters, who were kept at bay by the three Coast Guard boats.
"It's not too common for federal forces to go against the citizenry," said psychiatrist Gary Blaich, who was watching the event. "It's been a while."
Many of the people protesting the Superferry's arrival said the company's decision to move up its starting date, and offering $5 fares, got them out.
"We're not all anti-ferry. We're anti the way it's come," Trujillo said.
"The Superferry jumped the gun on service out of sheer desperation. They were facing poor sales and a likely court injunction to cease operation before Tuesday," said Juan Wilson, of Hanapepe.
Kaua'i County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said she believes the ferry's decision to operate in spite of the Supreme Court ruling suggests "the owners and investors of the Superferry have chosen to violate both the letter and the spirit of the law."
Many of the people in the protest crowd expressed anger that the Coast Guard was herding swimmers rather than boarding the ferry.
"Arrest the captain, he's right there," one yelled.
"This is going to change the island in ways that are not easy to calculate," said Barbara Robeson.
"If they come, going get chaos. These guys (the Superferry operators) going disrespect the law, and then these guys (the protesters) going disrespect the law," said Kane Turalde.
After the passengers and cars were finally disembarked, the company issued the following statement:
"We are extremely disappointed for the passengers who were booked on the voyage to Kaua'i and those who were scheduled for the return trip to O'ahu. We have received 22,000 people attending our open houses on O'ahu, Maui, Kaua'i and the island of Hawai'i and those who booked more than 20,000 voyages on the Alakai. Community members on all islands have been looking forward to the launch ... And, we are sorry to see that minority dissident groups have chosen to oppose a service that the people of Hawai'i have overwhelmingly embraced."
Environmentalists have said they would ask a Maui Circuit judge for an injunction as early as today that would bar the Superferry from using state harbors until such an environmental study is conducted.
Such a study would take months or even years to complete.
"I think it was very cavalier for them to do this," Rob Parsons, conservation chairman for Sierra Club's Maui branch, said earlier yesterday of the moved-up inaugural launch.
STATE SUPPORTS FERRY
The state Department of Transportation, which has exempted the Superferry from conducting an environmental assessment, will likely oppose plans for an injunction at tomorrow's hearing.
"The state supports the Superferry because it is good for the people of Hawai'i," said Deputy Attorney General Bill Wynhoff.
John Garibaldi, Hawaii Superferry's president and chief executive officer, said yesterday morning that the company has conducted extensive environmental studies on its vessel designs. He said Superferry opponents are "using this as an issue to drive their own agendas and not the agendas and wants of the people of Hawai'i."
"Some people want to use this as a stopping mechanism," Garibaldi said.
"This is not a new plane coming in. It's a whole new way to travel ... The people of Hawai'i want an alternative transportation mode."
The reaction on Kaua'i was in stark contrast to the company's maiden voyage to Kahului, Maui, earlier in the day when only about a dozen people protested.
Representatives from the Sierra Club of Maui and Maui Tomorrow Foundation staged a peaceful demonstration along Pu'unene and West Ka'ahumanu avenues but did not confront company officials or passengers.
The three-hour Maui trip went as scheduled and the ride went relatively smoothly. Passengers praised the new service, saying it took less time to board and load a car than to wait for a flight at Honolulu Airport.
"It was easier than flying. There was no security hassles," said Kihei resident Chris Handlir. "And for $5, why not?"
Honolulu resident M.T. Tuaileva said he was saddened by the opposition to the ferry service. He said he believes a majority of residents support the plan.
"Everyone in Hawai'i wanted this to happen except the lawyers and the environmentalists," he said.
"It's really harmful to the economy."
Correction: The state Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Transportation should conduct an environmental assessment on state-funded harbor improvements. Stories that ran on Sunday and yesterday in Page A1 in the print edition, and that appeared on the Advertiser Website, inaccurately reported the ruling was for the Hawaii Superferry to do an assessment on impacts of ferry service.
Correction: The Hawaii Superferry voyage Sunday from Kauai to Oahu was one hour behind schedule because the company accelerated its turn-around time. A previous version of this story contained inaccurate information.