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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Superferry back in service

Video: Superferry sails to Maui
Photo gallery: Superferry back in service

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Passenger travel was light as the Superferry returned to service after six weeks in drydock.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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After six weeks in drydock, Hawaii Superferry's high-speed catamaran returned to duty yesterday, completing an uneventful roundtrip from Honolulu to Maui with a light load of fewer than 100 passengers and 20 vehicles each way.

Unsure of the greeting the 350-foot Alakai would receive at Kahului Harbor, the Coast Guard dispatched three vessels and a helicopter to provide security for the new interisland ferry, which was the target of protests during initial sailings in August and December.

Superferry president and CEO John Garibaldi said the Alakai's earlier-than-expected return from drydock repairs was "coincidental" to last week's abrupt demise of ATA and Aloha airlines passenger service in the Islands.

He said the company was eager to get its $85 million vessel back in action and didn't mind the light load on the ferry's first day out after repairs.

"We consider this a soft opening, and we'll ramp it up as our employees get in the groove," he said. " ... I think it's going to grow. We were just anxious to get back in the water and sailing again."

With winter sea conditions and humpback whale season drawing to a close, Superferry is hoping to regain customer confidence and establish itself as a viable interisland transportation alternative for passengers and cargo.

The Alakai's previous voyages took place amid concerns about the potential for whale strikes, increased traffic, the spread of invasive species and other environmental impacts. Yesterday's sailing occurred within the context of the airline shutdowns, job losses and economic worries.

As the vessel backed away from Pier 19 at about 6:15 a.m. yesterday, employees stood at the security gate waving aloha and clapping their hands, happy to be working again. More than half of Superferry's 300 employees were furloughed while the Alakai was in drydock, and most are back on the job.

Passenger Wayne Swan of Honolulu took advantage of special $39 one-way fares to sightsee on the Alakai.

"I missed the initial sailings so when I heard about this last week, I booked it," he said. "We're just going to Maui and coming back right away."

New Yorker Rajnikant Ray and his family found out about the ferry service yesterday while walking around in Waikiki.

"It cost us $267 for six of us," Ray said. "It's a chance to enjoy another island."

The Alakai arrived at Kahului Harbor about 9:40 a.m., about a half-hour ahead of schedule. Except for a handful of fishermen and homeless campers and a couple of surfers riding 1- to 2-foot swells in the harbor, there was no one on hand for the ferry's arrival.

Present to enforce a 100-yard security zone around the vessel, if need be, were the 87-foot Coast Guard patrol boat Kittiwake out of Lihu'e, Kaua'i, and 25-foot and 47-foot boats from Ma'alaea. A Dolphin HH-65A helicopter whirred overhead, providing standby assistance for sea rescues while the other Coast Guard resources were diverted for the ferry, said Lt. John Titchen.

At 11:10 a.m., the Alakai backed away from its Maui berth to begin the return trip to Honolulu.

The ferry sailed only eight days in February before going into drydock for repairs and was not scheduled to resume service until April 23.

During the February voyages, the ferry carried an average of 115 people and 40 cars from Honolulu to Maui, and 87 people and 39 cars from Maui to Honolulu, according to the Hawaii Inter-Island Large Capacity Ferry Vessel Oversight Task Force's March report to the Legislature.

Superferry's anticipated daily passenger load was 400. The vessel can carry 866 people and 282 cars.

Garibaldi declined to comment yesterday on the financial impact of lost revenue from the extended drydock period, two weeks of voyage cancellations due to rough winter seas, and a three-month suspension of service last fall in the wake of a Hawai'i Supreme Court ruling supporting the need for environmental studies of the new ferry operation.

He testified during an October court hearing that company expenses run approximately $650,000 a month. He also has said the $250 million enterprise has adequate resources to weather its unsteady start.

Kaua'i service remains on hold indefinitely, and the company plans to use the Alakai for a second daily roundtrip to Maui. No date for the additional service has been announced.

Garibaldi yesterday said construction of a second vessel is on schedule, with anticipated delivery of the ship and a tentative start date of early 2009 for service to Kawaihae on the Big Island.

Advertiser staff writer Dave Dondoneau contributed to this report.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.