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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 23, 2005

Nothing smooth on SeaFlite

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Thirty years ago, when you could buy a round-trip interisland ticket for $50, Hawai'i people, unaware of how amazingly affordable and hassle-free that would seem in years to come, welcomed an alternative means of travel.

For about $20 one-way and five or six times the travel time, you could see the coastline and lose your breakfast on SeaFlite.

Service began in June 1975 with three boats making 12 trips a day. The local media raved.

You won't get queasy, we were told, because the hydrofoil skims above the waves making for a smooth ride.

Yeah, right.

The boats were more fun to watch from land.

In February 1976, then-State Rep. Ben Cayetano, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, took a ride on SeaFlite. It was a rough day at sea. Cayetano reportedly got an "upset stomach" and had to take a nap.

Still, SeaFlite kept scoring points in public relations.

In June 1976, a beached dolphin was rescued and taken to medical attention by SeaFlite.

SeaFlite saved a swimmer in distress off Diamond Head.

In October 1976, SeaFlite assisted Hokule'a in the Kaua'i channel. The Coast Guard gave SeaFlite a plaque.

But there were just as many mishaps and missteps.

In the summer of 1976, a SeaFlite captain clipped a Coast Guard boat while docking in Ma'alaea harbor.

In September 1977, a fire broke out on a hydrofoil in waters off Moloka'i and the Coast Guard had to tow it to shore.

Trips were canceled without notice. One of the boats always seemed to be down. Reliability was a problem.

And then came all the talk about the potential of whacking whales. Some scientists said it was just a matter of time.

Still, folks kept pulling for SeaFlite. In January 1978, when SeaFlite made its last interisland trip, The Advertiser editorial page mourned:

"Even minor miracles are hard to come by these days, but we would certainly welcome one that might save SeaFlite for our Hawaiian waters."

For years, there was talk of somebody else bringing SeaFlite back. In 1983, the state finally took back the docking facilities on three islands and that was that. Pau.

So what can be learned by this? What sort of summary can be made of this case study?

SeaFlite enjoyed public good will and a big dose of media fawning. Local people took their ginger and their Dramamine and rode. Tourists took a chance. But what sank the business was an unwillingness to stick out the rough spots, those no-profit building years. When the parent company saw a chance to sell off the vessels to Hong Kong, away it went.

But it wasn't because we weren't riding the thing. We rode.

We barfed, but we rode.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.