Nowhere in the state Department of Transportation’s feasibility study of a ferry system for the Hawaiian Islands will you find the word “barf.”

Same goes for “puke,” “vomit,” “retch,” “gag,” “heave,” “hurl” and “spew.” You won’t even find “sick,” let alone “seasick.”

And yet, a big reason why an inter- or intra-island ferry system is unworkable in our watery backyard is because the waters are just too big.

The DOT, which was asked by the Hawaii Legislature to study the idea, reported this week that a ferry system would be too expensive and require pier space that does not currently exist.

The Alakai at Honolulu Harbor in July 2007.

Flickr: rust.bucket

The study says there is interest in taking a boat to get from island to island, but it depends on the costs and routes. The state would ultimately have to subsidize any ferry. 

The study does mention bad weather and rough sea conditions as potential challenges to sustaining a stable ferry system.

But I remain convinced that the predilection toward losing one’s lunch on the high seas is a major obstacle to a ferry operating successfully here. We aren’t Puget Sound.

Dicey Business Model

There are many reasons why the Hawaii Superferry failed, not the least being the Legislature’s and Gov. Linda Lingle’s unwise decision to allow it to operate while the state conducted an environment impact assessment, rather than after it was completed.

The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in March 2009 that action was unconstitutional. The Superferry soon went bankrupt.

Still, the business model seemed dicey from the start. It was never clear that ticket sales and shipping costs for goods (flowers, livestock, surfboards) would ever sustain the Superferry.

With protesters keeping the vessel out of Kauai’s Nawiliwili Harbor right from the inaugural voyage and the subsequent court battles (legal challenges actually began before the first cruise was ever made), it was almost impossible for the Superferry to have the chance to operate as its owners envisioned.

It never made it to the Big Island, for example. A second vessel, the Huakai, never set sail here at all.

But I think the ship was sunk several days before the Aug. 26, 2007, maiden voyage. And it was the roughness of the journey that was to blame.

“Superferry trial sail gets oohs, ahhs — and ughs,” read the front-page headline of the Aug. 22 Honolulu Advertiser.

Reporters Dan Nakaso and Robbie Dingeman wrote in their lead paragraph that the trial run of the ship — which was 349 feet long and could carry up to 866 passengers and 288 cars — off Leeward Oahu “showed both its potential and its problems — mainly seasick passengers in otherwise calm seas.”

I was a reporter at Pacific Business News at the time, and I remember asking Superferry CEO John Garibaldi about the news reports. My recollection was that he felt it misrepresented the experience of most passengers. In fact, many said they had no problem on the trip.

But then, I was on that same trial trip, which was about two hours in length, from Honolulu Harbor to Waianae and back.

Even though the $95 million vessel, called the Alakai, was as tall as Aloha Tower and designed as an aluminum double-hulled catamaran for smooth sailing, I felt queasy. Photographer Tina Yuen and I ended up moving to the stern of the Alakai, the only open-air section of the boat, where we found relief.

Here’s the introduction from my PBN story on the trial run:

Here’s a tip for smooth sailing on the Hawaii Superferry if you’re prone to motion sickness: Take Dramamine one hour before boarding, and eat a meal that’s easy on the grease.

The Superferry sold motion sickness medication in its gift shop. It also offered a list of tips to prevent seasickness, including these:

  • Eat a light meal before traveling; starting with something in your stomach often helps.
  • Chew on ginger candy or spearmint gum to ease the upset.
  • Look at the horizon; focus on a distant point.
  • Avoid reading while the ship is in motion.

Does that sound like fun to you? Of course not. Anyone who has experienced seasickness knows that there are only two pathways to salvation: puke, or get off the boat.

During a three-hour-plus trip just one way, getting off the boat immediately could not happen. That’s why the Superferry was stocked with plenty of barf bags. I’m not even factoring in wintertime conditions, which make Kahului Harbor a particularly precarious port of call.

Meantime, imagine you do pop a couple of Dramamine and the trip ends up being tolerable. The thought of then dizzily driving your own vehicle off the ferry and up, say, Haleakala or to Hana, seems foolhardy.

Islands Unlinked By Boat

It’s worth pointing out that the $50,000 for the DOT study came through two separate resolutions.

The Senate resolution, approved in 2016, called for examining the feasibility of an interisland and intra-island ferry system. The House resolution, approved last year, asked to look at whether a government-subsidized ferry service between Maui and Molokai might work.

There was an intra-county system between the two islands until it shut down in 2016. Oahu also briefly had a ferry shuttle between Kalaeloa and Aloha Tower during the Hannemann administration. (I took it once. It was lovely. No puking.)

Hawaii’s lack of a ferry system is ironic.

The Senate committee report on its resolution noted that we are “the only island state in the nation” yet we do not “enjoy the benefit of being linked to other states via the federal interstate highway system or a network of interconnected state and local highways.”

The resolution continued: “Your Committee finds that an interisland ferry system can serve as an efficient alternative for transporting passengers, cargo, farm produce, and motor vehicles between islands and that the feasibility of establishing such a system should be explored.”

That is a compelling argument. Instead of inaugural Superferry fares that started at $5 per round trip, we have little alternative to travel to another island other than booking a flight for several hundred bucks.

I don’t think the ferry idea will ever go away.

One intriguing solution surfaces in the testimony to the Senate resolution. It was from Mike Hansen, president of the Hawaii Shippers’ Council. He suggested that a better operating model for Hawaii might be what operates in the Tasman Strait in Australia.

“We believe the best prospects for introducing a successful Hawaii interisland ferry would be using a conventional displacement hull ferry of the kind that commonly operate throughout Europe,” Hansen wrote in testimony. “This kind of vessel would be far more economical to acquire and operate than the high speed aluminum hulled catamaran ferry vessels of the Hawaii Superferry, and should have better sea-keeping characteristics.”

Until that opportunity arises, however, I direct you to a compelling argument against a ferry. It can be found at the criticism-heavy Hawaii Superferry unofficial blog, which chronicles numerous bad experiences on board — like this one by Hawaii writer 

Rounding the point heading toward Molokai, civilization fades and open ocean takes over. In the channel, the winds whip and the ocean buckles. The ferry begins to heave into and over the huge swells. Up, down, up, down. The massive boat bobs like a toy. The inner ear signals something isn’t quite right. You’re way off balance. A queasy feeling appears in the pit of your stomach. You start to sweat and look for the toilet. Friendly crew members appear and pass out seasickness kits: a puke bag, ginger, a moist towelette, soda crackers and a breath mint. Fantastic, but you really want to get your stomach out of your throat. There are still three and a half hours to go.

Urgency overtakes your search for the head. As you reach for your puke bag, you let go of your shyness about puking in public. In between bobs, you look around and notice that most of the other passengers are doing the same. Along with most of the other passengers, you heave deeply into the bag and let go of breakfast, last night’s dinner and anything else still in your stomach.  Two hours later, the sounds of hundreds of people dry heaving masks the roar of the engines. The ginger doesn’t seem to be working. There is a palpable sense of shared suffering.

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