Homeless sweeps are a constant on Oahu with Honolulu police and state law enforcement officers regularly ousting people from beaches and public parks.

State law enforcement officers carried out a different kind of sweep at Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor on Dec. 2.  The raid began in the pre-dawn darkness at 12:30 a.m. to surprise and catch illegal “live-aboards.”

To live aboard a boat requires both a regular mooring permit and an additional permit, meaning a higher rent rate.  For years people have been living aboard boats on the sly and denying they do it.

Some boats in the harbor look like floating storerooms. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

“Officers went boat by boat and if somebody was sleeping on board the officers identified the individuals,”  said Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison.

Boat owners with temporary mooring permits must pay a nightly fee of $2 per guest. Boat owners with permanent mooring must register each guest.

The 13 violators found during the sweep were not fined or cited, but their names and photos and reports of their alleged transgressions will be submitted for possible fines at the DLNR’s regular board meeting in January or February.

The agency says complaints from legal live-aboards at the harbor prompted the sweep. Its Boating Division was aware of at least 45 boats with illegal live-aboards at Ala Wai Harbor.

Boaters who have dutifully paid for their permits say they are frustrated by increasing rule violations at the harbor, including boat owners turning their vessels into unauthorized rental units or bed and breakfast operations, as well as homeless people sneaking in at night to sleep on unoccupied boats. Also, there are boaters in violation who have paid their mooring fees but who have not paid for the required additional permit to live aboard.

Mike Tate was one of 13 people who got warnings from officers for being on a boat in the harbor after-hours. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

Mike Tate was one of the people caught in the raid. He says he was on a friend’s wooden powerboat discussing a work project at 12:30 a.m. when officers arrived.

“They didn’t board the boat but they shined flashlights on us, took our pictures and wrote down out names and other personal information. They told us it was a warning,” said Tate. He said neither he nor the boat owner intended to sleep on the boat, but they were there late because they had to meet after their other appointments that night.

Tate said he does a lot of repair work on boats at Ala Wai Harbor. He says he occasionally sleeps on friends’ boats because the harbor is near his other job working for a moving company.

“I do couch surfing on boats,” he said. “I have a home but I’ve gotten used to sleeping with the rocking motion of a boat.”

A DLNR police boat at Ala Wai Harbor. Despite the recent sweep, some people complain about a lack of ongoing enforcement. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

Another boat owner, Bruce Baxter. said, “It’s a good idea to get rid of the people living on boats who don’t pay. But the sweep is just a flash in the pan. There are people here illegally living on their boats for three to five years. There is no enforcement of the live-aboards and other problems such as drug dealing on the docks.”

Baxter, a retired computer programmer, says it took him six years to get a slip at Ala Wai Harbor for his 42-foot sloop and another three years to get a live-aboard permit.

Many people complain about the long wait to get a slip. Depending on vessel size, the wait for a mooring permit can be anywhere from one and half to five years, according to the Boating Division.

It’s a longer wait to get a live-aboard permit, because only 129 of them are allowed out of the 747 slips at Ala Wai Harbor.

Boaters I spoke with Saturday are frustrated because they claim many boat slips at Ala Wai that could be rented are sitting  vacant.

DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward says 80 slips are currently vacant, but she says next week the Boating Division will resume offering boaters some of the vacant slips.

Ward says 40-45 of the slips were left vacant earlier this year to accommodate boats arriving for the Transpacific Yacht Race in July and later, and to accommodate 50 vessels from Kewalo Basin that needed relocation space when Kewalo was undergoing construction.  Other slips are vacant because they need repairs.

Rents for live-aboard permits are $5.25 per foot of deck length. So the owner of a 30-foot vessel would pay $157.50 as a live-aboard fee per month in addition to a monthly mooring fee of up to $9.14  per foot of vessel.  For a 30-foot boat, that would be $274.20 for the mooring plus $157.50 for live-aboard —  a total monthly rent of $431.70.

The dock of this live-aboard boat slip has been turned into a patio. 

Rents for living aboard seem to average in the $500 range, which is inexpensive for a home on the water in the heart of Waikiki.

Nate Cooper, a 30 year-old living at the harbor with his fiancée and dog for 120 days, shook his head.

“I don’t want to rock the boat, “ he said, laughing, “but it is so inexpensive here, why don’t the violators just pay the live-aboard fees. It is a great deal.”

Cooper is from Seattle, where he says a live-aboard mooring like he has here would cost upwards of $1,000.

The DLNR says the investigation of the illegal live-aboards is continuing, with more boat sweeps expected.

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