KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii Island — Judy Edwards swims regularly in Kailua Bay, accessing the ocean from stairs at the Kailua pier. But the environmental communicator’s ocean forays have been interrupted several times recently after seeing other swimmers struggling in the water.

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Edwards said she’s pulled several people out or helped them climb up a seawall onto the sidewalk after they’ve been swept out of their comfort zone by strong underwater currents. The powerful currents aren’t caused by high tides or wave action; they’re created by the propellers of tenders — the boats that ferry passengers to and from cruise ships anchored offshore.

Within the last few weeks, Edwards said she’s pulled three people to safety on three separate occasions.

“All of them were petrified,” Edwards said.

Judy Edwards has pulled people to safety after strong propeller wash from cruise ship tenders has pushed them against a seawall. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

Michael Heidt, a Kona resident who owns a business on Alii Drive, a short walk from the pier, said he too has assisted people who appeared close to drowning because of the tenders’ strong propeller wash. Heidt said he’s tried talking to cruise ship personnel and the harbor master about it, to no avail.

“It’s a life-threatening situation and it’s so easily avoidable,” he said.

If the tenders would simply take their engines out of gear and run in neutral, that would go a long way to alleviating the problem, said Heidt.

Edwards said it’s not only elderly people, children or weak swimmers who are vulnerable to the underwater currents. When Ironman competitors were training for the open water component of the triathlon this fall, Edwards said she watched some of them getting pushed off-course by the tenders’ currents.

“These are strong people. They’re world-class athletes,” she said. “And all of these super-dudes, they’re having the same problem. They’re getting pushed sideways and backwards,” Edwards said.

The competitors scratched their heads wondering what was happening, she recalled.

It’s particularly troublesome after a person has been swimming for some time and they’re ready to come to shore. By that time, they’re tired. If they must fight a strong sideways current to make it to dry ground, it can be dangerous, Edwards and Heidt said.

Cruise companies that use the pier include Norwegian Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises. Neither responded to requests for comment on the alleged safety issue at the pier.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources owns the pier and, under Hawaii Administrative Rules, the agency manages what takes place on and around the structure. There’s a designated no-swim area directly alongside the pier but swimming is allowed perpendicular to the structure along a seawall that runs parallel to Alii Drive.

Meghan Statts, assistant administrator of DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, said the administrative rules do not specify whether boats must put engines in neutral while alongside a pier.

A boat captain may keep the vessel in gear while embarking and disembarking passengers for maneuverability reasons, she said.

People swim alongside the Kailua Pier in Kona. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

Statts said she’s not aware of any complaints made to DLNR about the situation.

“But we definitely want to be sure that if there is a safety concern that we would address that,” she said.

Like Edwards, Tina Neill also swims regularly at Kailua Bay, entering and exiting the ocean from stairs at the pier. Neill is a marathon swimmer who runs the Kona Kai Swimmers Facebook group. There’s no shortage of safety issues people need to be alert to, Neill said. They include boat traffic, tides, marine life, other swimmers and eFoils, surfboards powered by electric propellors.

Neill said she doesn’t know enough to say one way or the other on whether the tenders should be made to run their engines in neutral.

“We all need to take personal responsibility,” Neill said. “We all have to be safe but we all have to find our own way to get there.”

Dan Galanis, state epidemiologist, says there have been two incidents of fatal drownings at the Kailua pier from 1993 and 2020, according to state records.

A separate database that tracks near drownings reports three such incidents from 2016 to present, Galanis said.

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