Jim Jones says he wants to make things right, but former employees and Maui residents say he shouldn’t have a boat.

The owner of a luxury yacht that ran aground last month in Honolua Bay is trying to salvage his reputation as efforts continue this week to remove his 94-foot Sunseeker from a delicate reef off Maui.

“We are taking full responsibility for this,” Noelani Yacht Charters owner Jim Jones said Thursday. “We’re not running.”

That assurance may not be enough to persuade Maui politicians, community advocates and local mariners who say he shouldn’t stay in business at all. Several of his former workers have said he repeatedly ignored state boating regulations and skirted recommended safety practices, to the point where multiple people who worked with Jones said they quit because of risky behavior.

“He shouldn’t be allowed to have a boat,” a former worker said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

A luxury yacht ran aground on Maui on Feb. 20. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)
Jim Jones’ luxury yacht, the Nakoa, ran aground Feb. 20 and started leaking fuel in Honolua Bay. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

Jones said he started out with a dream to buy a boat. A woodworker by trade, he began looking for one a few years ago around Honolulu and first set his eyes on a 65-footer — a “big monster boat.”

But his friend, a boat captain, cautioned him against getting one so big for his first vessel. Plus, harbors to store boats of that size are scarce in Hawaii. Where would he put it?

So Jones kept looking until 2020, when he settled on what he thought was the perfect opportunity: a 74-foot yacht that came with its own slip in Kewalo Basin Harbor. It had been used for charters in the past, and by renting it out in the future, Jones hoped it would pay for itself. The owner agreed to let him pay it off over time, sealing the deal.

In the height of the pandemic, Jones began pouring his resources into marketing and establishing a “luxury yacht image,” equipped with private chefs, bartenders and local musicians. 

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I just figured it was something to pay the bills,” Jones said. “And then once this thing took off, we’re going, ‘Holy shit.’”

Now Jones is trying to assure government officials and the community that he will cover the cost of a nearly $500,000 salvage job.

On Feb. 20, Jones said he was on a family outing, spending the weekend in Honolua Bay, when his mooring line failed while attached to a mooring that’s only allowed to be used for two hours at a time.

The Nakoa, a 94-foot yacht that Jones said he brought to Hawaii in December, ended up drifting onto the reef. By the next day, the hull had been punctured, and diesel fuel spilled into the water leading into one of Maui’s most beloved marine sanctuaries

In the days that followed, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources announced that it was putting up $460,000 to try to haul the 120-ton yacht away. But after unsuccessful attempts and delays because of stormy weather, the yacht remained on Thursday evening.

DLNR officials said earlier this week that the salvage ship Kahi, operated by Visionary Marine, will return to Maui on Friday or Saturday. 

“We’ve been talking to the DLNR to let them know we’re not leaving them with the bill,” Jones said.

Jones said he was working with his insurance company to cover the cost. Asked to provide a copy of his coverage, he declined, citing the current investigation into the incident. He said he didn’t know the specifics of his insurance policy or how much it covered. 

“I feel his actions were extremely irresponsible,” said Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin, who has long fought to protect Honolua Bay. “I don’t think he fully understands how special a place Honolua is to so many of us and just how much aggravation he has caused our community.” 

A luxury yacht ran aground on Maui on Feb. 20. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)
Efforts to pull the yacht off the reef are expected to resume Friday or Saturday. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

As Jones works with attorneys, insurance agents and the state, he said he’s also determined to make amends with the Maui community and work to restore his company’s reputation. Since the incident in Honolua, he said he’s continued to run charters on his Oahu-based yacht, the Noelani, which will help him pay the debts he owes. 

But the Noelani has its own history of problems. The boat caught fire in Kewalo Basin Harbor in October, according to the Honolulu Fire Department.

Asked about the incident, Jones said the fire broke out in a guest suite, just as he was flying out of state to purchase the Nakoa. He blamed the fire on incandescent light bulbs that are common in older boats. Fortunately, he said, the Honolulu Fire Department responded and contained the fire from spreading out of the room. 

“When I first got a boat, my friends were telling me, ‘No, don’t get a boat; it’s nonstop problems,’” Jones said. “There’s constantly stuff going on.”

But mariners interviewed by Civil Beat say fires aren’t one of the nonstop problems boat owners regularly face.

“I can’t think of a reported fire incident in Maalaea Harbor in the 40 years I’ve been here,” said Michael Wildberger, a captain on Maui who’s run thousands of snorkel tours.

Catering To The Jet Set

After buying his first yacht in 2020, Jones said he quickly realized that catering to the ultra-wealthy in search of day trips on megayachts was an untapped market in Hawaii. High-end hotels were looking for luxury activities to send their clients on, Jones said.

In his marketing strategy, he made it clear: Noelani Yacht Charters wasn’t a basic fishing or snorkeling charter. His website advertises trips on Maui starting at $9,800

“We cater to these guys that are flying in on their private jets,” Jones said. 

Noelani Yacht Charters targets the wealthy on its website with trips starting at just under $10,000. (Screenshot/Noelani Yacht Charters/2023)

For almost two years, Jones grew his business with the Noelani, until he found an investor willing to help him acquire the Nakoa, the vessel that ran aground last month.

At first, Jones said he thought the investor would pay the transportation costs to have the Nakoa sent to Hawaii from overseas. When the investor suddenly said he wouldn’t cover that cost, Jones said he put up the money for the transport, which meant he missed out on paying almost $290,000 for the final payment he owed for the Noelani.

He was later sued for not making that payment, as well as failing to pay back $100,000 he borrowed from another person to pay for the Noelani.

Jones downplayed the lawsuits, calling them mutual agreements and “just records of the payment plans that we’ve created.”

With the Nakoa, Jones dreamed of expanding his business to allow multinight charters to Maui, where he planned to whisk clients away to snorkel trips around Molokini or head over to Hulopoe Bay on Lanai. He said he discovered Honolua Bay during trips on the Noelani, describing it as a place he couldn’t believe he could visit with a yacht of that size. 

Jones said he took his family to Honolua for a holiday weekend last month, and tied up at the mooring that’s only supposed to be used for two hours at a time. Asked if he was aware of the rule, Jones said was never informed of it by the Coast Guard or DLNR but had been “getting flak from day one” from Maui tour companies in the bay. 

“When you have the same company coming in, they’re switching boats every two hours,” he said. “What’s the difference of that versus us just staying there?”

It’s not the only law that community members have complained about Noelani Yacht Charters allegedly violating.

A month before the Nakoa ran aground, Tina Wildberger, South Maui’s former state lawmaker, wrote to DLNR about a dinghy shuttling passengers between the yacht and Kihei Boat Ramp, which she said isn’t allowed without a permit.

“There’s some serious high end pirate action happening here with these yachts,” Wildberger said in her January email to DLNR. “Does this vessel have a special permit to pick up passengers at Kihei Boat Ramp today?”

The next day, Wildberger got her answer: The boat didn’t have a special permit. 

Jones said he often stopped at Kihei Boat Ramp to make crew runs, including going to Ace Hardware. He denied picking up passengers though. He said that he doesn’t have a commercial permit for the Nakoa, but that he operates his business in a way that allows him to get around that. 

“That’s a whole other gray area,” Jones said.

His first boat, the Noelani, has a commercial permit. But Jones said he ran the Nakoa with a workaround called “bareboat charters.” That means that he rents the boat out to people without providing any crew. Instead, he can suggest when they rent the boat that the clients hire the crew that he’s vetted ahead of time. It’s a business model that’s popular among yacht rental businesses.

For now, Jones said he’ll keep running tours on the Noelani out of Oahu while charting his next steps. He’s hoping to find a replacement for the Nakoa and continue his expansion to Maui — if residents will have him.

“I’m hoping that we can meet everybody personally, to apologize to them face to face — let them know that and show them that I am local,” Jones said. “I think once we talk, they’ll realize I’m just like them.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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