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Surfers vs. the Superferry | The Nation

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Surfers vs. the Superferry

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MARCO GARCIA/APA surfer catches a wave at Kakaako Waterfront Park as the Hawaii Superferry approaches.

About the Author

Koohan Paik
Koohan Paik is an Hawaii filmmaker and co-author, with Jerry Mander, of The Superferry Chronicles: Hawaii's Uprising...
Jerry Mander
Jerry Mander is director of the International Forum on Globalization and co-author, with Koohan Paik, of The Superferry...

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Even though the Hawaii State Supreme Court has ruled against this huge corporate-military boondoggle, the battle isn't over yet.

We don't ordinarily seek inspirational models of grassroots uprisings--especially against global corporate-military boondoggles--from surfer beaches on luscious tropical islands. So it surprises colleagues on the left when we tell them they might check out some surprising events on the small "outer" islands in Hawaii that may have an impact on grand US aspirations for military domination of the Pacific basin. Few mainlanders have heard about it, but Hawaii is up in arms.

It all started in 2001 as a purportedly modest "local" effort to offer inter-island ferry service to "help local people more easily visit their relatives on other islands, and carry their farm produce to market." Most locals liked the idea but soon found that this ferry, the gigantic Hawaii Superferry, was an environmental nightmare. It uses far more fuel (in total and per person) than big planes. It races at high speed (40-45 miles per hour) through zones teeming with endangered humpback whales, dolphins and rare sea turtles. It could transport dangerous invasive species to pristine islands. And it carries hundreds of cars to tiny places already choking on traffic.

Environmentalists demanded an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its Hawaii equivalent (HEPA). But the Hawaii Superferry Company, with strong support from Governor Linda Lingle, the ambitious right-wing Republican lately famous for introducing Sarah Palin at the Republican convention, refused.

By 2004 the lead investor (nearly $90 million) and new chair of the board for this "local" ferry project was New York City military financier John Lehman, Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy, a leading neocon with a famously aggressive military vision. (The Washington Post quoted him in 1984 as advocating first-strike nuclear strategies.) Lehman is a member of the Project for the New American Century and a 9/11 commissioner, but his great passion has been pushing for a vastly expanded, 600-ship Navy and a stronger US military presence in the Pacific to assuage mounting concerns about China as a future military superpower. After his company, J.F. Lehman, took over the Superferry project, Lehman appointed a new board with a majority of former top military brass. He later hired Adm. Thomas Fargo as CEO. Only four years ago Fargo was the commander of US military operations in the Pacific, answering directly to George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. So the question is this: why on earth would anyone need a board that qualifies as a mini-Pentagon to run a friendly transport for families and papayas between islands?

A key moment in this saga came in August 2007, on the small island of Kauai, called the Garden Island by tourist agencies for its folded green cliffs, cascading waterfalls and aloha spirit. But on this occasion about 1,500 locals--including a high percentage of Native Hawaiians, joined by people of Japanese and Filipino descent and a contingent of New Age haoles (recent white settlers seeking Shangri-La)--showed up at Nawiliwili Harbor to protest the Superferry's maiden voyage from Honolulu to Kauai. Several dozen surfers also played a catalytic role.

When the protesters saw the oncoming speeding colossus on the horizon--bigger than a football field, four stories high and capable of carrying as many as 866 people and 282 cars--the outrage grew. The anger had been magnified a few days earlier when Governor Lingle and Lehman's Superferry company indicated they would disregard a 5-0 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling demanding the boat suspend operations until it completed an EIS. As it approached, dozens of surfers and swimmers leaped into the water. Ignoring strident Coast Guard threats, they headed out under the Superferry's terrifying catamaran blades, stopping the ship dead in the water. It created a sort of Tiananmen Square standoff in the waters of Kauai.

It was a dangerous business, but next day when the Superferry returned, the crowd of protesters had grown, and the surfers and beach brigades had too. In the ensuing eighteen months, the boat has never returned to Kauai and now has only one daily run, from Honolulu to Maui. The "spirit of Nawiliwili" has become the stuff of legend in Hawaii.

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