Molokai ferry sets sail one last time

Final crossing for the Molokai Princess . . . is ‘end of an era’

About 50 passengers board the Molokai Princess on Thursday morning for possibly the last time at Lahaina Small Boat Harbor. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

LAHAINA — The Molokai Princess departed Thursday morning for possibly the last time from Lahaina Small Boat Harbor after serving the island for 30 years.

Molokai residents, many of whom have been taking the ferry for years, boarded the boat with coolers, luggage, equipment and other large items for the journey home. Some boarded with tears in their eyes.

“I’m crying. I’m sad, very sad,” Kaunakakai resident Cindy Spector said. “For 12 years I commuted; I went every day.”

First launched in 1987, the establishment of the ferry was backed by then-Gov. John Waihee as Molokai began losing jobs and West Maui resorts were short of workers. The state subsidized commuter fares and helped bring down unemployment on the Friendly Isle.

“Every morning, we went to work and then went home,” Spector said. “It was about 60 of us to start with, and I worked at a shop on Front Street.”

Upcountry resident John Cumming sips a cup of coffee Thursday morning aboard the ferry. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Spector said that the group included hotel workers as well as painters and construction workers carrying their equipment. Ridership began to fall after 1995, when then-Gov. Ben Cayetano discontinued the subsidies, but the ferry continued to offer discounted fares for commuters for a time.

Spector said that she retired when the commuter program ended, but she still took the ferry regularly to visit her children and grandchildren for holidays or shopping on Maui. She said she prefers it over flying.

“We liked to be able to just jump on and go,” she said. “A lot of people don’t like the boat ride because they get seasick, but if you do it every day you get used to it. There was a gang of us who always went. It’s kind of nostalgic.”

Taking photos and talking story with others, Spector said residents used to roll just about anything onto the ferry for $15, including big television sets, long surfboards and kayaks. She said that the ferry was later forced to ban anything longer than 9 feet.

“It’s an end of an era. I had to take the last ride,” she said.

The Molokai Princess launched in 1987, and it was known as a commuter vessel for workers traveling from Molokai to Maui. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Upcountry resident John Cumming brought a cart of supplies onto the ferry for his third trip this month. He said he has family on Molokai and brings goods on the ferry rather than on a barge or by plane.

“It’s going to be a tremendous loss for the community of Molokai,” he said. “It’s huge because you can see the kind of luggage that’s being taken over. I’m taking laundry, soap and diapers as well as clothes.

“They’ve been very reasonable with the luggage. Whatever you can take on with you in one load there’s no extra charges. It’s phenomenal, they’ve been great people to work with.”

Lahaina resident Kimberly Lopez watched her two sons Thursday morning take the last boat to Molokai to visit her mom, aunt and family. Born and raised on Molokai, she said that she enjoyed the views of the commute along with the luggage capacity.

“Growing up for me, shucks, I loved the boat,” Lopez said.

Passenger counts on the Molokai Princess ferry dropped 49 percent from 1,691 in January to 859 in July. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Crew member James Powell pointed to coolers, large bags and even wood carvings that were being loaded onto the boat. He said he moved to Lahaina for his job, but would use the ferry to see his girlfriend on Molokai. He did not know what he would do after the ferry completed its final round-trip service.

“It’s in the air for me,” Powell said. “I guess I’ll take it in stride like everybody else.”

Some visitors and residents specifically hopped onto the boat to enjoy the final trip.

Huelo resident Joe Richards boarded the vessel with two friends along with a cooler of drinks.

“We’re doing it today because it’s the last day — just for get on and come back,” Richards said. “We’re gonna enjoy the day on Molokai.”

Peg Gren of Plymouth, Mass., said that she was “thrilled” to catch the last ferry with her husband and two friends. The group had been unclear if the ferry was still operational, but they were eager to visit the island for the first time.

“We heard about it last night that this was the last one,” Gren said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. It is history.’ “

Sea Link President and Senior Capt. Dave Jung said that he was sad to see the ferry shutdown after serving Molokai for three decades. The Hawaii Public Utilities Commission regulated Sea Link’s ferry service and approved the company’s request to surrender its “certificate of public convenience and necessity” last week.

Jung attributed the closure to competition from federally subsidized and unregulated commuter air travel, declining ridership and government regulations. Sea Link, which also does business as Lahaina Cruise Co., reported that its total passenger count dropped 49 percent from 1,691 in January to 859 in July.

“It’s a sad day for Molokai and it’s so important for Molokai to be a part of the community,” Jung said. “Aside from the financial losses, the personal loss of seeing the island isolated again is just huge.”

Jung said that he hopes the county or state will step up to continue the ferry in some form and operate it similar to the bus system. Maui County contracts Roberts Hawaii to manage and operate the Maui Bus service.

Jung said that arrangement would make it easier on companies and allow them to avoid public utility tariffs.

He said he plans to maintain a relationship with schools on the island to conduct charter trips for sports teams on his other vessels. However, he cautioned that the state Department of Education should pay for travel if schools are underfunded — not force companies to provide the service at a loss.

“I really want the responsible parties, which is the state and county, to pay,” he said. “I don’t want them to continue to use our goodwill, which is outside the PUC, to try to help the community.

“I really want to help the Molokai community, but who’s going to pay for it?”

Maui County Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen thanked Jung for providing the service for residents and tourists for decades, despite mounting losses. She said that she believes a ferry system for Maui, Molokai and Lanai would be “extremely beneficial.”

“That’s going to take a major investment, and I think it should really come from the private sector,” Rasmussen said. “Certainly there’s an opportunity down the road.”

Jung said that he plans to put the ferry on hold for six months or so, but he would  drop it completely if lawmakers take no action. He said he would divert his attention to his other operations in Lahaina — a dinner cruise aboard the Maui Princess and snorkel trips on boats Kaulana and the Lahaina Princess.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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