* Editor's note: Late Thursday afternoon, Maui News Staff Writer Harry Eagar boarded the tugboat Hoku-Loa at Kahului. His aim was to write a feature story about the crew's overnight routine of hauling a Young Brothers barge from Kahului to Honolulu Harbor. Hours later, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan and generated a massive tsunami that would swamp the Pacific.
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ABOARD TUGBOAT HOKU-LOA AT SEA - At 11 p.m. Thursday, while Hoku-Loa was crossing Penguin Bank toward Honolulu Harbor, engineer Keoni Bulawan announced there was a tsunami warning.
The tugboat Hoku-Loa tows a barge out of Kahului Harbor on Thursday afternoon with Maui News Staff Writer Harry Eagar (top deck, second from right) aboard.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Containers and vehicles aboard the Ho‘omaka Hou are pulled out of Kahului Harbor by the tugboat Hoku-Loa.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
The first wave was expected on Oahu around 3:30 a.m., well before the tugboat's scheduled arrival at 5 a.m. Friday.
On the bridge, Capt. Lance Laybourn pointed to the radar screen. The harbors were being evacuated, and there were so many small craft swarming around Diamond Head, the radar was swamped. A different screen, with AIS (automatic identification system) showed the locations, and in some cases the names, of big ships escaping Honolulu Harbor. The Matson container ship Mahimahi was there, along with the yacht Audacious II, a couple of Coast Guard vessels, tugs and commercial fishing boats.
Laybourn decided to tow barge Ho'omaka Hou toward Ewa to loiter away from the crowd. The crew meeting called for 4 a.m. was still on, although it was clear Hoku-Loa would not be allowed to enter on schedule.
At midnight, second mate Bill Wilson came on for a watch. He said that the tsunami warning last year also had caught him off Honolulu Harbor. "We were doing doughnuts for eight, nine hours," he said.
Before he left the bridge, Laybourn received a call from Young Brothers dispatch ashore telling him the harbor was closed and he should stand by. Laybourn attempted to ask a question, but the dispatcher said he was busy and hung up. "What's more important than a Young Brothers tug?" the captain wondered.
The following afternoon, company Vice President and General Manager Matt Humphrey explained. Young Brothers employees and longshoremen from the stevedoring contractor were rushing to evacuate the yard.
The most valuable containers were put on barges, but there wasn't time to move everything. Other containers were moved as far from the water as possible, near Nimitz Highway, and equipment was raised if possible.
The most valuable pieces of equipment, the high-lifters, were moved onto an empty barge that had just arrived from Nawiliwili. In a tsunami, being on something that floats is about the safest place.
Preserving the lift equipment was crucial, Humphrey said. If damaged, it would take a long time to replace. But if needed at a Neighbor Island port, it could be moved there the next day, as Young Brothers had done when Hurricane Iniki ravaged Kauai.
"Even in the worst-case scenario, we could start operations immediately," he said.
The crews had moved everything that could be moved and went home at 1 a.m.
The emergency operations center was closed at 2, and everyone left for a while. On Friday, Tony Hernandez, who manages the Young Brothers shore-side operation at Honolulu Harbor, said: "People dump on harbor workers, but they did everything that needed to be done. They showed a real spirit of aloha."
On Hoku-Loa, none of this was known in detail. After 4 a.m., Laybourn approached the harbor entrance, hoping to get in among the first. The officers recalled that the year before, there had been line-cutting and irresponsible maneuvers by the recreational boaters.
From radio calls, it was clear that some of the amateur skippers were not willingly going to wait, even though entering a harbor closed by the Coast Guard captain of the port would open them to a big fine or even seizure of the boat.
Some were anxious because they had left without food or water. On Hoku-Loa, we were feasting. Cook Nick Mortimer laid out a breakfast of omelets, rice, Spam, bacon, muffins, oatmeal and orange juice.
We ate and watched coverage of the earthquake in Japan on CNN over Dish Network, although reception was repeatedly interrupted.
As it turned out, we were still waiting at lunchtime, when we enjoyed egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches, coffee, soda, crackers and chocolate chip cookies.
In the intervening hours, we waited. Overnight, the cruise ship Rotterdam had arrived, and Laybourn predicted that the Rotterdam and Mahimahi would be the first ships allowed to return. He hoped the tug-barge tows would be next, which was about how it worked, although tug Malulani, with two barges from Kawaihae, was given priority over Hoku-Loa. Somewhere in there, a brand-new tug with Canal de Panama markings, probably being delivered from an Asian shipyard, beat us. We passed it at the fuel dock. Or perhaps its crew had not been rounded up in time to evacuate.
In the meantime, recreational boats and local fishing boats kept worrying Laybourn.
"I guess we should raise the threat assessment a little, because of all these boats," he said.
While it was still dark, a sailboat kept coming and coming toward Hoku-Loa, which was well-lit.
"That little sailboat just won't go away," Laybourn told first mate Mike Nellis. "Let's see what I can do about that."
He shined a searchlight on the boat to get its attention, then had Nellis at the rear control station shine a searchlight on the barge, which was following about a thousand feet back.
The sailboat came even closer but eventually came about on a port tack and moved away, under sail power, which was evident because its masthead light showed that the mast was pushed over.
A Navy submarine rushed through, too close and too fast for the tugboatmen to admire its captain.
"Where's he going?" someone wanted to know. Since the USS Greeneville submarine sank the Ehime Maru fishing vessel off the coast of Oahu in February 2001, the Young Brothers crews have been nervous about the Navy in waters around Honolulu Harbor.
Otherwise, we waited. The water was gentle, and the big tug was rocking like an overgrown baby's cradle. Men off watch napped.
At last, the captain of the port - who oversees all commercial ports in the islands - began to open them, but only after making a personal inspection by helicopter. This irritated the tugboatmen, who were of the opinion that the Coast Guard should have had people at each port competent to advise whether it was OK to resume operations.
Since the Coast Guard started at Kauai, it was some time before the biggest, busiest harbor got a look-see, but shortly after 11 a.m., all the harbors on Oahu were reopened except Keehi Lagoon, where, from what we could learn from local newscasts, there had been serious damage and "fistfights."
But it took awhile even for a high-priority boat like Hoku-Loa to get in.
The big ships, but not Hoku-Loa, had to take on harbor pilots. During the wait, sailboats kept hanging around the entrance to Honolulu Harbor, irritating and puzzling Laybourn, who couldn't understand what they were doing there.
A couple of sailboats had broken down and one was drifting out of control not too far from the tug.
"How did these boats get out of the harbor to become disabled out here?" the captain asked the crew members, most of whom were hanging around the bridge, waiting to begin the long process of entering, "breaking tow," and then moving the tug to her own pier before finishing a very long day.
We had started about five miles from hotel buoy at the harbor's mouth and moved in at less than one and a half knots, so it took hours to enter the channel.
From hotel buoy to dropping off a kibitzing reporter took nearly another hour and a half, because sliding a big barge into a slot only a few feet wider than the barge-tug combination takes care.
As Ho'omaka Hou edged into its berth at Pier 39, the tsunami still wasn't quite through. During the last five minutes, the water quickly rose a foot, then dropped 2 feet, making the docking a little more ticklish than usual.
Once ashore, Dale Hazlehurst, general manager of Young Brothers' marine craft, said it was probably the result of "ripples bouncing between the islands."
So at 2:30 p.m. Friday, we stepped ashore to try to learn about the tsunami, because until then we had been too isolated or too busy to know much about what the landlubbers had experienced.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.