HC&S’ behemoths are on a crash course with extinction

A Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. grab operator loads a Tournahauler with harvested sugar cane. The massive vehicles are able to transport loads of 60 tons. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Sixty tons of sugar cane stalks smolder in the dinosaur’s massive belly as it lumbers into the intersection and briefly spans all four lanes of highway before disappearing into the island night, tail end wobbling as it goes.

Found only on Maui and soon to be extinct, the 14-foot-tall, 84-foot-long behemoth is one of 15 specially modified Tournahaulers running more-or-less around the clock during Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s last harvest season. Bringing in the crop from all corners of the 36,000-acre plantation, the haulers and their drivers have transported up to 1.5 million tons of harvested cane to Puunene Mill per year. By carrying twice the capacity of other trucks used around the world to haul cane, the Tournahaulers gave HC&S a competitive edge.

That advantage was not enough to outweigh the many other factors forcing the plantation to cease sugar operations later this year. When Hawaii closes its final chapter on industrial sugar cultivation, the brontosaurus-sized vehicles are expected to be sold at auction and disappear from Maui’s landscape forever. Some residents will bemoan that day, and others may cheer, but there will be no denying the raw power and size of one of the plantation’s most iconic symbols.

Introduced on Maui in 1950 as a replacement to the plantation’s railroad, and now $1.5 million to buy new, Tournahaulers were originally designed for large-scale mining applications. Among the many modifications that make the trucks suitable for island farming, the mining beds are removed and replaced with long, framework trailers sporting ingenious systems of chains and cables that allow heavy loads to be dumped quickly and efficiently.

“Nowhere else in the world will you see sugar operations like this,” said HC&S mobile equipment manager Mike Jensen. “We don’t buy off-the-shelf machines. We modify things to suit our needs.”

Alexander Cadelinia guides his Tournahauler into a narrow chute for unloading at Puunene Mill. The bar of hooks on the top right is used to raise a network of chains lining the bottom and sides of the trailer to expel the sugar stalks over the side and into a hopper. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

With their 8-foot-diameter tires and 750-horsepower, 12-cylinder engines, the haulers are the centerpieces of a team that includes unique machines in the field for gathering and loading harvested cane and a pair of relics back at the mill to unload it. All were originally built to do other jobs, but adapted to meet the plantation’s particular demands.

“Almost every piece of equipment that is brought in here is modified,” said harvesting manager Mark Lopes. “Our machinists do a great job. It’s amazing what they do.”

One key piece of the Tournahauler’s retrofitted team is the tall “grab” that slings dusty cane into the long trailers. The machines are excavators outfitted with hydraulic claws originally designed to pick up cars in metal recycling facilities. The booms have been lengthened to give the excavators more reach as their operators deftly snatch up 2 tons of cane at a time and toss them into the framework. When finished, grab operators honk their horns to let Tournahauler drivers know their trailers are loaded to capacity.

Upon returning to the mill, drivers must steer their wide rides into a narrow canyon rimmed by a pair of unloading cranes on the left and a gigantic metal hopper called a table carrier on the right. Once parked at a precise spot, the driver climbs down a steel ladder welded to the front of the truck and hustles to one of the unloaders. If it is early and the load is to be used to build a stockpile of cane to feed the mill during lulls in deliveries from the fields, the driver will stride to the Bodison unloader, which is mounted on train wheels and runs on a short stretch of railroad tracks.

Lopes said that the Bodison was moved to Puunene Mill from the Honolulu Shipyards in the 1950s and modified. The Bodison and adjacent Cameco unloader operate on the same general principle, though the older Bodison can be moved to change where loads are dumped, while the stationary Cameco is more powerful.

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. driver Joseph Avellana runs the Cameco unloader to dump cane from his truck at Puunene Mill. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The unloaders have long bars of hooks that can be raised to engage the top edge of the Tournahauler’s network of cables and chains. If the load isn’t too full of stones or mud, the unloader will extend the steel webbing high enough to expel the sugar cane over the trailer’s side and into the hopper. If the load is too heavy, a safety breaker will flip and the mill’s grab operator will need to pull out clumps of cane to lighten the weight.

Once the driver has dumped the load and returned the unloader to its resting position, he exits the unloader house, climbs up the hulking Tournahauler’s ladder and sits back into the shock-absorber-bottomed seat to do it all again.

Veteran driver Alvin Ponce said that the job is enjoyable as long the roads aren’t slick and he’s not making a white-knuckle downhill run with 120 tons of steel and cane threatening to jackknife at any moment.

“It’s fun,” Ponce said. “The only thing is when it’s raining, then you got to watch.”

While his truck was being loaded under bright blue skies roughly halfway between Puunene and Pukalani on Tuesday morning, Ponce wiggled from his seat to stand outside on the metal catwalk that circles the cab and serves as a portable lanai. As hundreds of other drivers have done before him, Ponce leaned against the railing and enjoyed a smoke as he took in the expansive views.

A tournahauler slips across Mokulele Highway to pick up another load of sugar cane. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Like all veteran drivers, he’s parked his truck pointed downhill so there will be little chance of needing a tow from one of the smaller machines to get moving. If he does begin to slide on a wet spot on the way to the mill, he knows what to do to hopefully stave off the dreaded jackknife.

“You better hope your trailer brake works,” he said. “You lock up the trailer brakes and hit the gas. Hopefully she won’t come around.”

Though his job comes with plenty of time to think, after 36 years with HC&S, Ponce is not quite ready to ponder what comes next.

“It’s been fun while it lasted.” he said. “I’ll never be able to drive equipment this big again. I’m just enjoying it. I’m just taking it day by day. I’m not going to make myself sick by worrying over it.”

To ensure that Ponce and the Tournahauler fleet can continue running day after day until the last load of cane is delivered to Puunene Mill, a group of 15 mechanics works overtime in the hauler shop. From swapping out leaky fuel lines to welding cracked Tournahauler frames, the mechanics do whatever is needed to keep the dinosaurs from becoming extinct on Maui before their time.

“A lot of them work seven days a week,” Jensen said of the mechanics. “To keep everything running 24 hours a day requires a lot of hours. These trucks will run forever, easily 20 or 30 years,” Jensen said. “We don’t go by miles. We use hours. We can get up to 5,000 hours a year (per Tournahauler), and that’s just from March to December.”

Jensen said that the current Maui Tournahauler is a Caterpillar 773 mining truck with its bed removed. While the unique trailer frames were formerly built by HC&S crews on Maui, the last few were assembled in Wyoming. Two of the first major modifications to the 773 model at HC&S were to install a huge fifth-wheel pin to pull the trailer and an even bigger steel yoke to keep the trailer from slamming into the cab should a jackknife occur. The fifth wheel allows the Tournahauler to turn on a dime.

Nimble despite its size, the Tournahauler gets its name from R.G. LeToureau, a 20th-century American engineer and inventor who was to earth-moving equipment what Albert Einstein was to physics. LeToureau was born in Richford, Vermont, and gradually made his way westward as he strived to build the biggest and most-efficient mining and grading equipment.

On Maui, many folks have grown up seeing one of his larger inventions almost daily. As the coming years pass and memories of sugar cane on Maui begin to fade, it won’t be so hard to recall the waving sea of green that blanketed the central valley or the Puunene Mill puffing white steam and smoke along the road to Kahului. Old-timers who attempt describing Tournahaulers to their grandchildren will have a tougher go of it.

How will they convey the way the massive trucks shook the earth as they rumbled by? When children hear the one-of-a-kind trucks were 14 feet tall and twice as long as a city bus, will they roll their eyes and think the ancients are exaggerating? It will not be surprising if those old-timers end up breathing life into their memories by conjuring images of waddling dinosaurs and dragons that belched black smoke and fire.

The dinosaurs may be dying off, but for those who experienced them, they will never be forgotten.

* Matthew Thayer can be reached at

Originally published May 22, 2016