Protests knock the wind out of Hawaii Superferry's sails

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Hawaii Superferry officials were heading to court today to challenge a restraining order filed by environmentalists that would block its inter-island transportation service into Maui.

While the company could not be reached for comment, a statement on its Web site said "We are hopeful to continue service to Maui beginning on Friday."

The restraining order is the latest challenge to Hawaii Superferry during a highly charged, 48-hour period in which protests by environmental groups forced the company to "indefinitely" suspended operations into Kauai as well.

Hawaii Superferry began accepting reservations on June 29 for its inaugural service and offered travelers a special $5 introductory fare to sample the services between Oahu and Maui (daily) and Oahu and Kauai (six days a week).

The first, relatively uneventful, day of operations began at 6 a.m. Aug. 26.

The following day, however, environmental groups staged a protest against the service as it approached Kauai's Nawiliwili Harbor that afternoon. There, the 350-foot ferry, the Alakai, was met by dozens of protestors riding surfboards, who attempted to block the vessel's entry into the harbor, while others gathered at the pier where the vessel would dock.

Anticipating the protest, the Alakai was escorted by U.S. Coast Guard vessels. The ferry was eventually able to dock, but only after significant delays and intervention from law enforcement.

The protest was staged against a backdrop in which Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled on Aug. 23 that the state's government should have conducted an environment impact study before permitting the Hawaii Superferry to operate.

The Supreme Court's ruling overturned a lower court's July 2005 decision permitting the service after environmental groups filed suit against it.

On Aug. 28, Hawaii Superferry officials held a press conference officially suspending service after the Coast Guard informed them that, in light of the environmental protests, it could not ensure safe passage of the vessel.

"Our top priority is to operate a safe and reliable ferry system for Hawaii's residents," said Hawaii Superferry President and CEO, John Garibaldi during the press conference. "When that can be accomplished, we will resume service."

Hawaii Superferry, an Austrian-built, catamaran-designed, vessel is capable of carrying 866 passengers, 282 cars and 28 trucks.

The company intends to launch a sister ship in 2009 for service between Oahu and the Big Island and a second daily trip between Oahu and Maui.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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