Superferry destined for Hawaii to launch

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MOBILE, Ala. – This week will mark a milestone for Austal USA in Mobile when it launches the first of two Hawaii Superferry craft from a ship shed on the Mobile River.

The vessel, the length of more than two football fields, is to be launched Thursday.

Austal, one of the few aluminum ferry specialists in the world, in December 2003 won a contract to build two ferries for Hawaii Superferry Inc. The first vessel is lacking only finishing touches to its luxury passenger level before it undergoes a series of sea trials and is delivered to its owner in early spring, Austal said last week.

The value of the contract is about $190 million for both boats, said Terry O’Halloran, director of business development for the privately held Hawaii Superferry Inc.

Work is under way in Mobile on the second vessel, scheduled for delivery in early 2009.

Despite the financial problems some other fast ferry operators have encountered, and fierce opposition from environmentalists in Hawaii, investors are confident that the Hawaii Superferry vessels will be welcomed and enjoy profitability.

“People are quite excited about it here,” said O’Halloran. “We are bringing back the opportunity to travel over the ocean between islands.”

The first ferry will connect the islands of Kauai, Oahu and Maui. The second ship will link Oahu and Hawaii.

A one-way passenger ticket costs as little as $42. Car fares begin at $55, with commercial trucks paying as much as $1,050 for a one-way trip.

O’Halloran said he expects the venture to turn a profit in about a year.

All has not been rosy for fast ferries in North American waters, however.

A fast ferry venture in Rochester, N.Y., ended early last year when that city’s mayor halted service of its Spirit of Ontario to stop what he called a “hemorrhaging of tax dollars” brought on by the ferry, which it had bought from a private owner that went bankrupt.

That ferry – built by Austal USA’s parent company, Austal Ltd. of Perth, Australia – was subsequently bought by a British company that said it would operate an England-France route.

Ferries in Alaska, meanwhile, have struggled with low volumes.

Fast ferries – that carry 200-plus vehicles, between 750 and 1,000 passengers and travel at 30 knots or higher – depend on high volume so they can pay the higher fuel, power and maintenance costs associated with such large vessels.

The 353-foot aluminum Hawaii Superferry scheduled to launch Thursday is capable of carrying 866 passengers, 282 cars and 28 large trucks. Its maximum load is 882 tons and its top speed is 37 knots.

O’Halloran said Hawaii Superferry chose Austal because it “has the technology and the ability to build the right kind of ship for us. It was a natural fit.”

Among those who believe in the Hawaii Superferry are Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who helped secure about $25 million in federal loan guarantees for the vessels, and former U.S. Navy Secretary John Lehman, who O’Halloran calls “our major investor.”

Hawaii Superferry isn’t Lehman’s only tie to Mobile: his New York-based company, J.F. Lehman & Co., last summer purchased the Atlantic Marine Inc. shipyards in Mobile and Jacksonville, Fla., becoming in the process the second-largest property owner along the Mobile waterfront.

O’Halloran said Hawaii’s Gov. Linda Lingle has also been supportive, and that the state Department of Transportation is building ramps to accommodate the vessels.

The vessels will offer people and businesses an entirely new way to travel among islands, said O’Halloran. Now, he said, people travel by air and businesses move their goods on barges.

The Superferry’s double-hull catamaran design hearkens to Hawaii’s history, since it is based on the canoes used by the Polynesians who originally inhabited the islands, O’Halloran said.

This double-hull design, which has a draft of only 12 feet, provides for a “very smooth, comfortable ride,” he said.

In the industry, it’s known as SWATH, an acronym for small water-plane area twin hull. Ride stabilizers are also used, he said.

O’Halloran said he rode an Austal-built ferry in the Canary Islands similar to the Hawaii Superferry and was impressed by the comfort of the ride.

It’s not perfect, however. Passengers can still feel slight movement when seas are choppy, but will be able to easily move from place to place on the ship, he said.

But while investors maintain their ferries will be welcomed with open arms, some worry that the large vessels will kill whales, be used to transport drugs or spread invasive plants and animals.

John Tyler Cragg, Web author of superferryimpact.com, said “the Hawaii Superferry has been bullying its way to service to our islands with the political help of our Republican governor and U.S. senators, over the objections of each of the three neighbor island councils in Hawaii, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.” Cragg wrote in an e-mail that the introduction of the ferries to the Hawaiian islands is “a Pandora’s box.”

A logo on the Web site shows a ferry with jagged teeth eating its way through the islands.

Lee Tepley, a researcher who holds a doctorate in physics from the University of California at Los Angeles, said a protest movement is gaining strength and that a bill will be introduced to require Hawaii Superferry to submit an environmental impact statement, or EIS, before beginning operation.

O’Halloran said an EIS is not required of cargo shippers or cruise lines that now operate in Hawaii, and maintains the company has addressed concerns after holding “hundreds of meetings” with island community groups over the past several years.

O’Halloran said that Hawaii Superferry has developed a whale avoidance policy that includes detection radar and routes that avoid places where the mammals congregate. The company also touts the ferry’s organism-repellent hull paint. O’Halloran also said the company is working with law enforcement to counter concerns about smuggling.

“We have developed policies and procedures that in many cases go beyond what a law or rule would require,” he said. “In many cases we’re setting new standards for transportation companies here in Hawaii.”

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