Who Sunk the Ala Wai?

O'ahu's largest state-run harbor is in dire need of repair.

This summer, sailors making the passage from Los Angeles to Hawai’i for the Transpacific Yacht Race were greeted with aloha, as they have been for the past century. But that welcome was practically undone by the conditions of their temporary Island home-the dilapidated Ala Wai Harbor.

Above: Disrepair on B dock prompts residents to nail plywood to their pier.

Below: The temporary F dock donated by Waikiki Yacht Club.
Photos: Corinne Knutson

There, million-dollar yachts were assigned to a temporary dock with no power or water. The situation must have come as a shock to first-time race entrants, accustomed to tying up at marinas with five-star restaurants, swimming pools and Jacuzzis.

Long-time racer Roy Disney was also shocked by the neglect. In a letter to The Honolulu Advertiser, he wrote, “It’s a sad state of affairs that the great state of Hawai’i has let the single most important and prestigious marina in the northern Pacific Ocean come to this inglorious condition.”

But inadequate public harbors have become the norm in the Aloha State and local boaters have known for years that the state-run Ala Wai is falling apart and that there are no plans for repairs.

In its 1950s heyday, Ala Wai had 747 slips. Due to disrepair, 120 are now vacant. The section of dock along the waterfront, known as the 700 row, was condemned in 2003 after the state deemed the docks unsafe. On B dock, kitty-corner from the Hawai’i Yacht Club, boat owners spent $1,000 and several weekends nailing plywood to their crumbling cement slips.

What’s going on here? The Ala Wai appears to generate plenty of money. Even without commercial use, the Ala Wai is the “cash cow out of all the state harbors,” says Ala Wai harbormaster Meghan Statts. In 2004, Ala Wai boaters paid $1.6 million in slip fees.

From slip fees and property rental agreements from the surrounding area the harbor is running an “on-paper” surplus. The Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation’s financial recap shows that after expenses the Ala Wai had a surplus of $1.3 million in 2004. This is almost twice as much as all other harbors combined.

But the Ala Wai doesn’t get to keep the money it raises. Instead, all the revenue generated from 21 state-run harbors and 54 boat ramps goes into a statewide Boating Special Fund. Repairs are done based on a priority list, which Ala Wai failed to make. “That’s how a single-fund system works,” explains DOBOR administrator Richard Rice.

“We’ve lost 120 slips at the Ala Wai and there’s not an immediate project to replace those, because other projects demand our attention,” says Rice.

With more than 600 applicants on the waitlist, the harbor appears to be in high demand, but the current harbor status leaves boaters with few options. Aside from the Ke’ehi state docks, Ala Wai is the only state-run harbor that allows people to legally live aboard their boats.

In six months, the state hopes to increase Ala Wai’s monthly slip fees 28 percent from $4.10 per foot to $5.25 per foot. Statts explains that this increase will barely pay for administrative costs in the harbor.

In comparison, slip fees at private Ko Olina Marina run from $11 to $27 per foot. Luxurious Marina Cortez in San Diego is also $11 a foot.

Despite the shabby conditions, harbor residents say the tranquillity and the convenient location make the Ala Wai an ideal marina. It just needs an estimated $20 million to get all of its docks up to standard, says Statts.

Boaters at the Ala Wai will have to tread lightly on their piers for the next two years and cross their fingers for funding at the next legislative session. “We don’t want to say anything about the needed repairs on our docks, because the state might condemn them,” says boat owner Bruce Lenkeit. “But if the state just made the repairs the harbor could generate even more revenue.”