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Sailboats Finding Few Safe Harbors As Hawai?i Ports Lock Down

Ed Suominen/Flickr
CC 2.0 License
Radio Bay, Hilo

Updated 4/23/20, 11:00 a.m.

While many locations are looking to ease their COVID-19 restrictions – others are still on lockdown, including Hawai?i. This presents potentially dangerous challenges for those sailing the oceans in private boats. 

Deep water sailing enthusiasts known as cruisers are a small and unique bunch of people. They sail through ever-changing ocean and weather conditions, relying on whatever supplies they got from their last stop and can get at their next one.

Due to COVID-19, popular port destinations such as French Polynesia and Australia went into lockdown, preventing the cruisers from getting essential provisions and supplies.

Liz and Steve Davis are the Hawaii port officers for the Ocean Cruising Club, a nonprofit helping cruisers get the resources they need. They say with little to no time to obtain provisions after turned away from other ports, many believe they have no choice but to come to Hawai?i.

"I understand that the government of Hawai?i isn’t encouraging tourism right now, and I agree with that. But these people aren’t coming to Hawaii to visit, they’re not coming to Hawaii because they want to do a vacation here," said Liz Davis. "They are just desperate to get back to their own country where they’re safe."

The Davis' say they have also received at least a dozen calls from American cruisers seeking a place to anchor in Hawai?i. But when these sailors arrive, they found they weren’t able to easily find a place to dock or moor.

The state issued rules prohibiting nonessential, interisland travel in Hawaiian waters, essentially closing state-run harbors.

For the cruisers, Hilo’s Radio Bay is a common port of entry in Hawaii, but the reception has changed.

"They were accepted for a while. But about a week ago, the state made a decision to not accept any new boats into Radio Bay, and to start evicting the ones that were there," said Steve Davis. "I’ve actually talked to two different boats that are in Radio Bay, and they were there when this started, and they did post two guards on shore. Any cruiser trying to come to shore to use the bathroom or get supplies was told they could not do that."


Liz Davis says she understands the cruisers there were in their 14-day quarantine or past it and were released.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources oversees small boat harbors in the state. Ed Underwood, administrator of the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, says Radio Bay falls under the state Department of Transportation, and confirmed the DOT is no longer allowing vessels to moor there.

Underwood says he understands the predicament that American cruisers are facing.

"We are getting word that down in the South Pacific, the various areas are closing their marinas," he said. "The last catamaran we had come in was at sea for over 40 days. And these people never touched land, they weren't allowed off the boat.

"We understand that they're just trying to get home."

Underwood says they are doing what they can to accommodate the needs of incoming vessels and those aboard, while following the state's rules to combat COVID-19.

"Immediately adjacent to Radio Bay is Reeds Bay, and that is ours, and we are allowing vessels to moor there," he said. "They can come to shore to get provisions, but they're not allowed to go sight seeing."

In the meantime, the Davis’ say they were able to find a place for several boats to dock in Ko Olina, and they are doing what they can to help with provisions.

"Steve and I go get some groceries so they can get through their 14 days. And if they need anything, you know, from a boat repair perspective – we will go pick that up for them and deliver it to them" said Liz Davis. "And they happily do their 14 days of quarantine in their safe slip in the marina aboard their boat."


But there are others heading to the state seeking a place to dock.

HPR reached out to the Department of Transportation, but did not get an immediate response.

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