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Hawaii's cheapest cruise sails into sunset

/ Source: The Associated Press

One of the seas' best bargain cruises and a daily commuter boat for a small number of island residents was dropping off its last passengers Tuesday, ending a brief golden era for Hawaii water transport.

TheBoat, for $2 or a public bus transfer, offered flying fish, dolphins and whales against a backdrop of Diamond Head and the Honolulu skyline.

Hawaii's short-lived version of the Staten Island Ferry has now gone the way of the interisland Hawaii Superferry and two giant island-hopping cruise liners that have abandoned Hawaii waters.

It's one more sign these islands settled by Polynesian voyagers centuries ago are now more friendly to planes, trains and automobiles.

"We have water, but we can't enjoy it, " said Lieu Morimoto, as she and her husband, Dale, basked in a glimmering sunrise on one of TheBoat's last voyages Tuesday. They're among a handful of regular boat commuters.

For nearly two years, TheBoat has been a little-used leg of Oahu's TheBus system, with three 150-passenger catamarans running six roundtrips daily, sailing out of the picturesque Aloha Tower Marketplace to Kalaeloa Harbor across from the Ko Olina resort on West Oahu.

Average ridership has been only a couple of dozen each trip, although passengers lined up Tuesday for the final voyages.

The service proved too expensive for the City Council. One study calculated the round-trip fare would have had to top $120 for the service to make money.

Passengers cite the lack of parking at both ends, early mechanical problems that led to cancellation of many trips, choppy seas during parts of the year that make for a bouncy ride, and military restrictions that prevented use of a much shorter route across the mouth of Pearl Harbor.

TheBoat's departure follows loss of the far more ambitious Hawaii Superferry system, forced by environmental legal challenges to scuttle and send back one 800-passenger, 200-vehicle vessel even before a second one could be delivered. The Superferry was Hawaii's first passenger-car service with plans to serve Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai.

Now, the only interisland passenger service is by air.

Two giant NCL America cruise ships built especially for the Hawaiian Islands — Pride of Aloha and Pride of Hawaii — have also left in the face of heavy losses. Only Pride of America remains.

Oahu voters narrowly approved another transportation alternative — a rail transit system that will link Waikiki with West Oahu. The first leg is to be running by 2012.

Buses are being added to make up for loss of the water commute, but many boat passengers say they'd rather drive than go back to the bus. The drive ordinarily takes less time than the boat, but a single traffic accident can lead to long delays on an island with only one major transportation corridor.

Besides the spectacular shoreline vistas, the hour-long voyage on TheBoat offered amenities not found on Honolulu's often-crowded bus system: a snack bar, free newspapers, tables for creating a traveling office, high-backed seats, wireless Internet and an attentive crew.

"I feel for the regular riders," said ship's mate Diane Harrison. "They're the ones who have to go back to the bus when this could have been a viable means of ridership." Harrison and other crew-members will be looking for new jobs in a tough market.

Two of the boats, the Melissa Ann and the Rachel Marie, are being loaded onto a barge Wednesday for return to Seattle, and the third, the Catalina Adventure, is going back to California.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said he still supports the idea of a city ferry and it could come back when it becomes more viable.

A Web site has been set up for a grassroots campaign to "keep hope alive."

"What I'll always remember is the sense of peace I feel with the ocean breeze in my face — a perfect way to begin and end the day, a feeling no drive home or bus ride could ever match," says the Webmaster, who identifies himself only as Mel, regular commuter and supporter of TheBoat.