The SuperFerry Chronicles

By Koohan Paik and Jerry Mander; Hawaii: Koa Books, 2009, 319 pp.

The SuperFerry Chronicles is the story of a boat fated to bare the tale of a land with two faces: a tiny hidden paradise on the outside and a petri dish of U.S. militarism and corporate globalization on the inside. It’s about a place where locals live in shanties next to million-dollar vacation rentals and compete for farmland with multi-nationals like Monsanto, where the rare species and delicate ecosystems are eaten away by overdevelopment and where the military peppers the black sand beaches with depleted uranium. Until one day, seemingly out of nowhere and apparently under no leadership or guidance, the people arose and said, "Enough is enough. Give us back our land."

The SuperFerry Chronicles is not set in some foreign Banana Republic, but in Hawaii. From award-winning filmmaker and journalist Koohan Paik and the "patriarch of the anti-globalization movement," Jerry Mander, comes the first book to explore the SuperFerry project, intended to create an "ocean highway" connecting the remote island of Kauai to the metropolis of Honolulu by means of a massive, high-speed catamara—and the grassroots movement that arose against it. This resistance culminated in August 2007, when over a thousand local protesters lined the shore of Kauai’s Nawiliwili Harbor and many risked their lives by wading into the ocean with kayaks and surfboards, even using their bodies to block and then successfully turn back the massive 349-foot ship.

When word first made it to the remote island of Kauai that the SuperFerry was coming their way, the community was concerned. The ferry would burn nearly 6,000 gallons of diesel from Honolulu to Kauai while traveling at speeds of 40 mph through summer breeding grounds for humpback whales, sea turtles, monk seals, dolphins, and manta rays.

Developers claimed the SuperFerry would help farmers get to market and connect locals to loved ones on other islands. They claimed it would increase tourism, bringing more visitors.

But the locals weren’t having it. Concerned locals worried it would bring traffic and crime and pollution and wreak havoc on some of the last remaining coral reefs and other fragile coastal ecosystems. The community asked for an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to be conducted before the boat was allowed to run its course. The Republican governor of Hawaii denied the EIS, citing concern that investors for the ferry would withdraw if the project was delayed. But the people of Kauai demanded an EIS and the hidden agendas began to reveal themselves.

When Governor Lingle enacted a state law to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling demanding an EIS, called Act 2, it became apparent that the goal of the SuperFerry wasn’t about increasing tourism at all. It was about a high-speed oceanic arms race.

According to Mander and Paik, the reason Governor Lingle was so averse to any delay was that she had her eye on national office. As for those investors that she was worried about, there was really only one, J.F. Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, a member of the 9/11 Commission as well as the Committee on the Present Danger, and the person slated to become chief of staff had John McCain won the election. Lehman wanted to create a 1,000-ship fleet to patrol the Pacific Ocean in the name of Homeland Security. Before he could pitch this idea to the U.S. military he needed a prototype. Lehman invested in SuperFerry and eventually took over as CEO. With Lingle’s help, he continued to push the ship as a civilian passenger boat and in this way not only got his prototype built and paid for with taxpayer dollars, but also received free reign to test the ship in civilian waters, with paying civilian passengers.

Hawaii is the perfect place for such military experimentation. After all, much of Hawaii is still owned by the military and is home to Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility and Pohakuloa Pacific Training Area, where the infamous Stryker Brigade trains for war in Iraq. It is also home to the largest naval war games in the Pacific.

"The subtextual message to the world is clear enough," writes Mander of Hawaii’s military presence. "It’s a statement to the countries of the Pacific Basin, particularly China, Russia, and North Korea: Watch out. We stand on the Pacific Platform. We’re in the exact middle of the ocean here. You can’t get around us. And we’re ready for anything…. "

The authors write of the day when the people of Kauai came out: "The uprising on Kauai at Nawiliwili Harbor offers an excellent example of the empowering results of effective local direct action. They couldn’t do much about the whole world, but they were not about to let their little corner of the planet fall sway to further global commercial and military invasions, at least not without a struggle."

In the interviews and letters that make up the heart of the book, the reader meets a wide range of people who were at Nawiliwili that day. There are environmentalists who speak about the whales, parents concerned about the safety of their children, small business owners worried about the impact of so many visitors and large corporations on Kauai’s culture. In this diverse collection of interviews, a theme becomes apparent: these people don’t just care about their island, they are connected to it, and any affront on it is an affront on them. They speak of their community and their aina (sacred land) like they talk of a loved one. And more importantly, they speak of respect for its limits.

"Most people who have spent their lives on islands have an extra sense," write Mander and Paik. "For survival’s sake they have embodied a keener, innate awareness of limits than those who live on giant continents, where limits are hard to discern or imagine…. Peoples of the Pacific, by and large, have managed to live comfortably and survive for millennia on very tiny islands. They have trapped fish in the plentiful lagoons; they have stewarded the offerings of nature, they have grown and used what they needed. They have been sustained and guided by their cultural training, community involvement and spiritual teachings that celebrate such indigenous values as reciprocity with nature; economies of limits and balance; the primary importance of local community and cooperation and the integration and sense of kinship with nature and its beings."

It is for this reason that The SuperFerry Chronicles is such an important work. The protests and stories at its heart serve as a model for any community struggling against overdevelopment and the loss of innate rights to their land. The people interviewed do not speak of themselves as activists and the authors repeatedly refer to the fact that the protests against the SuperFerry arose spontaneously, without leadership. They proved the power of a people to set aside differences to successfully use direct civil disobedience to protect their community.

For two years, environmental and citizens groups continued to fight Act 2 in the courts, until on March 16, 2009, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled the new state law to be unconstitutional. Rather than agree to conduct an EIS before continuing further, the SuperFerry instead ceased operations altogether. Three days after the court decision, a final ship arrived to pick up stranded passengers and sailed off into the ocean horizon for the last time.

The only pitfall of the The Chronicles seems to be that there is too much to tell in one book. Though Mander and Paik effectively cover details of meetings, discussions, protests, and court dates, much of the back-story is still skimmed over. The average American may have trouble keeping up with the legal detail and may prefer to skip ahead to the interviews to get a more personal sense of the people of Kauai and their struggle. But even here, the modern mainlander may be unable to relate, unless they too have known a sense of connection to a place. For those that have, The SuperFerry Chronicles reminds us that it is not only possible for communities to resist the tide of globalization and hold strong to what is sacred, but it is also necessary for survival.


Jessica Perry is an activist and independent journalist from Kapaa, Hawaii.