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Honolulu Harbor is the city's gateway—and its lifeline; Nearly 80 percent of all imports arrive here by sea.
Vol. 9, No. 3
June/July 2006

  >>   On the Waterfront
  >>   Land's End
  >>   Diamond's Edge

On the Waterfront 

story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Dana Edmunds


To many of us locals, Honolulu Harbor is an abstraction—a big blank spot in the cartography of our minds. It’s over there, on the other side of the highway from CompUSA and Restaurant Row. Driving past its fifty-three piers along Nimitz Highway, we may glimpse the Matson gantry cranes squatting on Sand Island like giant yellow golems. Impressive, but we’ve got to get to Dave & Buster’s for pau hana drinks. And for the average tourist, the harbor is barely on the radar—a blot of industrial nastiness beyond the manicured frontier of Aloha Tower Marketplace. Unless you work on the waterfront or have to pick up a car you’ve shipped from the Mainland, the harbor is about the last place in paradise you’d choose to be. cc But cross the Rubicon of Nimitz Highway that divides the harbor from the city and you’ll come to appreciate—in an unsettling way—just how tenuous life on an archipelago can be. Fully 80 percent of Hawai‘i’s consumer goods are imported, and of that 80 percent, nearly all of it (98.8 percent, according to a recent estimate), arrives by ship. Cement, clothing, PVC tubes, aquarium fish, decorative stone, ice cream, toilet paper, rubbah slippahs—you name it. If you’ve eaten it, worn it, watched it, driven it, smoked it or blown your nose in it, odds are five-to-one, it got here by ship.

“There’s what I call the mauka side of Nimitz, and then there’s the makai,” said Captain Dave Lyman, who until his death last January had been one of Honolulu’s most experienced pilots—the guys responsible for guiding the leviathan container ships in and out of the state’s harbors. Mauka is Hawaiian for “toward the mountains,” and makai is its opposite, “toward the sea.” In Hawai‘i, we use them simply to indicate direction, but Captain Lyman saw the terms as metaphors for different, often conflicting, attitudes about living on this island. “These days, people in Hawai‘i have an agrarian mindset … they look from the land to the ocean. But look at it from the sea. You get a completely different perspective on Honolulu.”

He’s right. Cruising past Buoy 7 on one of the harbor’s zippy new pilot boats, Captain Lyman schooled me about life on the “other side of the highway.”

Seen from the water, Honolulu makes sense. The city’s gleaming downtown buildings—every rivet of which came by sea—huddle around the harbor like kids at an ice cream truck. From this vantage, you realize that the raison d’etre for the city, and by connection for the whole state, is Honolulu Harbor.

Though today’s harbor is a specialized high-tech industrial container port where few choose to tread, it wasn’t always so. Captain Lyman, who piloted ships in and out of the harbor for thirty-one years, saw it all. He’d piloted every kind of ship there is: the old-style break-bulk freighters (the kind with the twin booms fore and aft), the goliath Matson and Horizon Lines container ships, cruise ships like the Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Mary II, even the Hawaiian sailing canoe Hokule‘a; indeed, he was skipper that fateful night in 1978 when the vessel capsized in heavy seas near Lana‘i. It was Captain Lyman who eventually gave legendary waterman Eddie Aikau permission to take his surfboard and paddle for help. Aikau was never seen again; Lyman and the rest of his crew were rescued later that night.