Steven Baker (left) pilots thecontainer
ship Matsonia into the Honolulu
Harbor while Matsonia captain
B.J. Diggins looks on.
Captain Lyman peppered the history with interesting factoids: Alakea Street, which runs through downtown to the harbor, was paved with coral dredged out of the harbor—hence its name, Alakea, or “white road.” He pointed out the location of the harbor’s first “improvement,” a derelict hull sunk at the foot of Nu‘uanu Avenue in 1825 as a makeshift wharf. On the spot where Pier 1 now stands, ox teams once dragged the incoming vessels into port.
It’s not America’s biggest or the busiest port. Compared with mighty dreadnoughts like Oakland and Long Beach, Honolulu Harbor might be described as “cute.” Its piers can’t handle the biggest container ships out there. Even so, it’s the centerpiece of one of the world’s most efficient port systems, the hub of the state’s “hub-and-spoke” harbor network. It’s the only harbor in the state deep enough to accommodate the container ships that keep us all fed, clothed and housed. The short version of how it all works is this: One of the state’s nine harbor pilots, like Captain Lyman, rides the pilot boat out a couple of miles offshore to meet inbound container ships. Tugs provide escort, pushing and pulling to help the ships negotiate the harbor’s tight spots and nudge them up to the piers. Once moored, stevedores offload the containers with cranes and transfer them immediately to an armada of waiting trucks, which then zoom off to get the next shipment of iPods to the Apple Store. The smaller Neighbor Island harbors can’t handle the big container ships, so the freight is loaded on barges in Honolulu and tugged to the spokes: Kawaihae and Hilo on the Big Island, Nawiliwili and Port Allen on Kaua‘i, Kahului on Maui, Kaumalapau on Lana‘i and Kaunakakai on Moloka‘i.
The barges are then back-loaded with export commodities—pineapple, poi bags, scrap metal, live cattle and the latest craze: bottled water from the Big Island bound for Japan. The tugs haul the barges back to Honolulu, where the export freight is loaded onto the container ships headed for the West Coast and Asia. Depending on the size of a container ship and the nature of its cargo, it’ll be in port for about a day.
There’s nothing unusual about how the harbor works; it’s pretty much the same deal in any container port around the world, large or small. What is unique, though, is our near-total reliance on the harbor as a lifeline, and the split-second timing its operation demands. Last year 3,500 ships called; that’s a lot of moving and shaking, and it happens round-the-clock. Because Honolulu Harbor has precious little warehouse space, everything goes straight from the docks to the stores, what Randy Grune calls the “just-in-time” service market. Grune should know: He’s the CEO of Hawai‘i Stevedores, the company responsible for offloading the foreign freighters at Pier 1, the city’s sole wharf dedicated to foreign cargo handling. “When a ship is delayed — engine problems, bad weather—it shows on the shelves of the grocery store within a day or two.”
Or, as Captain Lyman explained it, “When cargo’s late, people start chewing their fingernails. The delivery time is so critical that as a ship rounds Diamond Head, her engineer starts unplugging the reefer [refrigeration] containers. As soon as she’s alongside, bam! That fresh stuff is on its way to market. And this is while 90 percent of the population is asleep.”
A brief longshoremen’s work stoppage in 1994 sent locals scrambling to stock up on the essentials: toilet paper and rice. Back in January of this year, heavy weather delayed a delivery to Lana‘i by two days: When the ship finally docked, the whole island was out of milk and eggs. And it isn’t just our fresh produce and consumer goods that depend on such precision timing.