My Turn

Saturday, February 28, 1998

U.S. Navy
YSB-83, one of the Ford Island ferries, transports
sailors in this U.S. Navy photo from 1964. After 50 years
of use, the ferry system has been supplanted by a new
causeway. But there could be a new future for the ferries:
Taking visitors to a historical park and the USS Missouri
at Ford Island.

There could be a future
for Ford Island ferries

Using ferries to transport visitors to new
Ford Island museums would preserve a part
of Pearl Harbor history, too

By Burl Burlingame


As a kid in high school, I had friends who lived on Ford Island, and we'd ride the ferry to get there. Ford Island was always a special place, quiet and isolated, but the ferry ride was nothing short of wonderful, with the big, flat-bottomed barge motoring steadily across the water. You could feel the briny wind and taste the oily tang of the harbor, and it seemed sort of industrial and natural all at the same time.

Soon, however, after more than half a century, the ferries will no longer be needed to transport residents to Ford Island. A new causeway is nearly completed, for the exclusive use of the residents, and ferries YSB-83 and YSB-87 will be retired. That's the plan.

Putting the YSBs out to pasture, however, would be premature. Current projections for the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center call for facilities and memorials on the shore side and museums and the USS Missouri on the Ford Island side, separated by nearly a mile of water. Every attraction requires ready access, even commercial ones, and educational/cultural venues don't need this kind of difficulty.

The problem is that visitors will not be allowed to drive across the causeway. This would cause traffic congestion, and would divide the two extremes of the visitor center, perhaps fatally. It will be hard enough to get the various museums and attractions to agree on a coherent marketing strategy, much less methods of people-moving.

U.S. Navy
Ford Island dependents board the Ford Island
ferry during this 1961 Civil Defense drill.

Which leaves few alternatives. One is operating a shuttle-boat system similar to the Navy's Arizona Memorial ride. These boats are owned by the Navy, and operated by Navy personnel, and maintained in Navy yards, all of which costs several million dollars a year. The National Park Service reimburses the Navy for the fuel and provides scheduling and tour interpretations. This is a cumbersome and expensive system, but it allows the Navy to retain command of access to the Memorial.

Another option is shuttle buses. Using estimates of one-half the Arizona Memorial's visitation, 30 to 35 people on a full bus, an eight-hour workday and a fleet of six to 10 buses, you'd have to empty and fill a bus every six minutes and send it packing. Greyhound terminals aren't that busy!

Which brings us back to the ferries. These historic vessels are ideal for transporting visitors to Ford Island:

° They're cheap. They are diesel-electric craft, and the fuel and maintenance they would required is less than comparable modes of transportation, and they're relatively environmentally friendly.

° They're big. The YSBs are designed to haul all sorts of large vehicles, which means they can haul several dozen, maybe hundreds, of people at a time, and the passengers would be free to roam the ship. The Pearl Harbor YSBs even have upper decks where once they had snack bars.

° They're flexible. They can be retrofitted with more modern and maneuverable propulsion systems, and the boxy shape is ideal for building in a floating interpretive center. Visitors could learn about the natural and cultural history of Pearl Harbor while actually crossing Pearl Harbor, and the lesson then would have more impact. The alternative is being stuck in a bus or boat seat, unable to move and learn at your own speed.

° They're available. Generally, when Navy vessels are declared surplus, they're scrapped or auctioned off to the highest bidder -- that's the rule. But when the work of Pearl Harbor's ferries comes to an end soon, the Navy also has the option of retaining ownership and passing the vessels on to nonprofit educational and cultural groups -- such as Hawaii's USS Missouri Memorial Association. Beats buying or leasing a fleet of buses or boats.

° They're convenient. The ferry landings at both ends happen to be exactly where visitors need to go. If the ferries are used only for pedestrians, then the big, ugly, noisy vehicle ramps at the landings can be rebuilt as pleasant piers -- you step onto the craft instead of climbing over the ramp. They're suited for use by the disabled as well, unlike buses or boats.

° They're efficient. A visitor's time is so carefully managed by tour agencies that it makes sense to combine the transportation, interpretation and orientation aspects of visiting Pearl Harbor into a single experience.

° They're endangered. The ferries aren't glamorous, but they're an integral part of the social history of the harbor. If they are mothballed or destroyed, that part of Hawaii's heritage is gone forever. And the point of the Pearl Harbor museum complex is to preserve that history.

° And then there are the intangibles. Pearl Harbor is a real place, an unusual melange of technology and nature, and everything that can immerse the visitor in the REALITY of the location adds to the experience. Buses will remove the visitor from the experience, and in the process, cheapen it. There is no substitute for being able to look into the roiling waters of one of the world's most famous harbors, being close enough to touch it, and being ABLE to touch it.

That's what museums and educational centers are all about -- preserving the reality of a landscape or an event.

Current plans for the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center (there are four) show grand shuttle-boat piers and gigantic bus turnarounds. The emphasis is on moving visitors around, not in allowing them to appreciate what's special about the location. Sometimes the easiest, best and cheapest solution may be right under your nose -- and already in use.

Burl Burlingame is a Star-Bulletin staff writer.
My Turn is a periodic column written by Star-Bulletin staff members.

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