The Bali Hai sank one year ago at Keehi Lagoon.

Boat owner isn’t sunk
yet in fight with state

By Burl Burlingame

A year ago, boat owner David Ford was awakened by a call from the small-boat mooring facility at Keehi Lagoon -- his boat "Bali Hai" was sinking rapidly.

By the time he got to the harbor on the morning of Feb. 28, 2001, only the bow was sticking out of the water. As it settled on the bottom of the murky tidal basin, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources moved rapidly to have it destroyed as a hazard to navigation.

Ford, however, has spent the last year doggedly fighting government efforts to destroy the craft. This week, Ford filed a federal suit against DLNR's Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation in response to a DLNR legal notice printed earlier this month calling for "Bali Hai's" disposition as "junk," along with 11 other vessels.

A temporary restraining order issued by Judge David Ezra against the state uses the grounds of "malicious conversion" -- formerly called "piracy" -- to halt demolition. The office of DLNR chair Gilbert Coloma-Agaran refused to accept the federal TRO on Wednesday, said Ford, so he served the papers to Gov. Ben Cayetano's office on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the sinking.

According to a secretary in Cayetano's office, it was the first time in memory the governor has been accused of high-seas piracy.

David Ford watched as Navy divers last year began an exploratory operation on his sunken World War II "crash boat" at Keehi Lagoon harbor.

A spokesperson for DLNR said they would have no immediate comment on standing legal issues. "And, as far as we know, DLNR has not been served,"said Deborah Ward.

The reason for Ford's persistance, he says, is the vessel's historic value. During World War II, it was a speedy aircraft-rescue craft, one of relatively few built, and "Bali Hai" has patched bullet holes from combat in the South Seas. Ford said he wants to donate the boat to a museum. Although several have expressed interest and support for Ford, none has offered help to salvage "Bali Hai." The U.S. Navy also expressed a historical interest, at one point having the boat examined by Navy divers, Ford says.

Ford is also motivated by a sense of injustice over the way he says he was steamrollered by state bureaucrats.

"I've had it with my civil rights being used (like a) crumpled up piece of paper. There was something fishy about this from the beginning," says Ford. "As soon as it sunk, I hired a diver who inspected the vessel and who said it was sabotaged. But the state hired its own people to claim the boat was beyond salvage and historically worthless. But I'm the burr under the (state's) blanket that isn't going away."

Grounds for Ford's suit are rooted in the 1988 Abandoned Shipwreck Act, which directs the government to preserve historically significant sunken vessels within American territorial waters. According to Hans Konrad Van Tilburg, marine archaeologist at the University of Hawaii, if DLNR is receiving any federal funds, these might be jeopardized by destroying "Bali Hai" before a historic survey can be completed.

"As for myself, I'm convinced the boat needs further study," says Van Tilberg.

The state filed the legal notice for demolition "because the boating division has their own timeline and agenda, and they're following their usual procedures," said Tonia Moy of the Historic Preservation Division, which also comes under the DLNR's authority. The preservation office is examining possible remedies, she says.

The craft was built in 1942 by the Miami Shipbuilding Corp., primarily of hard teak. The hull was laminated with Fiberglas in the '90s. Because of this combination, says Van Tilberg, there's a good chance the boat is still salvageable.

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