Jerry Carreira, a musician aboard the Star of Honolulu, greets passengers as they arrive for a sunset dinner cruise. Proposed new Coast Guard regulations could require increased security, including screening passengers' identities and searching for weapons.

Rocking the boat

Dinner cruises worry that
proposed security rules may
toss customers overboard

Take a dinner cruise off Waikiki. Watch whales swimming off Maui. But before you go, wait in line for the privilege, show an ID, go through a metal detector and have your belongings searched.

That is a possibility that has some of Hawaii's biggest coastal cruise operators worried as the Coast Guard works on a new set of rules to address national security concerns.

"They came to have fun. They didn't come to be reminded of what is hazardous for their health," said Reg White, vice president of operations for Paradise Cruise Ltd., operator of the 1,500-passenger Star of Honolulu that operates from Pier 8 in Honolulu Harbor and its two smaller companions at Kewalo Basin, the 400-passenger Starlet and the 377-passenger Starlet II.

Like other cruise operators, White recognizes the need to be alert to possible terrorist attacks but he is worried that a new set of regulations due to be published July 1 could result in rules so burdensome that people just won't take the pleasure cruises.

One of the documents in the rule-making process that has boat operators worried is a list of possible costs, running from $200 for a hand-held metal detector all the way up to nearly $40,000 for a machine to X-ray baggage.

The suggested rules vary according to the different national security levels. They include verifying every person's right to board the vessel, making positive identification of all crew members and passengers, inspecting people and their bags and other carry-on items for prohibited weapons and providing security briefings for passengers before departure.

Passengers board the Star of Honolulu for a sunset dinner cruise. Security precautions for coastal cruises could increase.

The Coast Guard, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, says boat operators shouldn't worry too much. The Coast Guard asked for input and suggested high levels of security screening, but when it makes the rules it will take into account the objections, said Jolie Shifflet, a spokeswoman at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.

But ship operators like White are still worried. "Please don't secure us out of business," he said in testimony to the Coast Guard during the rule-making process.

Some of the proposals he has heard about scare him, he said in an interview. A tourist, given a choice of checking in at noon with an internationally recognized identification for a 6 p.m. dinner sail or just going to the same pier at 6 p.m. for dinner in a restaurant, will simply not take the sail, he said.

A proposal that vessels carry an automatic identification system, beaming out details of who they are, where they are and how many people are on board is "a very expensive joke," White said. It does terrorists' homework for them, he said.

"It tells them which of the 48 blips on the radar screen is me," White said.

White has even gone as far in his e-mails to industry contacts as to say that a literal reading of the guidelines that have been issued so far shows that restaurants and bars on the docks, such as those at the Aloha Tower Marketplace, could be required to screen customers, since they are "pier facilities."

Aloha Tower Marketplace did not respond to a call for comment, but the state Harbors Division said it is too soon to have that sort of worry.

Roberts Hawaii, which runs the Alii Kai catamaran dinner cruise from Pier 5 in Honolulu and the Captain Bean's cruises from Kona, said people come to Hawaii for "recreational leisure" and don't want to stand in line for it.

Besides, extra security doesn't seem necessary, said Helene "Sam" Shenkus, a spokeswoman for Roberts Hawaii.

"Our crews and our people are very observant," she said. When there was a recent increase in the national maritime security alert, Roberts customers saw no change but there was an increase in alertness by the company, Shenkus said.

"It's not like we're a commuter boat in New York Harbor sailing by the Statue of Liberty," she said. That is a whole different picture from someone getting on a boat in shorts and carrying a small bag to cruise out past Diamond Head watching an on-board hula, Shenkus said.

She checked with her managers and said that they had not had any direct contact from the Coast Guard but were not worried about compliance.

"The Coast Guard has not approached us. We're just hoping and assuming that some common sense will prevail," Shenkus said.

The local Coast Guard office said there would not be any local contact to advise of rules in process. Vessel operators are supposed to be aware of the rule-making process and any direct contact at the local level would raise the risk of tainting the process, said Lt. Cdr. Todd Offutt in the Marine Safety Office of the Coast Guard in Honolulu.

In its testimony to the Coast Guard in April, Roberts Hawaii said it believes that the proposed security measures are "excessive for our domestic passenger vessel industry."

Dave Akers, who was general manager of Roberts Hawaii Cruises at the time, told the Coast Guard that there is a need to balance security needs against economic viability and that some of the measure he had heard of could be too costly for the cruise business to survive.

Akers said the post 9/11 tourist environment makes it very difficult to absorb any new costs.

Shenkus said Akers no longer works for Roberts and she was not aware of his testimony, but the company believes its own security standards are very high.

Randy Coon, president of Trilogy Corp., which runs Trilogy Excursions out of Lahaina, said his company's vessels, mostly sailing catamarans that run pleasure and sports trips to off Maui and to Lanai, aren't now a part of the new regulation process because they are smaller than the 150-passenger and/or 65 feet minimum to be covered by the new law.

But he is still concerned about regulations that might make it more difficult for tourists to take a trip.

Randy said he and his brother Jim represent the third generation of a sailing business and started their Lanai excursions from Maui in 1973 and they have always got on well with the Coast Guard, which the family thinks is one of the least bureaucratic, most practical agencies around.

But Coon said there is a cumulative effect of all the post-9/11 security measures and anything affecting cruise boats would just add to tourists' frustration.

"If the traveling public, particularly the vacationing public, encounters what they consider to be excessive or unrealistic or unacceptable delays and frustrations, regardless of the rationale behind it or the good intentions behind it, after a while their patriotic fervor wears off," Coon said.

The next time visitors plan a vacation they might decide to drive to Grand Canyon instead of fly to Hawaii, said Coon.

Still, Coon said, he is inclined to trust the Coast Guard and the rule-making system.

"A lot of smart people are putting their input into this," he said.

Steve Knight, president and chief executive officer of Expeditions, which runs three vessels out of Lahaina, wasn't worried added security would sink business. People are getting used to the extra precautions, he said, and one more layer would not make much difference.

So far, his company doesn't have to be concerned because the vessels are 40, 50 and 55 feet long and carry 36, 64 and 90 passengers, under the minimum to which the new rules will apply.

"But there is talk that downstream it could apply to smaller vessels," Knight said.

However, like the others, his company is in close contact with the Coast Guard, he said, adding that all operators out of Lahaina are already accustomed to security because of the constant presence of cruise ships.

Added security wouldn't be so much of a cost item for Expeditions but it could be time consuming, making life harder for the recreational visitor, he said.

There are worries about what the new rules might require, however.

More than 2,100 people attended a series of seven public hearings that the Coast Guard held on the mainland in January and February. The Coast Guard said more than 900 pages of testimony were submitted.

A national trade organization, the Passenger Vessel Association, has voiced its concerns. "We all know we live in a different world than we did a couple of years ago," Gary Frommelt, the association's president, told the Associated Press in a recent interview.

"Generally speaking, however, you're not going to be able to turn a passenger vessel into a weapon of mass destruction on the magnitude of an airplane. To put the full impact of these regulations on some of our operators really means they'd go out of business," Frommelt said.

The Coast Guard's Shifflet said it is too soon to draw conclusions.

"The regulations have not been published yet," she said.

She noted the amount of public input during and after the hearings this year and said much of it reflected the concerns of passenger boats and dinner-cruise vessels.

"We are taking those concerns into account," Shifflet said. "The maritime system is very diverse, from one port to another and from one kind of vessel to another.

"The Coast Guard believes it can write regulations that provide appropriate levels of security for individual situations."

She said the publication of the regulations on July 1 will be followed by 30 days for public comment. The final rules will be published in late October, Shifflet said.

The sate has been making its own port security advances since long before 9/11 brought on the national push, said Bill Anonsen, maritime operations specialist in the state Harbors Division and the lead official for the state's waterfront and vessel security.

"Waterfront security is truly becoming a major challenge that faces the nation," and that is particularly important in Hawaii where 98 percent of the goods we use come by sea, he said.

He said state agencies, the private sector and the federal authorities are working together to see that the security resources the waterfront has are used to the maximum effect.

As for the upcoming Coast Guard rules, Anonsen said, "I don't think we should panic."


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