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Transient Cruisers Lose Use of Radio Bay

Radio Bay, near Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, has been available as an anchorage and seawall mooring safe haven for transient cruising boats for decades. It is an exceptionally well-protected anchorage fully surrounded by a large breakwater and concrete pier, with a good-holding mud bottom. It is the most windward safe harbor in the Hawaiian Islands and serves as an international check-in port. Due to its location, it is an ideal first stop for vessels sailing from Mexico, the South Pacific, and the US West Coast that plan to cruise through the Hawaiian Islands or continue to points west.

The Hawaii Dept. of Transportation (DOT) administers Radio Bay. The DOT also oversees the activity on the adjacent commercial pier. Large ships, barges and ferry boats dock along the west side of the commercial pier, not the eastern Radio Bay side of the pier that has served as the cruising-boat anchorage. A lengthy breakwater with a large open entrance on the west side protects the commercial pier and some of the Hilo Bay waterfront from ocean swells. DOT levied a daily mooring fee on visiting yachts in Radio Bay, whether anchored or moored on the seawall.

cruisers moored in Radio Bay
Cruisers snug in Radio Bay, Hilo, on the east side of the Big Island.
© 2020 Anonymous

In March, as the extent of the coronavirus problem was becoming clear and vessels at sea began looking for safe alternatives, authorities at Radio Bay and the Port of Hilo indicated that yachts at sea seeking a safe haven could use the Radio Bay anchorage and clear into the US there. This information was disseminated to vessels at sea through emails and the SSB cruising nets.

Radio Bay anchorage
Another view of Radio Bay. The breakwater on the right is more than 100 years old.
© 2020 Anonymous

Initially, yachts arriving at Radio Bay were well received and quietly waited out the required 14-day quarantine and subsequent lockdown. However, after subsequent waves of yachts began arriving in Radio Bay, with many crewmembers blatantly disregarding the quarantine and lockdown restrictions, DOT staff began announcing tighter restrictions on visiting yachts and crews. Then on April 15, and without any advance notice, DOT suddenly announced Radio Bay was immediately and permanently closing to all “transient” vessels. Vessels already there are being allowed to remain only until the end of their prepaid mooring days. They must then immediately depart.

One boat’s prepaid mooring days ended the same day as the new policy was announced. When arriving before the announcement that same day at the DOT office with the cashier’s check DOT required for additional prepaid days, despite no advance notice of the policy change, the vessel’s owner was told the vessel’s permit to be in Radio Bay was now invalid. They were told to leave immediately, despite not being prepared to leave immediately. Some of the vessels with days remaining on prepaid mooring fees were treated with increasing hostility by DOT staff, causing some to depart before prepaid mooring days were expired. As it now stands, all of the remaining transient vessels will be expelled by early May, and Radio Bay will be permanently closed to transient cruising vessels.

DOT staff stated that the new policy was enacted because Radio Bay is a commercial harbor and DOT only manages commercial use. However, at the same time, DOT staff admitted that Radio Bay recreational use permits for a local canoe paddling club and local educational programs will not be affected by the new closure to “transient” vessels. It appears the new closure policy applies only to “transient” vessels, code meaning non-locals.

The closure of Radio Bay is a significant loss of a safe haven for cruising yachts. Transient vessels are being told they will be allowed to anchor in Hilo Bay inside the breakwater, but not inside the much-better-protected Radio Bay. The much larger and more open Hilo Bay area outside the Radio Bay basin is administered by the Hawaii Dept. of Lands and Natural Resources (DLNR). DLNR has much more stringent insurance requirements, which is problematic for some visiting yachts, and significantly higher daily mooring fees, apparently including a $10-per-day per-person fee for each individual on a vessel in addition to fees based on the size of the vessel.

The Hilo Bay anchorage options appear to range from areas with poor holding on hardpan and rock to some patchy areas with mud near the breakwater that may provide better holding. Hilo Bay is exposed to the full brunt of trade winds, and even reinforced trade winds in the afternoons when warm air over land adds a sea breeze component. At least one boat is known to have been lost in recent years in Hilo Bay during unsettled weather due to wind exposure and the poor anchor-holding bottom conditions.

Also, with a large opening at the west side of the harbor beyond the end of the breakwater, the fetch and potential for exposure to ocean wave surge is much greater in Hilo Harbor. Dinghy landing security, known to be a serious problem throughout the Hawaiian Islands, is less in Hilo Harbor landing spots than in Radio Bay, where anchored and moored yachts are nearby and can easily monitor the dinghy landing area.

satellite map of Hilo Bay
A satellite view of the Port of Hilo. The Hilo Bay breakwater is approximately 1.9 miles long.
© 2020 Google Maps

The Hilo Breakwater was built starting in the early 1900s on what was a historic reef. Sensitive ecological resources such as patches of hard corals are known to still exist behind the breakwater. There is presently a study underway evaluating the potential benefit of breaches in the breakwater to improve water quality and marine habitat in Hilo Bay. It is unclear how any future breaches in the breakwater may affect anchoring conditions for cruising yachts. However, it is well documented in many places that anchor and anchor chain dragging in a radius around an anchor can have very serious impacts on bottom ecosystems, akin to cutting crop circles. On the other hand, Radio Bay is already a severely degraded bottom environment consisting of mud with poor water circulation. Forcing boats to anchor in Hilo Bay rather than Radio Bay will be counterproductive for local marine conservation efforts.

It appears the closure of Radio Bay has been contemplated for some time by DOT, but never occurred, apparently due to interest group pushback, according to a DOT staff member. Closure now appears to be triggered by the influx of transient vessels and the concern of locals regarding COVID-19 risk. While arriving yachts have typically been at sea for 20-plus days, and already self-quarantined, all were subject to an additional 14 days of self-quarantine once they arrived in Hawaii.

Unfortunately, some new arrivals failed to take this seriously and flagrantly violated the quarantine rules to stay on their vessels except for essential needs. Many of the new arrivals were congregating in groups and hanging out and socializing loudly in the dinghy landing park fronting Radio Bay, and playing with water toys such as kiteboards in the park, which is difficult to justify as an essential activity. The new DOT closure of Radio Bay to cruisers in response to complaints by locals seems to be largely triggered by the optics problem of the quarantine violations, with DOT using it as a pretext to close the bay to outsiders at a time when interest groups may be too distracted to push back as apparently occurred in the past.

There are many reasons Radio Bay is a better option for accommodating cruising vessels compared to the Hilo Bay alternatives:

  • Better protection from wind and waves
  • Better anchor holding conditions
  • Ecosystem bottom conditions less sensitive to anchor damage
  • Better dinghy landing site and dinghy security
  • Less likely to impact commercial activities in Hilo Bay by potentially dragging anchor into the shipping channel

There can be little doubt that an independent analysis of the local features and use patterns would identify Radio Bay as the more suitable and sensible site for accommodating transient cruising vessels. Nonetheless, without serious efforts by interest groups to change the DOT decision to close Radio Bay to transient yachts, it appears it will be a permanently-lost resource. This will be particularly dangerous for transient yachts during periods of unsettled weather.

“Since Hawaii is a state that receives a large surplus of federal funds compared to federal revenues received from Hawaiian taxpayers, that means funding for the Hilo Bay breakwater build and maintenance is largely from non-Hawaiian sources, including taxpayers who are now being expelled and permanently banned from using Radio Bay as an anchorage.”

Another important question is if the new DOT policy should be subject to an environmental review process since it may have significant impacts on more sensitive Hilo Bay natural resources.

DOT’s sudden new closure of Radio Bay during a time of crises that affects cruisers seeking safe refuge raises serious safety, humanitarian and ethical issues in additional to the environmental and breakwater-funding obligation issues. Interested parties should not delay in making their views known to DOT.

6 Comments

  1. Avatar
    barry spanier 5 months ago

    democrat run state… don’t need to say more

    every wanna be tyrant is now empowered.

    if you choose to live on the ocean/s, waterworld might be a guide.

  2. Avatar
    Desiree Dunn 5 months ago

    Whoever wrote this must be feeling lost and not empathetic. Scary time to be a traveler. Radio Bay is a very enclosed bay with no pump out. The bathrooms we cruisers used to be able to use are tied to the secure commercial shipyard with container storage. The longshoremen finally found justification to demand useage of bathrooms in lieu of locking a gate to keep us boaters out of the loading dock. Also, some locals think we sailboats are the same as a cruise ship.

    Janitors are afraid to clean right now; this place is not unique. We all have to be adaptable right now as fear grows and rules change daily. Thanks for the reception of our friends in customs office Hilo and kind Hilo Harbormaster. They are dealing with a lot of calls from scared locals. The least we can do as travelers is to keep our distance. Locals in Hawaii are trying to legally get to the water as parks and beaches are closed; we live on the water so will continue to sail ‘Gia’, our dingy, and swim in our yard called the Pacific.

  3. Avatar
    Patrick L. Kahawaiolaa 5 months ago

    Aloha. It appears the transient cruisers’ “COMPLAINT” that they’re losing the use of Radio Bay to tie up safely — and the connotation that because of the Federal funding this State receives to maintain the Breakwater — that it’s somehow discriminatory and unfair, and only State resources should be used. Because of this pandemic virus currently gripping the world’s attention, [I’d like to share my perspective as] a local of 75 years on this island, with ancestors who worked on building the break wall so United States shippers would have a safe harbor to moor when bringing goods into the Territory during the time of Sugar Plantations and ancillary business to support these businesses.

    The Military & Territorial Government arbitrarily took those lands from the native Hawaiian people to build the break wall to protect the Harbor called Kuhio Harbor. Radio Bay is called that because the Coast Guard erected a radio tower during the War. The native peoples have suffered the indignation of having their Hawaiian Kingdom and Government “overthrown” with the “help of the United States” during its era of western expansion. We all know the history so PLEASE DO NOT MAKE [THIS INTO] A LOCALS against TOURIST WITH BOATS that Sail the World (and, at times, “in need of safe mooring”).

    That being said, [there are] SERIOUS CONCERNS RAISED BY THE KEAUKAHA COMMUNITY that lies adjacent to the Harbor and Radio Bay in light of the Covid-19 virus. [AND] YOU ACKNOWLEDGED THAT THERE WAS SERIOUS VIOLATIONS OF THE CREW MEMBERS FROM THESE BOATS FROM FOLLOWING SHELTER-IN-PLACE QUARANTINE OF 14 DAYS. I just see this as some Common Sense restrictions totally ignored by those how believe their rights are being VIOLATED by these restrictions.

    Maybe after this pandemic is under control, the DOT rules may change. Again, I detest the fact that this article alludes to the mere fact surplus federal funds are used therefore [non-Hawaii resident] boaters have stronger voices. Like, I’m a retired Federal Employee, Vietnam Veteran with two tours in the United States Navy, and I BELIEVE I, MY FAMILY AND ALL THE LOCALS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE PAY FEDERAL INCOME TAX, THE SAME PLACE THAT FEDERAL SURPLUS FUNDS COME FROM: TAXPAYERS!! Aloha and welcome to my beautiful island . . . when this virus thing is over.

    ***

    If you really wanted to visit here, HILO BAY IS STILL AVAILABLE***.
    Wailoa has moorings, and Kona Honokohau Boat Harbor are alternatives.

  4. Avatar
    Hawaii sailor 5 months ago

    I’m sorry the cruiser’s coconut telegraph led you to Hawaii thinking you could escape the issues of a world-wide pandemic. Like many foolish tourists coming here to party, it seems a few sailors probably ruined it for you. You should be mad at them, not Hawaii. It also would have taken a lot less time for you to write, than to try and dredge up every side issue you could think of.

    Radio Bay is state property, with a tiny section of breakwall that it probably doesn’t really need due to the reef on the other side. It’s silly to demand access over the state’s decision to close the bay because there’s a 0.01% section of federal breakwall. It’s a bit arrogant, really. That land used to be part of Hawaiian land before the government removed [the Hawaiians]. So don’t try to claim too much right to access over the people that live here.

    I’ve anchored all over Hawaii, and the rest of the bay is fine — especially this time of year. Due to less marine traffic, you can anchor in the nice mud by the wall and enjoy the views. There’s very little reef life due to the high concentrations of fresh water and silt run off. So don’t worry about your anchor.

    I agree with Patrick. Look, people are scared. We don’t have many hospital beds or equipment. We have people still flying in to party from all over because the federal government will do nothing to limit travel here. If we have a serious breakout, we are isolated and dangerously on our own. Right now, Hawaii is dismasted and we are trying not to sink. Just anchor another 1/2 mile away and be glad you’re not on a ventilator.

    Aloha from 6+ feet away.

  5. Avatar
    James Baker 5 months ago

    The State of Hawaii has always offered run-down, inadequate infrastructure for visiting — or local, for that matter — sailing boats. The marinas are not fit for purpose, there are too few of them, and even local boats find it difficult to slip, moor, or anchor. The xenophobic state government has maintained a blind eye towards marina development, has neglected the maintenance of existing facilities, and has never seen the need to welcome visiting yachts. As a past resident of Hawaii and a sailor, the local boat ramp is always going to be about all there is. Never mind the millions [of dollars] that a vibrant marine industry brings to the table.

  6. Avatar
    Paul Bauer 5 months ago

    We two (my wife and I) are cruisers from Germany, starting from there three years ago and mid of March arrived at Hilo, Radio Bay.

    Hilo is a very nice place to be. Very friendly people everywhere and especially at the CBP office and the harbor master office.

    I don’t know why one sailor accuses other sailors of not having respected the COVID-19 rules in place. Everyone here in the Radio Bay was and is acting very responsible to avoid any issues for other sailors or people ashore.

    We like it very much to be here since this is a very well protected anchorage. We already read that port authorities wants to close Radio Bay for years now. Bad luck for us, that it just happens now after our arrival here and that we have to find alternatives which might not be as good as the place here.

    Luckily we are still allowed to stay here till end of April, what we very much appreciate.

    Aloha and mahalo for your hospitality.
    Sailing vessel Luna Mare.

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