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Salvaging Shipwrecks Is A Tough Business. Just Ask The Company That Towed The Maui Yacht


Salvaging Shipwrecks Is A Tough Business. Just Ask The Company That Towed The Maui Yacht

Mar 14, 2023 | 9:09 am ET
By Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat
Multiple vessels ran aground in Maui during the Kona Low last week. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

Multiple vessels ran aground in Maui during the Kona Low last week. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

As a fierce storm swept through the islands last week, Maui residents’ social media feeds were filled with photos of all the boats that had been wrecked.

In West Maui, two sailboats were stuck in the shallow water at the north end of Front Street. Less than 2 miles away, a 45-foot motorboat was lodged into the reef outside Lahaina Harbor. On the other side of the island, another watercraft crashed onto the beach in north Kihei. 

It’s not uncommon for boats to wash ashore in bad weather on Maui. But last week’s wave of groundings drew more attention, having occurred days after a marine salvaging company had finally hauled away a luxury yacht that crashed outside of one of Maui’s most beloved marine sanctuaries. 

Because of its sheer mass and the location where it ran aground on the rocky coastline at Honolua Bay, the high-profile effort to free the 94-foot, 120-ton yacht put a spotlight on the marine salvage industry — and the challenges facing the people tasked with recovering wrecked ships.

Marine salvage operations often come with a dangerous combination of waves, wind, reefs, rocks and slippery vessels weighing thousands of pounds that are constantly being jostled around. Then, even after salvors succeed in freeing them, complications can arise when trying to get insurance companies to cover the cost — or waiting on boat owners or the state government to pay up when that doesn’t happen.

Hawaii also has a limited number of marine salvage companies, and most of them are located on Oahu.

“I, too, didn’t appreciate how difficult this was,” Dawn Chang, who heads the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said in a video statement after the yacht was finally hauled away from Honolua Bay on March 5.

The agency struggled to find a company with the experience and equipment to take on one of the most logistically challenging and politically charged marine salvage jobs in recent Hawaii history. 

High Risk Operations

In general, boat owners are responsible for paying to clear wrecked vessels, but the DLNR may intervene to expedite the process, as it did in the case of the yacht.

DLNR hired the Oahu-based Visionary Marine company for $460,000 to haul away the yacht operated by Noelani Yacht Charters. The owner of the company, Jim Jones, has said that he plans to pay the state back. The government also has warned it will “aggressively pursue” the payment. After two weeks on the reef, the ship was scuttled after taking on water during the tow.

Because of the physically — and financially — volatile nature of the job, the industry is a tough one to make it in.

Michael Parker, who runs Oahu-based Parker Marine Towing and Salvage, which often responds to wrecks on Maui, said he has been working in the industry for decades and is acutely aware of the hardships that come with it.

When jobs start, there are the dangers that come with working underwater, often in surf zones where boats crash. It also requires getting your timing to free a ship just right; otherwise the tides, wind and waves can stand in the way of success.

“I’ve only gotten hurt once, when I ripped my thumb off,” Parker said. “I’ve been doing it my lifetime … so more than 1,000 wrecks. I expected to get hurt sometime.”

He also cited financial uncertainties, saying salvors risk not getting “paid a dime” even after spending hours on a job if they aren’t able to haul a ship away, thanks to a fundamental part of salvage law known as “no cure-no pay.” Even when jobs go right, there’s a risk that the vessel owners’ insurance companies will try to fight reimbursement.

“To get paid, it’s a game every time,” said Parker. “Basically, the only way to make it work is you have a relationship with (insurance companies), and that takes a lot of work. It takes some years to have a relationship with the people where they can see a long track record of success.”

In the past, Parker has been stiffed on jobs — he estimates having lost tens of thousands of dollars over the years — when vessel owners didn’t have proper insurance or the cash to pay the cost. For him, it never made sense to go to court because a jury trial might run more than the job itself. 

Instead, Parker has focused on the surest way to get reimbursed — by being vetted ahead of time by an insurance company so that, as soon as a wreck happens, the insurance company sends him to respond.

‘Is It Really Worth It?’

In marine salvage, timing is key. If a boat runs aground at a high tide, for example, pulling it out within hours can save days worth of struggles and damage to the vessel when the tide goes out.

In the wake of the grounding at Honolua Bay, that’s been a big focus for Maui County officials: Pushing reforms to prevent vessel groundings and ensuring that, when they are stuck, the situation can be addressed quickly, before it worsens or fuel spills into the sea.

“Many folks have reached out about these private boats wrecked at Kihei, Lahaina and Mala,” council member Tamara Paltin, of West Maui, said in a statement on Facebook last week. “We are reaching out to the authorities, this is part of the systemic changes we are seeking because practically every Kona storm there’s boats breaking their mooring and it is unacceptable.”

Elected officials and local mariners agree that the solutions are multifold. On the front end, they say harbor officials and DLNR need to step up enforcement to ensure that boats have proper insurance and are legally moored with the right equipment.

With the looming threat of worsening storms as the climate changes, some Maui residents worry that groundings will increase in the years to come. At the same time, as the superyacht industry has exploded across the globe, some mariners and Maui officials say that special attention needs to be paid to the large boats that have the potential to cause even more damage.  

And since most of the marine salvage companies and their resources are on Oahu, Maui officials are exploring ways to buy a towing vessel to be housed on the Valley Isle or at least put on retainer private companies contracted to respond to shipwrecks at a moment’s notice.

But after what happened in Honolua Bay, there’s also a new concern that salvage companies might avoid tough jobs because of the hostility from armchair marine salvage experts who flood social media with criticism. In a statement, the Save Honolua Coalition wrote that a “fear of mob mentality and possible backlash” made it hard to find companies to help free the yacht that crashed outside of one of Maui’s most beloved marine sanctuaries. 

“I took a huge risk, and there’s all this backlash,” said Randy Cates, the owner of Visionary Marine, the company hired to haul the Nakoa from Honolua Bay. “Is it really worth it?” 

“I’m worried about operating in an environment where nobody wants to do the work,” he added.

Cates has been in the business for decades, and these days he only works on the major salvage jobs, like the one in Honolua Bay. He said only a couple companies in Hawaii have the bandwidth to take on a project of that scale. It was such a massive undertaking that he had to team up with Foss Marine and Sause Brothers to bring in another tractor tug boat and other equipment to get the job done. 

Cates said every decision was carefully calculated. Although there were airbags on the inside of the vessel to help it float, some people criticized him for not putting airbags on the outside. However, he said those would’ve needed to be fastened with rope, something that could easily catch on the reef. 

Others wondered why he didn’t fill the hull with foam to keep it from sinking once pulled off the rocks. Cates said there simply wasn’t time since the forecast called for a Kona Low to sweep across the island. The last time he undertook a similar job, he said, filling the hull took more than two months. 

The holes in the yacht’s hull were so big that “you could drive a golf cart through one of them,” Cates said, adding that the only hope was hauling it into deep water before it spurred a new crisis. And the state wanted it gone as soon as possible.

“We got it out,” Cates said during a recent interview. “And today, there’s 50 foot surf — where would we be right now? If that boat broke apart, it would have debris all the way to Lahaina.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.