Between the months of April and September, powerful storms begin forming off the eastern coast of New Zealand. These storms generate tremendous swell. And every once in a while, some of that swell will head north on a 4,000-mile journey past Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and the Line Islands before reaching Hawai’i. Rarer still, some of that swell will then shoot the eight-mile gap between Kaho’olawe and the southern tip of Maui and race into Ma’alaea Harbor.
That’s what we call Freight Trains, the fastest rideable wave in the world that Surfing has called one of the 25 best waves anywhere. For the last 30 years, Freight Trains has been threatened by the proposed expansion of the Ma’alaea Harbor breakwall. Arrayed against that breakwall—which will almost assuredly destroy the Freight Trains break—has been the Surfider Foundation’s Maui chapter. To find out how the battle against the breakwater is going, I spoke with Jan Roberson, the chairwoman of Surfrider’s Maui chapter.
Maui Time Weekly: What’s the latest on the proposed breakwall?
Jan Roberson: A new state manager tells us that they put the [proposed] 620-foot extension of the breakwater and the additional slips on hold for 20 years, but he won’t put it in writing. If he’s not going to put it in writing, we can’t be sure if they’re back-burning Ma’alaea.
We also just got a $30,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. That allows us to hire an economist and a coastal engineer, who will try to determine if surge is a problem and will [the proposed expansion] impact Freight Trains.
What will they be doing exactly?
The economist is reviewing the state’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR) archives. Every time a boat has an accident causing $200 or more in damage it has to be reported. Surge might be an issue, but we don’t think it’s that big. It happens only when the south swell is big, but that’s only a limited time per year.
What’s normal wear and tear? We’re in the design stages of a survey right now. We want to ask people with boats in the harbor, people on the waiting list and people with trailered boats. And condo owners and recreational ocean users such as surfers and divers.
We’re looking at the efficacy of the plan and the efficiency of the design. And whether people want the number of slips more than doubled, from 89 to 220.
We’re also looking at NOAA records to see how often a damaging south swell comes into the harbor. We’re thinking that it’s a pretty safe harbor, but we need to see the data.
We want to try and come up with empirical evidence to see how much surge damages boats. If it does, will this [breakwater] design—which dates to 1968—reduce the damage?
But you just said they might be putting Ma’alaea on hold…
Every year they say it’s going to be this winter. A month ago the Army Corps of Engineers said they were going ahead with it. Then the state said it’s on hold, but we’re proceeding as though it’s going ahead. Besides, the Ford grant has to be spent by September.
Maybe we’ll come up with what they call a “Locally Preferred Plan.” But we don’t know what it would be. Ford suggested we come up with an international harbor design contest. But we don’t know right now.
What’s the Army Corps of Engineers up to?
The Corps has video that shows wave modeling. They made a replica of Ma’alaea Harbor with a wave-making machine in an airplane hanger. But it only showed a wave from a south swell.
We want to find out if a wave in the four to six foot range is problematic. Or is a wave in the six to 10 foot range where damage would be sustained?
There’s so much evidence pointing to the Army Corps of Engineers underestimating costs and overestimating their effectiveness. And that came from the Government Accounting Office. When they say they’re not going to wreck Freight Trains or even that surge is an issue, then we have to check their math and science.
It seems this has gone on forever. Has anything changed in recent years?
The Army Corps and DOBOR are cooperating. There’s no more stonewalling. We’re getting the information that we seek. Because we’ve been able to sit at the table, we’ve gotten to dispel notions about each of us. They invite us to events now.
Ma’alaea Harbor is one of four harbors in the state that generates a profit. We understand why they want to preserve that. It’s no longer just the surfers against the boaters. We have to work together. MTW