RIMPAC Comes Ashore in Waikiki

Taking place between June 26 and August 1, RIMPAC is currently underway in Hawaii waters. RIMPAC is a biennial (every two years), multinational military exercise. This year, RIMPAC will involve 55 vessels from 22 nations, and 25,000 military personnel. Most of the action takes place at sea, and other than the occasional roar of a jet, it doesn’t affect civilian life much. That is, until many of those military personnel are turned loose on the streets of Waikiki. Here are a few things to consider if you’re in Waikiki during a RIMPAC exercise.

People who work in Waikiki love RIMPAC. When on “liberty” or “shore leave” the sailors and other personnel are disgorged from a small armada of passenger vans. They fill Waikiki bars, restaurants, retailers, and taxicab drivers. RIMPAC provides a healthy, if temporary, revenue stream. For many of those who work in Waikiki, it’s an opportunity to express their gratitude for service members’, well, service. A lot of us have friends and family in the military, and it’s nice to be able to buy someone a drink in their honor. There are a zillion stories of humble service members delighted to find that their round of drinks or meal has been picked up by an anonymous bartender, waitress, or customer. It happens a lot.

People who work in Waikiki loathe RIMPAC. Yes, it means a guaranteed spike in sales. But it also means longs shifts with little respite. For bar and restaurant industry workers in particular, it means a whole lot more work with a relatively low increase, if any, in tips. This is because many of the personnel that come ashore are from other countries where tipping isn’t a forgone conclusion. It’s not unusual for a bartender or waitress to find that the customers that ran up a three-digit bill left without leaving a tip. Or for a band to play requests all night long, only to find the tip jar empty or woefully sparse. It happens a lot.

“Drunken Sailor” isn’t just a song. This is also part of the reason that people working in Waikiki are ambivalent about RIMPAC. People who are confined on a boat, sometimes for months at a time, tend to want to unwind and cut loose when they get back on land. I’ve heard being on a boat for that long is “like jail, with a chance of drowning” from more than one RIMPAC participant. So it’s not unusual to see bands of young sailors embracing the “drunken sailor” cliché, behaving badly and swearing like sailors.

But it doesn’t happen a lot. RIMPAC is unlikely to disrupt the holidays of civilian visitors in Waikiki. The vast majority of RIMPAC personnel who make their way into Waikiki are decent, friendly, polite professionals happy to have some time ashore to enjoy Waikiki’s charms before getting back to work. Sailors whose ships are based at Pearl Harbor are provided free transportation to and from Waikiki to eliminate the possibility of impaired driving. Shore patrols roam the streets, an authoritative presence to discourage excessive behavior. Waikiki establishments are advised weeks in advance of the sudden influx of mariners.

It’s estimated that RIMPAC injects $50 million into Hawaii’s economy every two years. It’s not a whole lot different than “Fleet Week” in other cities like New York, San Diego, or San Francisco. So, if you happen to be staying in Waikiki during RIMPAC, thank a sailor for their service, maybe buy them a beer. Just remember to tip.

Posted by: Jamie Winpenny