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Sailing Hawaii: A leisurely cruise around these picture-perfect volcanic islands

Suzy Carmody on the vibrant culture and storied history that awaits cruisers visiting the remote pacific archipelago of Hawaii

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Photo: Jo Ann Snover / Alamy

We started our Pacific voyage on board Distant Drummer, our 45ft Liberty cutter-rigged sloop, from Wellington, New Zealand, in June, 2015, bound ultimately for North America and the Pacific Northwest. The 26-day passage to Tahiti went well and we spent six months enjoying the delights of French Polynesia. By November, as the cyclone season switched from the northern to the southern hemisphere, boats were gathering in the Marquesas for the crossing to the Hawaiian Islands.

In mid-December we left Nuku Hiva in the company of three other boats, with whom we kept in touch during the passage via an SSB radio check-in each evening. For the first week we stayed on a tight starboard beat to try to gain as much easting as possible, in case the later Trades backed towards the north.

We planned our passage to avoid cyclones and to minimise our time in the low-wind zone of the ITCZ. It worked out quite well: the wind did not drop below 15 knots, but the weather was pretty squally until we reached about 8°N. For the final week the sailing in the northeast tradewinds was superb. We celebrated Christmas at sea and all arrived in Radio Bay on the Big Island, Hawaii, in time to welcome in the New Year.

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Some of the cruisers having a hula dancing lesson with Birdie our teacher (centre). Photo: Suzy Carmody

Radio Bay is on the east coast of Hawaii, about two miles from the centre of Hilo. There is space for five boats to tie up at the quay, Tahitian style, and the bay is protected by a sea wall, so very little swell gets in. Apart from the noise and dust of containers being shifted around in the port area nearby, it was perfect.

Across the bay, beside the beach, was the canoe club. The locals were very friendly and invited us to go out paddling with them. The double canoes held 12 people, six each side, and we went out for about an hour across Hilo Bay. It was great fun, but took a bit of practice to get the timing and the changeover just right. One evening one of the ladies gave us a hula-dancing lesson. The moves were really quite simple, but we couldn’t seem to capture the grace and allure the way the Hawaiian women do!

Historic Hawaii

The east coast, or windward side of Hawaii, is known for its tremendous rainfall, with up to 140in per year, so what might have been a remarkably scenic drive across the Big Island with views of the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes, turned out to be like a bad day in Scotland.

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But on the west side of the mountains, the sky turned blue and the sun shone as we descended into the tourist town of Kailua-Kona. We wanted to find the site in Kealakekua Bay where Captain Cook was killed. Having sailed in his wake around Australia, New Zealand and French Polynesia, it was interesting to visit the place where he met his demise.

As a geologist I couldn’t leave Hawaii without seeing some molten lava. We visited the tongue-tying Halema’uma’u Crater but later found out that the Eastern Rift is where all the action is. I took a tour that guaranteed some of the hot stuff. We hiked for a couple of hours through the forest up to the lava front.

It was incredibly exciting to see the lava oozing out of fissures in the crust, and then solidifying into Daliesque shapes. The heat, smoke and noise were indescribable; trees were spontaneously catching fire. It was so hot my wellies melted!

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Photo: Greg Vaughn / Alamy

It was a 20-hour passage from Hawaii to Maui across the Alenuihaha Channel. The channels between islands are known for their strong winds and the secret is to cross when the winds are predicted to be less than 15 knots. We hit the channel at sunset as the wind dropped, and had a very gentle crossing with virtually no breeze – but no nightmares, either.

Our first port of call was La Perouse Bay on the south-western corner of Maui. The best snorkelling was on the west side of the bay, which is part of a marine sanctuary. Boats with motors are not allowed in the area, so we pumped up our inflatable kayak and paddled over instead. Snorkelling the lava flow was amazing; the intricate topography of underwater gullies and sea stacks provided a refuge for a variety of reef fish, and the water was incredibly clear – almost sparkling.

After three days, we moved on. There’s a 72-hour rule in Hawaii, which limits the amount of time you are allowed to stay in a single anchorage to 72 hours. It is not clear exactly how far you have to move, and in practice, enforcement is inconsistent. We headed up to Lahaina, stopping on the way at Molokini, a submerged volcanic crater with just a crescent-shaped section of the rim poking up above the water.

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Molokini crater. Photo: David Fleetham / Alamy

The south side of the island is said to be a top-class dive site, so I hopped in. Actually the dive was unspectacular – crater rims look the same under the water as they do on the surface – but the dive was saved by two highlights.

Firstly, the backdrop of whale grunts, whistles and songs was haunting and unforgettable. The second was a manta ray that circled me repeatedly as I was doing my three-minute safety stop. It checked me out and seemed to approve, as it stayed within 5m of me up to the surface.

Vibrant culture

Lahaina was the seat of Hawaiian royalty and government until the annexation by the US in 1898. In the 19th Century, it was the centre of the whaling industry and now it is second only to Honolulu for its vibrant nightlife. For us it had a laundry, good shops for provisioning and the Lahaina Yacht Club, which has safe and secure moorings.

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We used it as our base from which to cruise the nearby islands. The town itself has a quaint, pioneer look with plenty of old buildings to explore, but due to the number of tourists from the cruise liners and hotels, every shop on Front Street is a gallery, a jeweller’s or a gelateria.

The food on the Hawaiian islands is definitely worth a mention. Traditionally, the staple ingredients are fish, breadfruit and taro – not much to work with! Poke is a dish of raw tuna or salmon seasoned with anything from shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) to spicy piri piri, reflecting the diversity of the population.

Poi is a grey-and-purple, gelatinous paste made from ground taro mixed with water. It is often served with lau lau, which consists of bits of pork, chicken or fish marinated in a tasty, spicy sauce, wrapped in a taro leaf and steamed – it’s about the only thing that makes poi edible.

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Distant Drummer at anchor in Kaneohe Bay on the east coast of the island of Oahu. Photo: Suzy Carmody

The most popular breakfast in Hawaii is the American-influenced loco moco – a meat patty served on a mound of rice and macaroni-cheese, topped with two fried eggs and brown gravy. Take it with a side-order of fried spam if you’re really hungry!

After a week in Lahaina, we moved up to Honolua Bay on the north-west corner of Maui. This anchorage is known for its good snorkelling and great surf. We skirted the swell breaking on either side of the entrance and found a relatively calm spot with a sandy bottom to drop anchor. The next day we climbed up to the headland to watch the surfers.

It was mesmerising to watch the endless sets of waves, each of which would build to about 3m, then crest to form a translucent green tube. As we looked down we also realised what a precarious anchorage we had chosen. The swell was coming at us from three different directions, but not affecting that one spot.

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Surfers enjoying the waves at the mouth of Honolua Bay, Maui. Photo: Suzy Carmody

Sea stacks on Lanai

A strong northerly blow was forecast, so we moved across to the south coast of Lanai to the small harbour of Manele Bay. It only took a couple of hours to cross the Au’au Channel and we soon spotted the sea stacks that mark the entrance to the bay. We dropped anchor outside the harbour wall only to discover the next morning that the bay gets crowded with tourist boats. There is not much space between the channel, the reef and the harbour wall and our presence in the anchorage made it even tighter.

The history of European habitation on Lanai is interesting. The Mormons were the first to build a colony there, before it was purchased for ranching and growing sugar cane in the 1870s. In the 1920s the island was sold to James Dole who turned it into the largest pineapple plantation in the world.

In the town built for the workers, the houses are laid out in neat rows shaded by Cook pines. The place has a utopian, otherworldly feel to it. After changing hands a few more times, the island was recently purchased by Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle Team USA, the most recent defender of the America’s Cup. He re-opened the cinema and the swimming pool in the town and has refurbished the two hotels on the island, so the tourist hordes should be arriving shortly!

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The blow hole at Nanahoa on the west coast of the island of Lanai. Photo: Suzy Carmody

Once the winds eased, we moved around to the west coast of Lanai to an anchorage called Nanahoa, just to the north of a row of sea stacks. It is a dramatic spot: the dry, brown hills are cut by gulches filled with thorny green acacia trees and there is a blow hole at the base of the cliff from which plumes of water erupt high into the air. The coastline appeared deserted, but we did stumble across a hunting camp while exploring the gulch.

Our next stop was Honolulu. We waited for light winds to cross the Ka’iwi Channel to Oahu and moored up in Ala Wai Harbour, which is at the west end of Waikiki Beach. Once again we were tied stern-to, which, without a gangplank, made getting on and off the boat a bit of a scramble. To make life easy we left our bikes on the pontoon locked to a lamppost, but unfortunately, Neil’s was stolen.

Apart from the disappointment and potential cost, it was incredibly inconvenient to lose our main form of transport. By a stroke of luck, a friend spotted the bike the next day in a park about two miles away, propped up beside a homeless guy who was fast asleep. Neil dashed down there, grabbed his bike and rode home!

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The city of Honolulu, Oahu. Photo: Tor Johnson

We had a terrific time visiting the historic vessels at Pearl Harbour, a must-see while on Oahu. On Ford Island we went on board the USS Missouri, nick-named Mighty Mo. This was the vessel on board which the Japanese surrender document was signed in 1945, ending the war in the Pacific. The guns were pretty impressive, as was the citadel, a fortified steel tower where the bridge and other vital functions of the ship are located.

We departed Honolulu bound for Molokai, which involved another overnight crossing of the Ka’iwi Channel. Molokai is sparsely populated, with little development, and has a reputation for being the ‘real’ Hawaii. There are no chain stores or franchised restaurants and there is virtually no tourism.

The town of Kaunakakai has a frontier feel to it: dusty streets, wooden buildings, covered sidewalks, and shops beneath big square facades with Japanese names in 1930s script (the Japanese are the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii).

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The town of Hanalei on Kauai hasseveral quirky cafes and restaurants. Photo: Suzy Carmody

The first order of business for me was to visit Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the north side of the island, which is cut off from the rest of the world by 600m tall sea cliffs. Until 1969 the peninsula was used as a leper colony.

There are no roads down the pali (cliff), which separates it from the rest of the island, so you have to hike or take a mule down the three-mile track, or fly in on the nine-seater plane. The hike is not particularly gruelling, but the path was very muddy and quite rough.

Picture-perfect Kauai

As April passed into May it was time to head to Kauai, where we planned to rendezvous with several other boats that were bound for the Pacific Northwest. Kauai is easily the most beautiful of all the Hawaiian Islands: lush and verdant with narrow, sinuous roads weaving their way around the south and east coasts. Tourism is not overdeveloped, although there are plenty of ‘ye olde shell shoppes’, and the like.

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Hanalei Bay on Kauai, described by Suzy as Hawaii’s “most beautiful” island. Photo: Tor Johnson

We anchored in Hanalei Bay and, one beautiful sunny day, we sailed with some friends along the Na Pali coast, a stunning and deserted part of the island. The high cliffs of soft volcanic rock have been eroded into pinnacles and deep gullies, each sporting a white waterfall. It is incredibly picturesque. We anchored for lunch off a sandy beach and watched the helicopter tours buzzing in and out of the valleys.

We thoroughly enjoyed cruising in the Hawaiian Islands. They were more densely populated than I expected but we have happy memories of comfortable anchorages, welcoming people and a superb climate. No wonder the tourists keep coming back.

sailing-hawaii-suzy-carmody-portrait-bw-waikiki-beachAbout the author

Suzy, 53, and Neil Carmody, 62, live on board Distant Drummer, a Liberty 458 cutter- rigged sloop, which they bought in Thailand in 2006. They are currently based in the Pacific Northwest and blog about their adventures at: carmody-clan.com

First published in the September 2017 edition of Yachting World.

The post Sailing Hawaii: A leisurely cruise around these picture-perfect volcanic islands appeared first on Yachting World.

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