Chapter One: Departure day The talk on the beach after it was all over was that the trip back from Molokai was one of the most beautiful days on the open ocean you could imagine. Probably never to be matched again.
Howie Welfeld and Austin Stankus on a Hobie 16 Getaway, John Bender and myself on my Hobie Miracle were the teams that dared the notorious Ka’iwi Channel for a crossing over to Molokai on June 29th and 30th. NOAA forecasts was calling for very light winds easterly winds on Sunday and variable shifting to the north for the return on Monday. The forecast for both days would be a pinch all the way going and coming. North winds are unfavorable for the return as that would be a 40-mile beat upwind making it more like a 60-mile trip.
It all started on Wednesday when Howie phoned me on Kauai to let me know that the weather forecast for the upcoming weekend was shaping up to be ideal for an inter-island channel crossing and camping trip. Luck would have it I already had planned a return home to Oahu booked so the planning began. We sent a couple tickler E-mails to the fleet to see who else might be interested in joining us. We were planning a Sunday-Monday trip, which makes it tough for most. Luckily we got two replies: Austin a Prindle 16 owner, and John a Supercat 18 partner. They both volunteered to join as crew. Excellent, now we were able to plan on both boats going. As you know, these beach cats require at least two on each boat to be able to right them in case of a tipover.
Howie has made this trip many times and has logged aver 5000 miles on his Getaway with GPS. As a serious adventurer, he has made several modifications to his Getaway to insure safety when off shore. First being the addition of a complete back up set of standing rigging. Including forestay and side stays. So if one fails, the back up is in place to prevent the rig from falling. Second is the addition of a Cheetah motor bracket and a Mercury 3Hp. Non-essential but recommended additions include a large storage bag secured across the trampoline to store all the stuff required to be self sufficient overnight.
This channel crossing has been one of my “bucket list” items ever since Howie shared photos with me of the postcard perfect deserted beaches on the Molokai Coast. Then I read the article in the Hawaiian Airlines Hana Hou magazine that told of the channel swimmers that actually swim overnight from one island to the next. I figured if they could swim it, I could sail it, albeit on a tiny beach catamaran. My Miracle 20 is a 1992 model so it has plenty or hard years of sailing and racing logged. To prepare my boat for a channel crossing I purchase a new mainsail, front cross beam and dolphin striker as mine were showing serious signs of wear. While replacing the cross beam, I cut holes in the hull deck just forward of the cross beam to inspect the interior bulkheads as they are prone to failure. What I found was far worse than expected. The vertical bulkheads that are under the cross beam saddle had split and separated from the hulls in both hulls. A few days of interior glass repair and installation of four access ports and the M20 was good as new. Just a few additional camping items like the very nifty “Jet Boil” stove, camping mat and pillow and I was ready to go.
Both our boats were at the Kokokahi Sailing Club so we all met at 0600 to prep the boats. All the gear, tents, sleeping bags, stoves, food, and plenty of water were loaded and secured. Howie and Austin launched at 0700 and John and I got off the beach at about 0730. The wind was very light and pretty much on the nose heading out the channel. We tested the VHF radios and Howie informed me that he was going to fire up his iron jib (Merc 3hp) and motor out and around the islands off the Marine base. He was keen on getting a long lead on us as our boat sails quite a bit faster and we had plenty of time to catch up. John and I slogged through the confused seas fronting the base and lost sight of Howie over the horizon. Passing the islands was as Howie put it, “like being on a National Geographic expedition”. Birds of all kinds swirling around above and squawking up a racket on shore. The “do not enter” red flags were flying off the cliff of the marine base but with the lousy wind conditions, John and I took the risk and sailed inside the islands heading towards Waimanalo and the open ocean.
The light winds contributed to fairly voggy conditions so seeing Howie ahead was difficult. After about an hour or so we noticed a tiny spec on the horizon that just might be the Getaway. We kept scooting along and low and behold we slowly closed the gap on the leader. The weather was pretty darn nice and winds so light we never got out on the trap wires. Wish we could have since that is often more comfortable than sitting on the hulls. John and I enjoyed lunch of snack bars and hardboiled eggs. The wind began to pipe up and we rapidly closed the gap on Howie. It is really fun after hours or sailing to be so close to your buddy with nothing else around. The wind began to pipe up and we were puling away fast so Howie fired up the merc thinking he would storm by. I tell you once the wind gets up a bit you just can’t catch an M20. Soon John and I were double trapped screaming along at 15 knots or more as we approached the beautiful and deserted coast of Molokai. Chapter Two: Molokai arrival As we came in close to Molokai at Ilio Point, there were steep cliffs to the left, rocky outcroppings ahead, and sandy beaches to the right. We were only half a mile south of Molokai’s most northwestern tip. Although we had sailed for hours away from civilization, we did see jet planes high above all day long, a two fishing boats, a navy destroyer and finally the Pride of America slipped down the channel into the haze. Upon our return home, I learned that during July the military is conducting the largest RIM-PAC exercises ever assembled in the Pacific basin. The RIM-PAC exercise assembles over 20,000 personal for a seven-week cooperative training session. The 2008 Rim of the Pacific exercise began yesterday in Hawaiian waters and will run through July 31. Military units from 10 countries will participate in RIMPAC — including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Netherlands, Peru, Republic of Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. RIMPAC forces include 20 U.S. Navy ships, 13 foreign ships, two Coast Guard vessels, three U.S. submarines, three foreign submarines, more than 150 U.S. and foreign aircraft, 18 other U.S. Navy and Marine Corps units, 11 foreign units and 20,000 Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Soldiers and Coastguardsmen, according to the U.S. Navy. The RIMPAC exercise will consist of three phases. Phase I, the Harbor Phase, will consist of planning meetings, safety briefings and sporting events. Phase II, the Operational Phase, includes live fire exercises, missile exercises, anti-surface warfare, undersea warfare and naval maneuvers. The final phase, the Tactical Phase, is a scenario-driven exercise and concludes with the ships’ return to Pearl Harbor. Actually it was comforting to know that if I set off my EPIRB, help was not that far off.
The island of Molokai is almost void of any signs of civilization in this area. However, the rock formations that spread up the hillside gave the appearance of a development of homes. That is until we got close enough to see that was not the case. Beautiful but barren is what we found. This is not the place to need assistance. No VHF or Cell signals to be found. We were alone here, or so we thought. We headed south along the rocky coast with light breezes and crystal clear water with fabulous underwater rock formations. A mile or so down the coast we came across a half moon beach with protections from most sides. We scooted in to Kawakui Bay and as we approached the beach, it was like one of those “mirage” moments. Just a few meters up the beach was a young gal sunbathing in total solitude on the beach. We felt bad that we were invading her privacy. Molokai, called the Friendly Isle, does have a reputation of being less than welcoming to outsiders.
After pulling up the cats, and apologizing to this very attractive resident for intruding, we knew that the reputation we heard was not the case on this side of the island. In fact she was kind enough to make the phone calls back to our families when she left the beach that afternoon. We had zero bars on our cell phones in this remote location.
We all were starving after a long day on the water so before setting camp we ate lunch right there on the boats. Grilled Teriyaki Steak, Hot wings, baked beans, Vienna sausage, vegis & smoothies for Howie, and life was good. You wonder how……. I had frozen these items and put them in a small soft side cooler in the morning. By the time we got to the beach, they had just thawed out and were perfect finger food.
With our energy restored, we took down the sail, secured the boats and began to set up the tents. Austin brought out his mask and snorkel and entered the bay in search of lobsters to compliment dinner. He had a great swim but no bugs to be found.
Chapter Three: Camping out The sun was beginning it’s decent towards the horizon. It was a cloudless blue sky and we were expecting a glorious sunset. With Oahu directly in line with the setting sun, we hoped to see a silhouette of the Ko’olaus as the orange ball sunk below the horizon. Everyone was setting up their tents on the grass area at the top of the steep sandy beach. Walking up from the boats to the campsite was like mountain climbing on sand dunes.
We began the task of gathering firewood. This beach is accessible by 4WD so is visited by the locals on a regular basis. Likewise all the easy firewood collecting has happened before our arrival. The entire area is covered with Kiawe trees and many of the branches were dead so Howie brought up a rope that we tossed over lower branches and we would swing on it until the branch broke and fell to the ground. We must have been a funny sight: a bunch of white monkeys swinging from the trees. Looking at the trees, I will guess that the locals bring their chain saws to accomplish the same task.
While we were making the fire pit our home for the night, this monster Dodge Ram comes creeping down the 4WD road and pulls right into our camp. Was this going to be the encounter we were hoping not to have? A guy jumps out of the truck, about 4 feet to the ground, and is covered with tattoos and built like the Hulk. We all looked at one another and began to say our prayers. Here we are, a bunch of rather pale out-of-town’ers that invaded this guy’s turf and fire pit.
I quickly said hi and asked if we had moved into his campsite and would he like us to move? Myth busters again. This guy and his lady we really friendly and said no have a great time, they were just coming to take a swim and enjoy the sunset too. They enjoyed the beach for an hour or so while we built our fire. Seems the breeze was blowing straight towards his truck, with the windows open, and we were getting nervous that he might get a bit aggravated that his truck was full of smoke when he returned. John and Austin said that this guy could have made pretzels out of us. Well when he returned he bid us farewell and drove off into the wood bidding Aloha. Whew…….. We all took a deep breath and let the party begin.
Alone at last. So I decide to take a quick swim to wash off the sweat from building camp and swinging in the trees. Since it was deserted, I figured why get my suit wet again so I went into the ocean in the buff. I swam around in the skinny for a bit and looked up the beach to see a lady with a big straw hat walking down the beach to take a swim at sunset too. Oh shoot… My suit was up the beach on the boat. Oh well, I “streaked” up the beach to the boat and slipped into my suit. I wonder why that gal was not interested in saying Aloha to me. Go figure.
With the fires burning and the sun below the horizon the temperature was dropping. The stars were already peeking out and it was shaping up to be a cool dry evening with as Carl Sagan would say, “billions and billions” of stars. Howie was pointing out some of the constellations including the big dipper and Polaris, the North Star. Imagine the original explorers of the Pacific, all they had were the stars, clouds, and wave patterns to navigate thousands of miles across the oceans making land fall on these tiny specks in the most remote location in the entire world.
A party isn’t complete without the “open bar” so out came the red wine and sake. All enjoyed dinner as we shared the two Jet-Boil mini camp stoves to prepare our hot meals. The evening was topped off by all of us lying on the beach watching the stars sparkle above before retiring to our tents. The glow of Oahu was obvious on the horizon and we were really surprised to be able to see the sparkle of car headlights that were rounding the Sandy Beach cliffs on Oahu. We realized that the signal fires the old Hawaiians used to build to signal the other islands of invasions really worked.
The stars at dusk were impressive. The stars at 2 am were unbelievable. Apparently the Milky Way rises above the horizon long after sunset this time of the year. While taking in the experience in solitude, I realized that there are no mosquitoes here. Must be the total lack of fresh water. Sneaking back into the tent I was thinking that Howie was about to get up and begin his day. He is one early bird.
Chapter Four Homeward bound Everyone had a quiet restful night after Sunday’s long crossing. Our intentions were to get an early start knowing we wanted to explore the coast a bit before heading across open waters. Breakfast included everything from canned clam chowder to oatmeal. Not a bad spread considering how remote we were. John, Austin, Howie and I all worked on various tasks in our efforts to get everything secured and ready to shove off. The ocean was sparkling with light and variable breezes.
Howie took John for his crew and I took Austin for the first leg in the morning. Howie got off first and sailed south passing Maki Horse beach. “Maki” in Hawaiian translates in to “dead” and this beach got it’s name when the paniolo (cowboys) would herd old or sick horses over the top of the cliff and they would fall to their death in breakwater below. Then the sharks would take care of the clean up. Austin and I put one of the lines into the water trolling along at 4-5 knots hoping to catch a fish, we never did. The now bankrupt Molokai Ranch has property along the beach, which look like it would have been a neat place to spend a weekend. There is a golf course along the waterfront and Kaluakoi Villas sits on Kepui Beach, then on to Molokai’s longest beach Papohaku at 2 miles long. The winds were light and we had a very long treck ahead so after sailing south a total of 3 miles from Kawakiu Bay, we turned away from the pristine coastline to head back across the Kaiwi Channel to Oahu.
The Miracle 20 is a remarkable catamaran with the ability to match the prevailing wind speed. The light winds were leaving large patches of glassy water ahead and our GPS was still logging 4-7 knots. The Getaway on the other hand is more of a cruiser and struggles in the very light winds. Howie and John fired up the iron jib to keep up. Once offshore a few miles the breezes filled in and we were off under sails alone. The wind had shifted around to the north a bit which would make the trip across an upwind pinch all the way across if we wanted to fetch the Marine corp base. The Getaway would have a really difficult time pinching that close all day and would likely need to motor most of the way so close to the wind. He decided that it made more sense to fall off a bit and head for Waimanalo instead. I wanted to get all the way back to Kokokahi so we agreed to sail split up and go it alone from here. Remember my crew was on Howie’s cat so a swap was in order. Austin and I headed off the wind to close the gap with the Getaway. We came together and sailed parallel until we were inches apart. Cruising along at 5 knots or so, the crewmembers each hopped across to the other boat. With John now back on board the M20, we pinched up into the light breezes and bid Howie and Austin farewell. It only took a few minutes for the Getaway to become just a speck on the horizon.
What makes Howie such a proficient and safe long distance navigator is that he sets up his boat with back up safety systems and also practices seamanship skills while sailing so if disaster were ever to strike, he is trained and prepared to handle any situation. Following is Howie’s account of his run across the channel.
In the middle of the Kaiwi Channel I decided to do an unannounced man-over-board drill. First, I surreptitiously tossed our throwable life preserver overboard and marked the spot on my GPS. Then, about 1.5 miles away I announced the drill. We discussed our strategy and came about. As I followed the GPS course line back to the spot, Austin was looking ahead for our preserver. As expected, Austin spotted it about 50ft down wind from the exact GPS mark. That was very cool! Without the GPS it would have been impossible to find our “man over board”. I think it is a good idea to practice there skills, especially for off shore cruising.
We entered Waimanalo Bay just south of Rabbit Isle by Makapuu Pt and enjoyed a leisure cruise through the Bay. As we made our landfall, our fellow club member, Rich Ubersax, met us at the beach with our cat trax and helped us pull our boat in front of his house.
While they were practicing their MOB safety skills, John and I continued our pinch towards Kokokahi. As expected, winds were very light. I have rarely seen the ocean look as it did this spectacular day. The seas were flat, and we mean flat. Breezes were varying between 5-7 knots. So light that there were large patches of ocean that were glassy. Other areas had tiny ripples an inch or two tall. That is flat. We are in the open ocean so swells are always present. The prevailing swell was from the east at several feet with a south swell of a foot or two. These long swells just marched across the surface silently. Looking at the horizon you could actually see the bulge of the surface water truck along. Up close the ocean would just swell up and down in a slow mesmerizing pattern. Think of throwing a large bed sheet across your bed and watching it as settles on the mattress ever so slowly.
The waters surrounding our islands are some of the clearest any where in the world because there are few rivers bringing sediments into the water. Deep ocean currents well up water to the surface from thousands of feet below that is as clear as any spring or bottled water you can buy. Only when living organism flourish at the surface do you see anything suspended in the water. Ghosting along at 4-8 knots through the glass, you can look down into the depths of azure blue and see tens if not hundreds of feet down. The sun was high above so it would form beams, crystals, of light that beamed down into the abyss below. I have never seen blue of this color in my life.
Conditions remained light for the morning and into the afternoon as we continued our trek across the pond towards home. We were miles off shore when the Mouks slipped by. The islands of the base crept up over the horizon. As we approached them the air became filled with soaring sea birds of many varieties. During the trip across we saw only one other fishing boat. The water always is bumpy around the base because the swells push up against the cliffs and bounce of heading back across the sea. This causes a washboard wave pattern that is confused and bouncy. But it sure was much smoother that during our departure just a day before.
John skippered for hours and had a permanent smile glued to his face. The sun was relentless so we were using t-shirts to cover our legs to avoid burning. But it was fantastic. We had trolled two rods for hours and nary a bite. Oh well, better luck next time. We made quick cell call to Margaret to arrange for our arrival at the club around 3PM. We hadn’t even taken down the mainsail and Howie and Austin pulled their truck into the club.
The movie the BUCKET LIST was part of my inspiration to make this trip. Reading in the Hana Hou magazine about men and women that swim across these channels sealed the deal. Proper preparation in your equipment and sailing skills helps your odds of a successful trip. I want to thank Howie for being the “off shore” expert and inviting, inspiring, us to participate in this unbelievable event. You know Howe has circumnavigated Molokai, Maui, and Lanai several times on his Getaway and has logged over 6000 miles on his GPS doing so. Mahalo Mr. Welfeld: Captain Howie to most of us.
I though that once I checked this event off of my Bucket List, that that would be it. Not exactly, now I am hooked. I have to do it again. The next Molokai trip is on the calendar for Labor Day weekend. We will watch the weather, and if all falls into place, Molokai here we come. Do like me, prepare your boat, buy your gear to be self-sufficient, hone your offshore skills, and join us. If the next trip is anything like this one, it will be one of the most memorable experiences you can have on a small beach catamaran.