Islands of Hawaii - 2011

N 21° 17' W 157° 50'

Sliced, stoked, and soaked

December 14, 2011

By early December, the scar running down the left side of Randall’s face, which had been the model for our Halloween pumpkin, had healed up nicely.  It was also fairly well hidden by his winter beard.  However, after another round of Moh’s microsurgery on Monday morning (Dec 5th) he found himself sporting a vertical row of stitches in an even more prominent position on his forehead.  The resemblance to certain crested, non-human characters in the modern Star Trek series was uncanny.


As Randall recuperated, the following few days were relatively quiet until Thursday when Dan stopped at the boat between meetings to announce the latest treat that he had planned for us.  He did not work on Fridays and the next day he was going to get up very early and drive to the North Shore to photograph a surfing competition.   We did not hesitate to accept his invitation to join him, so by 4:30 am we were driving northwest out of Honolulu on almost deserted roads.  It was quite breezy with small clouds scudding across the sky, bringing short but frequent rain showers.  When the full moon was periodically uncovered, we were delighted not only to see its reflection on the black sea but, in the opposite direction, was a moon-bow, the faint silvery cousin of a rainbow.


Our early start paid-off because we were able to park right at the entrance to the tiny Ehukai State Park that housed the competition headquarters.  Some tents, trailers, and satellite dishes were assembled on the grass at the top of the low bluff overlooking the beach, while scaffolding down next to the sand supported the large illuminated scoreboard and seating for judges, announcers, and contestants’ families.  Dawn broke as we examined our options for places to position ourselves and gradually the size and power of the thunderous waves were revealed.  And large and powerful they were.


We had come to watch the second day of the Billabong Pipe Masters professional surfing competition, the third and final event in the Hawaiian Triple Crown of Surfing and the final event on the ASP World Tour (Association of Surfing Professionals).  Thus, the top 34 surfers in the ASP World Rankings were invited, ensuring that we would get to see many of the world’s best athletes in this challenging sport.  The surf break before us was the world-famous Banzai Pipeline and we were lucky enough to be seeing it on a perfect day with 15 to 20 foot-high waves (4.5 to 6 m).  Waves at this site break on two shallow sections of reef, one inside of (closer to shore) the other.  On this particular day, only the largest waves were breaking on the further reef but on the inside reef they were forming perfect tubes (or barrels) with the lip of the wave curving over to create, albeit briefly, a cavern that moved steadily along the front of the wave.  The off-shore wind whipped spindrift-water in a white veil that billowed up and backwards from the wave’s lip and as the barrel moved along the wave’s face, spray would periodically blast out of the cavernous opening in a huge, audible belch.


As well as having one of the most perfect pipeline-breaks in the world, the inside reef is so close to the shore that spectators have an absolutely astounding view.  And with the sand sloping gently down from the bottom of the vegetated bluff there is plenty of room for several rows of people to sit down without obscuring each other.  About halfway between the bluff and the water, the sand dips into a gulley and then rises again forming a ridge right in front of the water’s edge.  With no view, no one sits in the gulley making it the perfect avenue for walking along the beach.   Without blocking the view of the seated crowd, this ridge forms an ideal viewing platform for photographers and any standing spectators who are prepared to move or get their feet wet every time a particularly large wave runs up the beach and overtops the sand ridge.  For some reason, Randall derived great pleasure from watching any unobservant spectators being startled by the occasional foot-bath, especially when foolishly-deposited ice-chests, towels, or bags were swept down into the gulley. 


Before the competition started for the day, quite a few intrepid souls paddled out to ride a few waves and there was some scrambling for dominant position on the good waves but they had to leave the water when the first heats began.  We watched all of Round 3 and the beginning of Round 4, both of which were divided into multiple heats of 30 or 40 minutes with only 2 or 3 competitors in each heat.  Pairs of heats overlapped so there might be up to six people competing at a time but there was a priority system so nobody could hog all the best waves.  There were a couple of jet-skis in the water at any given time with life-guards who could tow disabled or dis-boarded surfers to shore and the maneuvers that they had to perform to avoid falling off a wave or being swamped were impressive, especially as they fought their way out through the broken waves to be beyond the first reef.  They also carried in-water photographers out to the edge of the competition area where these helmet-, wetsuit-, and fin-clad daredevils could take exciting photographs looking into the ends of the barrels while trying to avoid being run-over by the surfers.


The competitors did not have the luxury of wearing helmets and at the Banzai Pipeline, injuries are not unusual.  The rocky reef is only 3 to 4 feet (1 to 1.5 m) below the water surface at the bottom of a wave, so any mistakes could be very painful if the surfer dropped off the wave face into the shallow water or was pounded down into the water-column by a breaking wave.   With the additional hazard of strong rip currents that swept water rapidly out to sea, this beach was exceptionally dangerous to anyone other than these expert wave-masters.


At most modern surfing competitions, points are awarded for extra turns, “air” (leaping with the board clear of the water), and other stylish acrobatics.  In this contest, points were awarded based on the size and difficulty of the wave, length of time in the barrel, and making a clean exit before the barrel closed down on top of the surfer.  This was not about elegant or aggressive gyrations but about the sheer guts needed to catch, stay on, and rapidly ride the biggest and most violent waves that we had ever seen.  While we saw several gut-wrenching wipe-outs, we also saw some excellent rides, including one that was given a perfect score of 10 points.


Having selected a suitable wave, the surfer either had to make a precipitous descent down the wall-like face of the wave and then turn at the bottom, or they had to launch with a sufficiently shallow angle to ride down the face with just a tiny portion of the board actually in contact with the water.  In either case, the next challenges were to adjust their speed to catch or be caught by the barrel, stay crouched in the barrel, and then exit before the barrel closed on them either by accelerating and sweeping over the top of the lip or by zooming out at the bottom and trying to stay ahead of the “washing machine” of turbulent white water that was chasing them.  Seeing the waves alone, it was difficult to gauge just how big they were but add a human body for scale and the impressive wave size is revealed.


The announcers suggested that these were some of the most perfect conditions that they had ever seen at the Banzai Pipeline, certainly during a competition and with such skilled professionals we were truly experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Even by the next day, the swell had dropped so we were really lucky.   In addition to the top-ranking world professionals such as Kelly Slater who currently tops the rankings (earning $550,000 in prize money a year with massively more in sponsorship and endorsements), there were several local surfers who qualified to compete and who were also very popular with the crowd.  Randall was intrigued that when competitors were interviewed, their surfing lingo had changed very little since his day (late 1960s).  They were still stoked with a good ride and bummed at wiping-out on a particularly gnarly wave.


The weather was also perfect with the sun eventually breaking through the clouds to highlight the waves in marvelous turquoises and white.  Sadly, the weather and our good luck did not hold throughout the next day.  On Saturday evening, we had signed-up to join the Holiday Lighted-boat Parade in which 21 boats were to motor from Ala Wai Harbor into the main Honolulu Harbor and back, passing judges and crowds at the Aloha Tower and competing for the best light-display.  Since pleasure boats are not allowed in Honolulu Harbor at any other time, this was an interesting opportunity but meant that everything had to be tightly planned.


We did not have many lights and did not want to invest in a large number that we had nowhere to store on the boat so playing to our unique status, we had planned a display that included the flags from all the countries that we had been through to get from Florida to Hawaii.  I made signs to go with each flag (assuming most people would not know a Jamaican flag from that of Panama).  We had invited Dan and Kathy, and Donna and Ed to join us with the idea that as we passed the Aloha Tower, we would shout-out appropriate holiday greetings while dressed in outfits that represented the countries we had visited.


Without too much elaboration, here is a list of what went wrong:

1.    Dan and Kathy became stuck in traffic due to a burst water main so missed the boat (they had several props with them including the Hawaiian flag)

2.    The string of lights up the backstay would not work

3.    The strong wind blew our flags and signs horizontal so they were not easy to see

4.    The rain poured as we headed to Honolulu Harbor drenching us and soaking the flags and signs

5.    The parade was rushed to get in and out before the Pride of America cruise ship was due to leave at 7 pm so we only had a few seconds in front of the Aloha Tower and the announcer spent most of that time looking for their notes on the preceding boat so our merry cheers were obscured

6.    All of our Christmas lights blew-out on the return to Ala Wai

7.    The dinner to which we “treated” our wet and frustrated guests was terrible: cold spaghetti with little sauce (with meat the only option) and there was no salad left


Donna and Ed were wonderfully cheerful as it all deteriorated so we greatly enjoyed and appreciated their company, especially when we had to “parallel-park” back into our place on the dock.  It seemed to add insult to injury that on Friday, Donna had taken me and a lively group of her friends out for a fine evening of sailing on a boat that she rents with a couple of other Waikiki Yacht Club members.  We had enjoyed good weather, tasty food, and the spectacular weekly firework display at the Hilton Hawaiian Village with.  


Dan and Kathy also helped to make the disappointing parade meal entertaining and while we decided not to rush to participate in this event again, it had been fun to see the other boats that were brilliantly lit with hundreds of tiny, colored lights.  It also looked as though the US Marines had done well with their associated “Toys for Tots” campaign.   Randall managed to replace the blown outlet and he has restrung the lights up our fore- and back-stays, so we have been lighting those up in the evenings.


Due to all the rain on Saturday, the water in the harbor became a muddy brown so it was with some alarm that Randall and I watched a very strong gust of wind blow his bike (which I had left leaning on its kick-stand) off the dock into the water next to Tregoning.  Of course, with stitches in his head, Randall could not dive down to retrieve the bike so I had to face entering the opaque, brown water.  Luckily, the depth gauge showed us that it was only 12 feet deep (3-4 m) so I was able to swim down and tie a rope around the bike on one breath.  The sediment at the bottom was very soft but once below the surface I could actually see a short distance…when I finally opened my eyes inside my mask.  Randall hoisted the bike back onto the dock and hosed it down with freshwater while I went to scrub-off in a hot shower, trying not to think of Dan’s story of a homeless man who had fallen in the adjacent Ala Wai Canal and subsequently lost all of his limbs to a flesh-eating bacteria.  I showered with much soap and hot water.


Still, things could have been worse.  There was prolonged, very heavy rain on Monday night and by the next morning many of the slips on the other side of our dock were surrounded by a floating mass of debris that had been swept down the Ala Wai Canal but got trapped in the harbor rather than flooding out to sea.  We were told by someone who had used the marina for 40 years that they had only seen it this bad once before.  Lucky us!


Randall’s sister, Martha, had arrived on Monday afternoon so she had a rather soggy start to her vacation but we had rented a car for a few days so at least we did not have to drag her luggage onto the bus in the rain.  We assured her that she had been fortunate to miss the boat parade and the incredibly loud fireworks that had been set-off in the neighboring Ala Moana Park, at 5 am on Sunday morning for the start of the Honolulu marathon.  With the sound resonating around all the high-rise hotels, I first thought we were under attack like Pearl Harbor while Randall worried about a massive thunderstorm.


Having studied the weather forecasts for several days, we had decided that if we left early on Thursday morning there might be a brief window when we could sail from Honolulu to Honokohau Harbor on the Big Island without being too battered.  The winds were predicted to be 15 knots or less but the waves were still going to be quite noticeable with a swell at a different angle from the wind waves. The forecast for our trip to Lana‘i with Dan had been similar but actual conditions in the channel were much worse and most unpleasant.  Conditions deteriorated significantly after Friday and each time we checked, the window became smaller and less favorable.  With Shevaun and Matt due to fly into Kona on Christmas Day we were really keen to make the passage but it sounded as though it might be pretty uncomfortable, especially for Martha.  It was too early to see if conditions would improve again before the holidays so we were anxious as to whether we would have another opportunity if we did not leave soon.


So with some trepidation, we planned to leave early on Thursday and in anticipation I called Honokohau Harbor to ensure that they would have a suitable slip available for us, as I had been previously assured would be likely.  But no, they did not have room suitable for us until January 6th…yikes!  We quickly considered other harbor options on the Big Island but none of them seemed as suitable as where we were in Ala Wai and, quite frankly, we really felt relieved at not having to make the passage under questionable conditions.  So, while we are disappointed not to be seeing Steve and Cheryl or Bill and Mary over the holidays nor showing off the Big-Island to Shev and Matt there are various advantages to staying in Honolulu and Randall and I will return to the Big Island sometime in the New Year.  Despite being scheduled to fly into Honolulu before going on to Kona, Shev and Matt may still have to fly to Kona and then get another flight back to Honolulu to meet us on Christmas Day evening because it would cost three times more to change their flight even though they would just be cancelling their last leg.  However, once they join us, on their first visit to Hawaii, with Dan and Kathy’s suggestions, we will be able to show them all sorts of cool things in Oahu.

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