January 23, 2012
As I checked us out of Ala Wai Harbor and commented that we looked forward to returning in a few weeks’ time, James, one of the friendly state employees who has to keep a track of several hundred docked boats, lamented that the cruising community seems to give Hawai‘i a bad rap. He was particularly disappointed that some of the cruising publications (which we rarely read) specifically critique Ala Wai Harbor as a poor first port of call for many boats arriving from the mainland. As he observed, most dissatisfaction probably arose because cruisers did not understand the severe limitations that Hawaiian State harbors have both in number of existing slips and minimal funds and potential for harbor expansion or creation.
Now that we have been in Hawai‘i for more than seven months and have been to most islands, we better understand these limitations and all the rules and paperwork that accompany them. The latter has seemed to be particularly excessive at times but the State offices have all been trying to adapt, to their own needs, a new online permitting system that appears to have been implemented somewhat prematurely (in the way of many over-zealous applications of new software to huge government entities). To be sure, there are specific things that could irk users of Ala Wai who get stuck far out on the 800 dock, a long way from the bathrooms, offices, parking, etc, and feeling constantly surrounded by tourists and/or homeless people. But even then, for a large city it generally seems to us to be a very safe, central, and interesting rather irritating place to stay. And even though it is the most expensive of the State Harbors, the daily rates (including decent showers and electricity) are incredibly cheap (for us about $22 per night) compared to a hotel room or private marina, so once there, it would seem to be a bit ungracious to complain too much.
The issue that might cause some justifiable angst is the difficulty of trying to plan travel between the islands and being sure of having somewhere secure to stay because all of the State Harbors are run on a first-come-first-served basis. The only way to reserve a slip is to start paying for it. If a harbor has any slips that are specifically for transient boats they are usually few and not particularly desirable. There is so much pressure from locals wanting to get a permanent slip for their boats that few harbors can afford to keep many slips that are not generating constant income.
Residents who have bought a boat may have to wait several years to get a permanent slip which means that they have to either store their boat out of the water (not much use for a large boat that is expensive to launch) or keep moving from harbor to harbor as a transient boat. Most State Harbors only allow transients to stay for 90 days a calendar year but Ala Wai is the exception with a 120 day allowance. When a boat with a permanent slip on one island travels to another island, of course, they become part of the transient population. When they are visiting other islands or have their boat hauled out, most owners of permanent slips will allow the State to rent their slip to transient boats, providing a bit of income. In harbors without transient slips, such as Lahaina on Maui, this is the only way that it is possible for visitors to stay there.
Thus, between out-of-state visitors and mobile locals, the use of transient slips at State Harbors is a game of Musical Chairs. In the summer, as long as everyone keeps moving and it is comfortable to anchor in some bays (e.g., Hanalei on Kaua‘i has quite a sizable anchored, summer population) it is not too difficult to find somewhere to stay. It may be necessary to wait a few days for a space to open up but with the luxury of a cellphone it is possible to stay in touch with a harbor on a daily basis to find out when a slip is available and in the meantime it may be fine to anchor in a bay somewhere.
The winter is when the music stops and you had better not be the last boat looking for a place to stay. Although the weather still seems pretty summer-like in terms of sun and warmth, the winds are not as consistently from the NE and, most significantly, swells from any direction frequently increase to become untenable for anchoring. Thus, unless you are willing to have your boat on a mooring and not planning to live-aboard or you are willing to move hastily from one anchorage to another as wind and swell directions change (and to tolerate the potentially unpleasant passages between anchorages or nights where nowhere is protected), you will be looking for a harbor slip like almost everyone else.
In winter, it is not obvious that there are enough slips in the State Harbors for all the transient boats. This problem is probably compounded each year by the extra vessels that arrive from the mainland and, either due to damage or a crew with no desire to repeat such a long ocean passage, are put up for sale and not removed from the state as quickly as expected. Thus, while James perhaps had some justification for feeling frustrated that his harbor was routinely criticized in the cruising press, he also had to know that if the reports of cruising in Hawai‘i became too glowing, much of an increase in the number of boats arriving from the mainland and staying for more than a few months in the summer would potentially seize-up the State Harbor system completely come the winter.
We were lucky to have returned to Ala Wai Harbor (from Maui) in late November when there were slips available. We were not so lucky when we wanted to move to Honokohau in December and they did not expect to have any space until January 6th. But at least we were in Ala Wai and once installed you will not be expected to leave until your annual time limit has expired. You may have to move from one slip to another if the permanent owner returns but once in the harbor you still rate as “first-come” and hence are “first served”.
It had thus been with great relief that we learned that we could expect to get a slip at Honokohau if we arrived on Friday (Jan 20th). The only uncertainty would be whether slips would be available a month later when we wanted to return to Ala Wai (a particular issue as transient boats often stay for their whole annual 120 day allowance once they can get into the harbor) but we knew that we would have to deal with that when the time came.
So after a very pleasant meal out with Kathy on Wednesday evening, we enjoyed our last night tied-up comfortably alongside the floating, Ala Wai transient dock. As forecast, there was a lull in the southerly winds the next morning and under gloriously sunny skies we motored out of Honolulu admiring the early morning shadows on Diamond Head and feeling an agreeable fondness for the tourist-packed, Aloha-State capital.
By late morning, having crossed the rolly but comfortable Kaiwi Channel, our pleasure was further enhanced by the presence of humpback whales all around us. Near and far, they were blowing, breaching, pectoral fin- and tail-slapping, or simply surfacing during passages parallel to us, it was just magical. Hawai‘i is the winter breeding site for humpback whales that spend the summers in the Northeast Pacific and they mostly congregate in the shallower areas between O‘ahu and the northern half of the Big Island. As might have been predicted, we saw them for the three hours that it took for us to cross Penguin Bank (not sure where that name came from) which is a “shallow” bank that extends west from Moloka’i. Water over the bank is about 150 ft deep (46 m) but drops-off steeply at the edges to several thousand feet deep. We noticed that many of the whales, like sport-fish, seemed to be found near the drop-offs.
Our delight at being honored with the presence of so many cetaceans increased even more during the afternoon when enough of a NNE wind picked-up for us to hoist the sails and turn off the engine. Twice. The sailable wind did not hang around for long but we left the double-reefed mainsail up even once we resumed motoring because it did stabilize the boat-motion a bit. With a wind from the ESE filling the mainsail and the sail sufficiently shortened we did not have to worry about the leech (top edge) being damaged where we had had all the recent repairs.
During most of the day we listened to hourly reports from the US Coast Guard that they had received a message from a boat that had run aground near Diamond Head but it had not been sighted. Several hours previously we had been in the exact location reported and it was difficult to believe that no-one else was in the area to confirm or deny the report. Hopefully, the captain was able to free the boat and had returned to port without informing the Coast Guard. More ominously, by evening we heard a different report of a kayak found floating east of O‘ahu with diving gear aboard but no sign of a person. It seemed to be a busy but not very satisfying day for the Honolulu Sector of the Coast Guard.
The almost head-on wind increased during the night and, exactly as forecast, by the time we reached the Alenuihaha Channel (between Maui and the Big Island) and my 2 am watch started we had easterly winds up to 25 knots. We just kept motoring but the combination of short-interval, easterly, wind-generated waves and southerly swells made for sloppy water and noisy, jerky boat conditions. Having only seen one tow-boat and barge and a couple of sport-fishing boats since we left O‘ahu, it was almost inevitable that during my watch at 4 am, a large cargo ship appeared to be heading directly for us in the Alenuihaha Channel. They must have seen us because not long after they first became visible to me, their green navigation light disappeared leaving only the red (left) one in sight. This meant that they had turned slightly to starboard (their right) to be sure to pass behind us. This was confirmed by their AIS track on the chart-plotter and they passed 1.3 nm behind us (2.4 km). Although there was never any danger, there is always something rather attention-grabbing about seeing both red and green navigation lights of a large ship, indicating that it is aimed straight at you.
An hour after watching a thin, orange sliver of moon rise into a star-encrusted black sky, the eastern horizon lightened with a beautiful orange glow. This perfectly silhouetted the outlines of Mauna Kea, Kohala, and Hualalai volcanoes ahead of us, while Haleakala behind us on Maui was shrouded in the last remnant of cloud. Three hours later when I awoke from my morning nap, I could clearly see the sun-lit Haleakala as I climbed the companionway stairs but turning to admire the peaks of the Big Island I saw nothing…absolutely nothing just a wall of white at the sea’s horizon. It was not the thick clouds of fog we had seen so often in Nova Scotia and New England but a thick haze of vog that made it appear that the Big Island had simply vanished during Randall’s watch. It was not until we were within 15 nm of the shore (28 km) that we could finally see, not the rounded volcanic peaks, but the gentle, black-lava-flow- and light-brown-grass-covered coastal slopes.
Reassuringly, familiar features onshore could be distinguished as we approached closer and we were thankful that neither of us appears to be too sensitive to the enveloping vog. In the distance, in the section of the Humpback Whale Sanctuary just north of the Kona airport, we were thrilled to see some whales breaching. As long as our future visitors could cope with the vog, this suggested that we should be able to take Tregoning out to show them some whales.
After an absence of 4.5 months, we were curious to see what, if anything, had changed in Honokohau Harbor but our first objective was to secure Tregoning in our assigned slip. As we entered the outer harbor we saw that there was a line and float on our mooring ball which made it relatively easy to pick-up with the boat hook and attach to one of the stern cleats. Randall carefully approached the dock and I leapt from the bow with two dock-lines to find only one functional cleat on the wooden structure. Although we were pleased with our smooth entry we were a bit confused about how we would secure Tregoning to the dock and how we would escape the dock given the well padlocked gates. Luckily, when we called the harbormaster’s office, they suggested that we move and although both of the transient docks were (unexpectedly) full they finally assigned us to a slip nearby from which the usual occupant, a 60 ft sailboat (18 m) was expected to be absent (in O‘ahu) for several weeks.
We calmly disengaged ourselves from Ron’s dock and approached our new slip, appreciative that the lines on the mooring ball were helpfully draped over a PVC frame on the ball. I picked up the two, very thick and heavy lines and got one of them attached to a stern cleat before heading forward to throw the lines to the harbormaster who was standing on the dock to make sure that we got into the correct place. This all could have gone so smoothly and made us looked so experienced and efficient. But no, we had not accounted for the 20 ft (6 m) difference in boat length between us and the boat for which this equipment was designed and to get anywhere close to the dock Randall found that he needed to release the heavy stern lines. Meanwhile I had got the bow lines ashore and the harbormaster tied them off fairly short. But the wind decided to join the fun and before we had a chance to recapture the mooring ball lines, the wind had pushed the stern over to the adjacent commercial fishing boat.
So under the harbormaster’s bemused eyes, Randall had to hold us off the fishing boat while I jumped in the water and carried one of our lines from Tregoning’s stern to tie onto the loops in the ends of the mooring ball lines (which had sunk, of course, being heavy). I was thankful that we were back in the crystal clear waters of Honokohau Harbor and not in Ala Wai but tried not to think too hard of the large tiger sharks that had been seen just off the nearby fuel dock during the summer. Eventually, after several laps between Tregoning and the mooring ball and various readjustments of ropes, we got everything sorted out and the bewildered harbormaster had been replaced by the ever-cheerful Steve. Steve assured us that we were much better off at this dock than Ron’s dock because any surge entering the harbor would push us back and forth, suspended between the mooring ball and dock, rather than from side to side. Next time we will attach our own lines to unknown mooring ball lines as we arrive so that we can adjust them to any length we need rather than having to cope with whatever is available. Even after 3.5 years at sea, there is still so much to learn and much docking-humiliation to endure.
By the time I trekked the length of the harbor to the office, I was sufficiently tired (and embarrassed to see the harbormaster again so soon although he was fairly charitable about our debacle) that my view of the area was a little less rosy than I had expected. My initial impression was that it all seemed to be a bit, well, scruffy. We hosed the boat down, tidied up the cabin (the bumpy conditions had displaced the usual assortment of cushions and papers to the floor), ate dinner, and crawled into bed around 7:30 pm.
A good night’s sleep can work wonders. The next morning, crossing the road to our view our favorite snorkeling beach (yes, we are now that close), I smelled the dried bunchgrasses, heard the (mostly non-native) birds singing, admired the (briefly) cloudless silhouette of Hualalai peak to our east, recognized various captains taking their sport-fishing boats out to sea, and realized that it was good to be back. Peering over Tregoning’s rails into the clear water I not only saw tranquil turtles, graceful spotted eagle rays, and numerous familiar species of reef fish but I called Randall over to see a pair of bizarre, small diamond-shaped fish with extraordinarily long, thread-like dorsal and anal fins streaming out behind them. There was nothing like them in my fish book so we were perplexed for a while but luckily Cheryl came to the rescue identifying them as juvenile, threadfin jacks.
Inviting them over to Tregoning for dinner, it was good to be reunited with Cheryl and Steve and we look forward to catching-up with other friends on the Big Island. We started that process on Sunday morning when we snorkeled through the slight surf at “our” beach and were pleased to find that the water clarity, corals, and diversity of fish were even better than we had dared to remember. Dodgy arrivals notwithstanding, we are very lucky to be here and it is good to be back.