Story by Curt Sanburn
Photos by Monte Costa
The ‘Alenuihaha channel separates the island of Hawai‘i from Maui. ‘Alenuihaha translates as “great billows, smashing,” and indeed this thirty-mile-wide, mile-deep strait is the wildest, windiest patch of water anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands, where wild and windy is almost the default setting. I’ve driven two miles down a bumpy dirt road to the low black cliffs at the Big Island’s northern point, ‘Upolu, to look at the great ‘Alenuihaha up close. I figure the channel is a good place to open an essay about the mechanics and culture of Hawai‘i’s magnificent waters: the channels, bays, reefs and beaches; the tides and currents; the wind and the waves; the men and women who love it all.
In Hawai‘i people spend a lot of time in or on the water. They grow intimate with their “home waters” and master them as swimmers, fishermen, surfers, paddlers and sailors. On the other hand, many malihini (newcomers, visitors) often find themselves in over their heads—literally. Tragically, several drown every year. In the first two months of 2013, Kaua‘i saw a rash of drownings—nine people, seven of whom were tourists. They’d gotten into trouble in nearshore currents or been snatched from lava promontories by sneaker waves. One was a hiker swept into rough surf on the Na Pali coast by a flooded stream.
“The behavior of the ocean in Hawai‘i is unique, complex and unpredictable,” warns one online guide for visitors cryptically. Thanks, but what exactly does that mean?