Story by David Thompson
Photo by Olivier Koning
As soon as the Body Glove Cruises’ sixty-five-foot catamaran casts off from Kailua Pier, the history begins. Caleb Wolfson steps to the bow with a cordless microphone to talk about the rock wall built around Kailua village to save its pili grass houses from wild cattle after Capt. George Vancouver introduced the cow to Hawai‘i in 1793. Then Wolfson describes the rise of ranching on the Big Island, evoking cowboys swimming steers from the beach to steamships anchored in Kailua Bay. He discusses Hulihe‘e Palace, Kailua’s seawall, the building and rebuilding of Mokuaikaua Church. He points to the location of the undersea spring that is the source of Kailua’s name, “two waters.”
Next he turns to the pier itself, just a few yards from where the catamaran is idling: It is, Wolfson notes, the point where the Ironman Triathlon starts and finishes each year, and it covers the rock outcropping where the first Christian missionaries landed on the island.
It seems Wolfson could bob beside the dock for the entire three hours of the Kona Historical Society’s Sunset Cruise and not run out of things to say about Kailua. But there are twelve miles of rich Kona coast to cover, so the captain hits the throttle and the boat moves on—though not before Wolfson squeezes in that Kailua was the initial seat of the Hawaiian kingdom and is home to the bayfront estate of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
When the boat reaches the turnaround point at Kealakekua Bay, Wolfson ends his disquisition with one of the most infamous historical events on the coast: the killing of Capt. James Cook. Then the cruise shifts gear. A hundred passengers hit the buffet and Grammy-nominated recording artist L.T. Smooth switches from the gentle rhythms he’s been playing to party mode. A couple begins dancing, others join in, and before the sun touches the horizon a conga line is doing laps around the bar.
Every cruise is different, says Wolfson, chatting now with passengers one-on-one. “Sometimes nobody asks any questions, and sometimes I get bombarded with questions,” he says. “Sometimes nobody dances and sometimes people are out there doing the ‘Y.M.C.A.’ and the ‘Macarena.’” He takes a moment then asks, “Why shouldn’t learning history be fun?”