The Wild Blue
Story by Curt Sanburn
Photos by Monte Costa
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?
Powered by the North Pacific High—the huge, semi-permanent anticyclone rotating to the northeast of the archipelago—the Islands’ famously beneficent tradewinds blow about 90 percent of the time in summer and half the time in winter. For the tradewinds, ‘Alenuihaha is a giant speedway between two of Hawai‘i’s highest volcanoes: 13,796-foot Mauna Kea on Hawai‘i and 10,023-foot Haleakala on Maui. These behemoths funnel the wind between them, accelerating it. Scientists call this the Venturi or “jet” effect, and in the channel it can generate fair-weather wind speeds up to a sustained fifty mph, with swells as high as forty feet.
Not far from my vantage at ‘Upolu lies the birth site of the chief Kamehameha, who in 1810 became Hawai‘i’s first king. For centuries before his ascendency, the rival chiefs of Maui and Hawai‘i Island launched sennit-lashed war canoes back and forth across ‘Alenuihaha. These days, barges make daily crossings. As an interisland barge captain for Young Brothers, Ron Buelow regularly plies the channel. His rig is a four-thousand-horsepower tug pulling a 340-foot cargo barge on a two-thousand-foot towline or “wire.” Barges are the neighbor islands’ lifelines, the only way to transfer big stuff to and from Honolulu Harbor. Over a beer at a Honolulu waterfront bar, Buelow draws lots of arrows on a little map of the archipelago to show me how the tradewinds stream in from the northeast, circle around and spill over the high peaks; how they get blocked, braided and funneled; how they back off in the early morning and how the sun-warmed islands suck up sea breezes in the afternoon.
The “trades” are the key organizing principle of weather and water conditions in Hawai‘i. Everything on the high, volcanic islands is either windward, i.e., facing the wind and the rains; or leeward, facing away, protected by the mountains. Windward shores are found to the north and east; leeward shores to the south and west. Windward shores get the trades’ relentless onslaught right in the face: The wind pushes choppy, collapsing waves onto the reefs and beaches, riling and beclouding every inch of exposed nearshore water. Those who want clear, calm and dry conditions go south and west on every island, evidenced by the bustling resort districts along Kohala-Kona, Po‘ipu, Kihei-Wailea, Ka‘anapali and Waikiki.
When the trades are howling and the ‘Alenuihaha gets really big, Buelow says he slows his tug to three mph and uses the wire as a shock absorber. He crosses the channel at an angle to avoid hobbyhorsing over the swells. “The tugs are well ballasted, so we slow down and watch the barge, then ride it out till we get across. It’s just trucking,” he says. But when winds top fifty mph and swells exceed forty feet, trips get canceled. The former Coast Guardsman ranks Hawai‘i’s nine interisland channels in terms of roughness: ‘Alenuihaha is definitely number one, he says; Pailolo between West Maui and Moloka‘i is number two. And he parses their Hawaiian names: Ka Iwi, the turbulent channel between O‘ahu and Moloka‘i (number three in his ranking) means “bones,” he says. “I’m not sure what that’s about, but when a boat is really cooking and gets a bow wave, that’s called having a bone in your teeth.”
Buelow’s utilitarian regard for the boisterous channels may help explain why Hawai‘i hasn’t had a regular and reliable interisland passenger ferry service since airplanes were invented. “When Mainland guys come over here and see these channels, they go, ‘Wow.’ Everybody expects it to be paradise and mellow, and they have no idea how hairy it can get out there.”
Makapu‘u is a sandy cove beach carved into the cliffs of O‘ahu’s southeast headland. It’s a rarity among windward beaches in that it has a reliably ridable wave: With no tempering reef, a near-constant tradewind swell pushes into the little bay in orderly lines that peel over a shallow sandy bottom not thirty yards from shore. Locals love Makapu‘u for bodysurfing and boogie boarding; with heavy-duty swim fins snug on their feet, they bob and dance like gymnasts in the waves, careening across the four-to-six-foot vertical faces into churning tubes that seem to swallow them. A moment later their heads pop up in the white water, and the boys (mostly) kick back to the lineup for more. It looks fun and easy, but these kids know what they’re doing. A breaking Makapu‘u wave—like any other big, shallow “shore break”—can literally drill a body into the sand, snapping necks and spines, dislocating shoulders. Unaccustomed swimmers can become disoriented in the “washing machine” and freeze up and panic.
Over breakfast at Zippy’s in Hawai‘i Kai, Ahsam recounts for me how unpredictable a place like Makapu‘u can be. “I’ve seen days,” he offers, “where it’s two feet in the morning when I get to work, and by the end of the day, it’s like fifteen-feet-plus and just out of control. Or a set rolls in that’s three feet, and then one rolls in that’s six feet. And the next thing you know, everyone’s tripping out.” He grins. Ahsam says he feels bad for visitors who want to try bodysurfing or boogie boarding at Makapu‘u, especially on a bigger day, when it’s four feet or higher. It’s his diplomatic mission to convince them, first of all, to keep their keiki (kids) away from the water. The shallow wash along the beach may look harmless, but the swirling, wave-generated currents are dangerous—and invisible.
Keeping the kids out of the water is one thing, but trying to discourage the dads is another, Ahsam says. “When they see the bodysurfing going on out there, there’s almost no way you can tell ’em, ‘No, you shouldn’t go in.’” He shakes his head sympathetically. “They just spent maybe $4,000 on a family vacation, and you don’t want to bum them out. … So I just point out where the bad currents are, and I tell ’em to stay in a different area, but they say, ‘What about those guys?’ So I tell ’em, ‘You’re an adult, you understand the warnings, so why don’t you go try it out? Just keep your kids away from the water.’
“So, the dad will hop in and get into trouble. We’ll pull him out and say, ‘Hey, this is exactly what we just told you.’ Or he’ll learn for himself—he’ll get stuck in a current and barely make it out and he’ll say, ‘Enough already!’ Yeah, sometimes the ocean does it for us, helps us out in that way,” the lifeguard says. “It teaches humility.”
Eric “Elika” Knudsen, a plantation owner’s son, recorded the story of an exciting trip he took on a small whaleboat as a child in the 1870s. En route to Ni‘ihau from Kaua‘i, the boat capsized in stormy seas. A three-year-old Hawaiian girl was swept overboard, but the girl’s mother appeared to be more concerned about holding on to the iron pot she carried with her. Knudsen’s panicked mother cried out, “There she is! Save her!” to the woman. “‘Oh, never mind her,” the woman replied. “She’s all right. She won’t sink but this pot will!” Once the pot was secured, the child reappeared in the foam, “paddling around in her watery cradle,” as Knudsen described it. “With one big brown arm, the mother reached for her and gathered her safely to her ample bosom. As the child was bundled into an old coat, she smiled and waved at us. Why had we worried? She hadn’t been afraid. We continued on toward Niihau without further mishap.”
Located in the district of Puna, a place called Kumukahi is the easternmost nose of the Big Island and the easternmost point in the archipelago. Some say it’s where the day begins. The headland is named for the Tahitian chief who lived there, a relative of the fire goddess Pele. Two of Kumukahi’s wives, now manifest in two upright, monolithic lava formations close to Kumukahi’s shore, are the solstices, and it’s said they toss the sun back and forth between them.
Kumukahi cleaves the east-to-west North Equatorial Current (NEC) into two streams, one flowing northwest along the Hawaiian ridge all the way past Kaua‘i and the other moving southwest along the Puna and Ka‘u coasts until South Point sets it spinning. In the Hawaiian cosmos, to know the ocean currents is critical for fishing, voyaging and surviving: “‘Ike i ke au nui me ke au iki,” goes one saying, which literally means “one who knows the big currents and the little currents”; figuratively, someone knowledgeable, trustworthy and subtle. Not knowing those currents might also earn you a place in the Hawaiian lexicon. Hala‘ea is the swift current flowing from the east toward South Point; it’s named for a chief who was swept out to sea by it. “Ua ko‘ia paha e ka au o Hala‘ea” goes a saying to describe a person who has failed to return home, “Perhaps he was dragged away by the current of Hala‘ea.”
Hawaiian educator Lei Ilae-Kaleimamahu of Kaimu in the Puna district chants a place song in Hawaiian as we approach Kumukahi. Ilae-Kaleimamahu is an instructor in lawai‘a (traditional Hawaiian fishing) at Hilo Community College. She knows the big currents of Kumukahi, which, she explains, is like the prow of a canoe splitting the NEC’s ocean river in two. The NEC is a big, open-ocean current. There are also wind currents, tidal currents and locally generated wave currents that “switch around all the time,” she says. “There’s a lot of variability, but Puna water is deep and strong.” Her home waters stretch for thirty miles along the raw volcanic coast that edges lush Puna. Most of the coast is lava shelves and cliffs; all of it is pummeled by windward salt air and sea-chop. Safe canoe landings were so rare that fishermen built rickety canoe ladders from the lava cliffs down to the water so they could haul them out. Puna’s not your typical swimming place.
And yet Lei is absolutely comfortable in her home waters. “I get in almost every day,” she says. She never uses fins, just tabi—the split-toed Japanese sock-boots—for traction on the slippery lava and to protect her feet from sharp rock, coral and wana (sea urchin). “It’s regenerating. I think it’s the salt, the extracting salt. It pulls out a lot of sicknesses. If I’ve got a cold, I’ll get in the ocean before I’ll go to a doctor. The ocean is my doctor,” she says.
Blankenfeld is among a notable generation of watermen who grew up playing in Maunalua bay. Men like Blankenfeld’s fellow navigator and brother-in-law, Nainoa Thompson; or Gerry Lopez, the original modern Hawaiian surfer; surf contest impresario Randy Rarick; bodysurfer and lifeguard Mark Cunningham; paddlers Marshall and Henry Rosa of Portlock; master fisherman Teddy Williams; surfers Robbie and Tommy Witten of ‘Aina Haina. I ask Blankenfeld, who actually lived in Kaimuki but grew up fishing for akule and spearfishing with his dad off his grandmother’s place in Kuli‘ou‘ou just east of Niu valley, to explain the Maunalua bay incubator. “Well, we were all right here,” he says. “We grew up surfing and bodysurfing and fishing and canoe paddling. We learned the reefs and currents. We were comfortable in the water. We got good enough to just enjoy it, so it became a place of comfort. That’s the way I see it.”
Those who haven’t grown up in and around big water might find the enormous summertime waves that unload at the point break called China Wall the furthest thing from comforting. But those who muster the courage to paddle into them discover that they are forgiving waves, with a long and beautiful left when it’s not closing out—what experienced surfers would call “fun.” “Remember Gerry Lopez surfing at Pipeline?” Blankenfeld says. “Look at how relaxed he is. That’s what I mean by comfort. The guy is just part of the whole thing. I mean, he drops, he turns, he’s just standing there, so relaxed and wonderful. It’s the epitome of everything. Or you watch Mark Cunningham bodysurf. He just like flows through everything. He just plays.”
At age 57 Blankenfeld, a captain and navigator with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, is preparing for a three-year circumnavigation of the globe on a pair of Polynesian sailing canoes, the Hokule‘a and the Hikianalia. He’ll use the same methods of way-finding practiced by Pacific islanders for millennia: no sextants, compasses or GPS, only dead reckoning, celestial navigation and the ability to read the weather and feel the ocean swells.
Blankenfeld explains way-finding by dead reckoning: “On a cloudy morning you get a fix on the rising sun’s glow in the east. You set course and lock into your direction for the day. The swells aren’t going to change radically in twelve hours. All your focus is on how the swell is affecting the canoe and how the canoe is fitting into it. The beauty of it is there’s always some kind of pattern to the motion. On one trip there was a bit of a cross-swell coming up from the northeast, and every once in a while the canoe would, like, jump! If you stayed on that line, it would do that; if you fell off it, the jumps would stop. It was a real pivotal moment for me, a real ‘Aha!’ You gotta feel the motion of the canoe. It’s not what you can see.”
Levin and I are old kayaking buddies, and we take a mid-morning, two-man trip along the South Kona coast. The sky is overcast, and the gigantic slope of Mauna Loa and the adjoining sea are colorless. Suddenly, spinner dolphins break the surface all around us, jumping and flipping. Levin is not surprised. Over the years he’s lived in nearby Honaunau, he has come to know this pod—and several resident schools of fish—well. At the rocky point at Moinui, Levin throws out a sea anchor, and we jump in. Levin dives down easily, deeply, to look into holes and poke around while I kick around the shallows off the point. Levin says that getting in the water is like going through Alice’s looking glass. Things look different, light acts differently, gravity pulls differently, he says. “When I descend into this wonderland, I want to make images, not to explain or clarify that world, but to deepen the mystery.”
The underwater world is clear in the dull light. Yellow tangs glow against lava-rock ridges dotted with wana and blue and pink cauliflower corals. Black durgeons flap. A surprised blowfish scurries away. I relax and breathe. I am mostly water; I know the water that holds me in its cool grip cushions me while I explore the dim garden. I kick around the point, and I feel a slight oceanic surge and suck, tugging at me as I float.
“The ocean is an entity of incredible power,” I recall Levin saying, “and every time I enter it, I’m real clear that I’m putting myself within a world that is far more powerful and vast than me—and it’s only by its grace that I return.”