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That Last Mile

October 23, 2011

Progress is a state of mind. What feels rapid in the middle of a passage is a snail’s pace as one draws near land, and an island as big as Hawaii draws nearer and nearer forever.

Soon after dark the amber glow of Hilo’s lights began to bob above the waves, and in the dying breeze I ran under main and mizzen only. We needed slowing: I didn’t want to arrive until dawn. Gradually the town came closer and at twenty-one miles out I picked up red navigational beacons just to starboard, a fine thing if such existed, but they were no where to be found on the chart. The first flashed steadily at one second intervals while the other occulted at two and ten. Worse, they appeared to be well out in the water where I should find nothing but weather buoys with yellow lights. These littered the chart along the coast but were not to be seen as I peered into the dark.

I studied the red flashes for hours as we made our slow way and our breeze relaxed its panting to the faintest of breath. Approaching a populated, well marked port at night can be a confusing business for all the traffic lights that send their similarly red and green beams out to sea. I knew this, but the flashes I kept seeing appeared separated from land with no glow of civilization near them.

At midnight I came about more directly for Hilo, taking the still unresolved red lights well to starboard, and two hours later we were ghosting along under reefed main only. I catnapped more as a way to pass the time than sleep, and each doze brought dreams of going on the rocks. At 0400 I woke to the sound of a complaining mainsail and on deck found wind had freshened. Pleased, I began to adjust sail only to realize our new wind was off the island. Who ever heard of a northeast trade blowing from the southwest? Could an island this big send down a williwaw for twenty miles? And it was cold. I put on a sweater, wool sox and boots for the fist time in months.

This turn of events decided it. I made a cup of coffee, doused sail, started the engine and took my station behind the wheel as we bashed into headwinds the last leg to port.

Mauna Kea at Dawn

Dawn brought the Big Island big in view. Hawaii is a giant whose land area is almost twice that of the remaining six in the chain. It could hold all 109 islands of French Polynesia and half again as many. And it continues to grow. Sun striking the rocky summit of massive Mauna Kea glowed a warm, desert beige for half its height before the greens of jungle and forest took over. To the south the smoke of the live volcano mixed with low cloud.

A large cumulus cell approached from astern pouring rain in straight, gray columns, and I groaned, not wanting to kit up in oilies. But it ran into the off-island wind and diffused, evaporated as I watched.

We rounded the first green buoy into Hilo Bay at 0730, were gliding past Reeds Bay moorings on glass by 0800 and had our anchor down in Radio Bay by 0830.

I had chosen Hilo as a first port of call remembering it as a small, sleepy town where reentry into civilization could be made slowly, quietly. But my memory was mistaken. “Hilo Town”, as it is often referred to, is the second largest city in the state, and its port is professionally run and a major affair. A barge from Honolulu was offloading goods on the next pier. Forklifts buzzed about, cranes lowered containers onto waiting trucks with a clank and bang. A large immaculate Coast Guard cutter sat to one side like a guarding lion. And the entire area was enclosed by a tall green, barbed-wire fence.

I called the harbor master for instructions.

Radio Bay

“Hello, I’m a vessel anchored in your bay; have just completed a 21 day passage from French Polynesia; am hanging out here next to the Coast Guard Cutter. What should I do next?” I was smiling. It was so nice to speak English and know it would be understood.

“You’re not blocking the Coast Guard, I hope”, replied a female voice.

“No no. That was just an expression.”

“Yacht home port?”

“San Francisco.”

“Where in from?”

“French Polynesia.”

“But you’re not foreign are you?”

“Nope. American.”

“You’re coming in from a foreign country?”

“Yes. French Polynesia.”

“I see. Well, you will need to check in with Customs first. Their office is in the Homeland Security building just outside our gate; look for the big flag. They will need your passport and clearance papers from you last port of call, and they will charge a $25 decal fee which you must pay with a credit card. When you’re done there come to our office to pay your mooring and registration fees. Will you be using the showers?

“It’s probably wise.”

“Then there’s also a $50 deposit for the shower key, and we only take cash in this office. Water is free [I should hope so, I thought, as it rains 200 inches a year here] but electricity is twenty-five cents for fifteen minutes. You put coins in the meter at the pier. When you are ready, you will need to call the number posted on the gate nearest you. Millennium Security personnel will escort you to the main gate. You will need their escort any time you enter or leave the compound. Be sure to fill out their security form before you come to our office, and please be sure to read their rules and regulations letter. What time will you be coming up?”

“I’d just like to brush my teeth first.”

“That’s fine, but please remember that security is very busy, and our office closes for lunch at 12:30pm.”

In my naivete I had expected something closer to “Welcome home from great travels good citizen”, but that expression has apparently undergone some recrafting in my year’s absence. Now it is “pay your fees and follow the rules”.

Which I am doing. Happily. Because its a small price to pay for … free water and the pleasure of departing in the morning, unescorted.


Approaching Hilo

One Comment
  1. October 23, 2011 3:54 pm

    Welcome to the land of the fee’d and the home of the regulated.

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