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On the Move-Big Island to Maui

October 25, 2011

Our intense thirst for free water quenched and satisfied Hilo port security could not be compromised by irony, we departed at 0500 on October 23rd for Nishimura Bay on the west side of the Big Island’s Upolu Point, a run of twelve hours along a rocky, wind torn coast with no safe haven save Hilo.

Our final destination is Honolulu, 200 miles northwest and where, if fortunate, I will encounter the loving embrace of my wife next weekend, but we are taking this bit in shifts and anchoring at night where the land contours in a friendly way and the bottom will accept our hook. Nishimura Bay is an unsanctioned stop, called foul by the charts and not even named except verbally by local fisherman. It’s the slightest divot in a red and black rock coast, and is itself so rock lined there is no landing. Above it is an ancient rock ruin, a Stone Henge in miniature, a navigational **heiau** (shrine). Except that it is to leeward, it appears to have little to offer. But being leeward is quite enough.

Out of Hilo in the dark we glided under power for the sixty-five mile jump that we hoped to complete before dark. There was no wind. There had been no wind our three days in port. The sickle moon set over a glassy sea, I lowered the autopilot into its socket, and we settled back to motor the entire day. I wondered briefly what I would read while we were under way and whether or not I might have a beer with lunch.

Blustery Conditions on the Windward Side

By 0800 wind was southeast at ten knots. By 0830 it had risen to sixteen. It had shifted more into the east an hour later and was a solid twenty knots. By 1030 it was gusting twenty-six. Waves had built and were beginning to knock Murre sideways as they broke.

The Hawaiian Islands lie within the northeast trade wind belt, a factor that contributes greatly to their beatific climate. But their proximity to each other and their extraordinary height means the channels that lie between them catch and accelerate the prevailing wind, making channel crossing in Hawaii a thing to be reckoned. This was why I was headed to Nishimaru; I was positioning for the sprint to Maui. What I had not realized was that Hilo is in a dead-air pocket, though it faces the trades. I had assumed ocean winds had stayed as light as we’d experienced on our initial approach. But this was not the case.

We had departed under power because there was no wind and by noon we had plenty, but it was dead aft. I unrolled a piece of the jib, but kept pushing us on the engine. We had to keep our speed up; we had to get around the point before dark.

The coast between Hilo and Upolu is grand, even mythic, in its ruggedness. The heave of breakers and their white rage can be seen until the island dips out of sight. The rock cliffs look like the black teeth of a giant. Then just above them the scene is pastoral. Grassy fields or dense forest and brightly colored houses leaning out into the wind. Cattle grazing. But from a mile offshore you first see the breakers and know there is no approach, there is nothing for a ship here but to get away.

To my relief, the wind topped out at 20 knots, maybe even eased a bit as we rolled on and on. By mid afternoon we were abeam Kauhela light and here the great mountain began to withdraw some of its near height, to become rolling planes of golden grass and oaks, here and there showing its rocky volcanic spine. A small outcrop of windmills near a point. More cows. And then we were around Upolu, racing for the anchorage on flat seas with wind abeam and we dropped anchor in 30 feet, sand, beating the sun by an hour.

In the evening, the smell of warm dry grass, the song of land birds and the ocean lapping at a rocky shore. An invasion of flying ants after dark, and Murre rolled and rolled all night. But it did not matter; this was just a way station for the bigger crossing of the Alenuihaha Channel to Maui.

The Alenuihaha has the reputation of being one of the world’s worst channels. Trades blowing a steady fifteen will accelerate as they pass between the two tall islands by fifty percent or more and wave heights can be more than double their usual by mid afternoon. The typical crossing strategy calls for a night passage, or one that puts the boat close to La Perouse Bay on the Maui side well before noon. We chose the latter and were underway an hour before sunrise in very light winds from the east.

Leaving Nishmaru at Sunrise

Sunrise lit up the back side of Hawaii a bright orange, the effect of “vog”, a volcanic haze caught in the island’s lee, but Maui was entirely in cloud. Winds followed the previous day’s pattern: east at ten knots by 0600, to twelve by 0700, over sixteen by 0800 and over twenty by 0930. A tug and barged passed to the north for Hilo. A large tanker trended southwest. Thankfully both were well out of our path. Cloud began to clear over Maui’s southeast coast. Again I kept Murre on the engine and with a rolled jib, and our speed averaged over six knots. Waves ran in the six to eight foot range on our starboard quarter, but as we approached the coast some growlers topped twelve feet. Murre surfed to seven and eight knots often. Once she reached nine knots. Each rise and pivot over the breaking crest left me racing for the wheel, but the auto pilot, with no apparent effort, eased Murre back to her course. In this froth, a Tropic Bird sat bobbing.

We were passing the volcano fields of wind-wracked and empty La Perouse Bay by 1130, and by noon Murre was anchored in flat calm behind Pu’u Olia near the village of Makena, from where we write this note.

Today we move again and to an anchorage near Lahaina. Then, I hope, a short hop to Molokai so as to be positioned for the channel crossing to Oahu where arrival is slated for Thursday.

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