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Passage through Molokai
Yes, you can cruise on the wild side in Hawaii

Written by Chris Pala for Sailing Magazine

When my wife announced we were moving to Hawaii, sailing opportunities were pretty much the first thing that popped in my mind. In five years in Kazakhstan, I had managed to sail Lake Issyk Kul, the dying Aral Sea and even do a charter around the Caribbean's volcanically active Montserrat, all chronicled in SAILING. But moving to the middle of the biggest ocean seemed a big improvement over living in the middle of the biggest continent.

When I arrived in Honolulu, the hundreds of boats moored at the municipal Ala Wai Marina and the adjoining Hawaii and Waikiki yacht clubs, which on weekends launched scores of sails into the waters from Diamond Head to Pearl Harbor, offered the promise of inter-island cruising on a flexible scale. You could be in the sheltered waters of the Molokai-Maui-Lanai triangle in an afternoon, or you could spend two days sailing down to the Big Island's leeward coast to view a volcano spewing lava into the sea. And there were steady trades blowing from the northeast, just as they do in the Caribbean.

But when I looked for a charter outfit, I found none. My enquiries at the Friday evening beer-can races at the clubs yielded a steady run of frowns and shaking heads: sailing to Molokai was far too rough, why, winds could reach 35 knots there, and the swells were huge! I had sailed some years ago from San Diego to French Polynesia to Hawaii, but I decided it would be impolite to bring up the merits of a double reef and a shortened jenny.

Honolulu is located in the lee of mountains that reach 4,000 feet, and the air is mostly light. In this sheltered ecosystem, I had discovered a subspecies of Nauta Dominicus, the Sunday Sailor: Nauta Dominicus Sub Vento: The Leeward Sunday Sailor.

On and off I searched, and eventually I found Pacific Yacht Management, which charters a two-stateroom Beneteau 57 for $4,200 a day – yes a day. And that's the cheapest boat it operates. The company said it runs a half-dozen inter-island charters a year, and advises their clients to fly to Maui rather than cross the dreaded Molokai Channel.

Finally I heard of, and then tracked down, Mike Mickelwait, who has been running a small charter business in Hawaii for 30 years. While others have come and gone, he is the only one to prosper. He's easygoing with a melodius voice and a slight slur. Short with the powerful build of a lifetime surfer, he still tackles 10-foot waves. He's clearly in it for the fun, and he discovered long ago that sailing students are a lot more companionable than crewed-charter clients. So his outfit, Honolulu Sailing Co., is part sailing school, part charter business—both bareboat and crewed. They operate mostly Beneteau sailing yachts that start at 40' with starting rates of $3900 for a week. They currently have a staff of three bareboat captains and two ASA-certified instructors.

So one sunny fall morning (no, mornings in Hawaii are not always sunny), Mickelwait, three students taking the "intermediate" class and I headed out from Keehi Lagoon, where Mickelwait formerly kept his boats on moorings (he is now located in Kewalo Marina, about 1.5 miles from Waikiki). We left behind the skyscrapers of Waikiki just as the breeze was firming up. Once we passed Koko Head, we took the full brunt of the Molokai Channel—all 18 knots of it. The open sea swells on our crossing the Molokai channel reached up to 10' but they were nicely spaced out and we sailed on a close reach to Molokai.

In order to take a better look at its lovely, low western shore, we headed for Ilio point and then tacked south, past the island's only resort and along gorgeous Papohaku Beach, one of the state's widest (100 yards on average) and longest (2 miles) with a nice roadstead to boot.

At La'au Point, the rocky, windswept and wild southwestern point of the island where rare and solitary monk seals like to sunbathe, we passed an inlet with a traditional Hawaiian lanai (an A-frame thatched house) beside a banner that read “Save La'au.” The lanai had been built the previous year during a successful protest against a plan by Molokai Ranch, which owns much of the western third of the island, to build 200 luxury homes there.

Molokai may be the closest geographically to Oahu, where 910,000 of the state's 1.3 million people live, but its 8,000 residents, half of them native Hawaiian, are culturally the most distant. They are strongly opposed to tourism development in general and the La'au plan in particular. They have kept the number of hotel rooms on the island to 76, the number of absentee homes to a few hundred and the number of cruise ship stops to zero, and they are likely to keep La'au Point just like it is.

Four miles after tacking around the point, we entered Lono Harbor at sunset. This is where Hawaiians had their temple for Lono, the god of fertility and harvest. They were holding their yearly festival to honor Lono in 1778 when Captain James Cook, the great British explorer, sailed in and discovered Hawaii, and so they took him for Lono and welcomed him with particular warmth. But he failed to live up to his godly stature and was killed during a dispute about a skiff the Hawaiians had stolen from the Resolution.

In 1959 a construction company had built two breakwaters at the bay so that barges could load the sand from Papohaku Beach, which happened to be just right for making concrete. The sand would be trucked to the top of a cliff overlooking the harbor where it would be dumped on a huge pile at the base of the 150-foot cliff and then loaded onto barges, Mickelwait recalled. Then the barges would be towed to Honolulu and the sand turned into Waikiki high-rises that locals derided as "californication."

In 1975, the state banned the removal of sand from Molokai and in the next three decades, the bay, one of the most protected in Hawaii, was left to the odd fishing boat or cruising yacht. It would have made a perfect small marina, with a restaurant and a couple of shop—except that when the Molokai Ranch proposed to develop it, they did it on such a grand scale that they were defeated by popular opposition.

After a dinner of Peking duck secured previously from Honolulu's Chinatown—the only downtown low-rise are left-- we tucked in for the night under a bright moon.

The wind shifted overnight, which wasn't a surprise: Lono Harbor was also the Hawaiian home of the lesser wind god, Laamaomao, who called for the winds from his calabash and sent them out in any direction he wished.

In the morning, we headed out to the roundish, one-volcano island of Lanai on a beam ranch. Today, Lanai is exactly what Molokai, where a large proportion of the population lives on food they grow, hunt or fish and prefers independence to cash, doesn't want to be. Virtually all of Lanai's 2,500 people depend on the two big resorts that replaced the world's largest pineapple plantation. As we cruised past the western coast, an endless, perfect and absolutely empty beach unfolded. We dropped the hook for lunch and snorkeled, marveling at the wealth of marine life compared to overfished Oahu. As we sailed on, the beach rose to a series of desolate, spectacular cliffs, culminating at 1,000 feet. Not long before we reached Manele Harbor, with its little marina, we passed a series of striking rock pinnacles and noted several good anchorages.

After dinner, we took a walk to the so-called Lanai at Manele Bay, a Four Seasons resort. It offers one of the most spectacular atriums in the world, not only spacious and airy, but studded with the personal collection of Asian art and antiquities of billionaire David Murdock, who bought the whole island and built Manele and another resort near the top of the volcano at over 3,000 feet. Particularly striking objets d'art were a pair of intricately carved elephant tusks from the 19th century and a gold-encrusted 17th century sedan chair from Japan—not your usual sailing trip discoveries.

The next day, we discovered a sort of tropical Giverny, whose pond was immortalized in Monet's paintings. On a perfect, deserted beach, a Maui company had built a day camp for its tourists, complete with a large, spring-fed pond and a lovely gazebo. The camp had been abandoned and the ground was littered with unpicked coconuts, one of which we opened and savored in the delicate, mottled light.

After lunch, we crossed the 10 miles to Maui, and it was no bumpier than the other crossings. We cruised past Lahaina, the former capital of Hawaii, which was preserved in part because it's not on a beach and in part because it's not a beach and in part because the Lahaina Historical Society fought hard to get developers to built their multi-story condos and hotels in the 10 miles north of Lahaina.

But Lahaina is no more real than its concrete cousin Waikiki: while the wooden buildings are authentic, their insides have been gutted to satiate the needs—or rather whimsical desires—of the 2.5 million tourists that flock there each year. In addition to the intense concentration of eateries, there are art galleries that sell infinite variations of paintings of dolphins and whales, along with one that sells side-by-side works by Picasso, Renoir, Anthony Quinn and Anthony Hopkins (yes, the actors). There is even a pair of galleries that specialize in huge, original European posters of the early 20th century. But don't look for a grocery store.

The waters off Lahaina are nicely protected and there's even a yacht club, perhaps the only one without a marina of any kind. It offers only a few moorings, a dozen Optimists and a pleasant woodsy restaurant.

Cruising off Lahaina, the students perfected their man-overboard techniques and a familiar shape glided by. It was America II, which unsuccessfully challenged Dennis Conner in 1987 for the America's Cup and now goes out each day laden with day-trippers, sort of like having a Secretariat take teenagers around the paddock. At the end of the day, we anchored near the heart of the condo and hotel strip at Kaanapali Beach, had an excellent martini at the Sheraton and brought back plenty of ice for the chest.

The next day we explored the eastern coast of Maui, spent the night at Honolua Bay, the island's premier destination, and watched our skipper dude catch a few gnarly waves.

The next day, we dropped the anchor at a roadstead at Pukoo, on the southeast coast of Molokai. It boasts a nice snorkeling reef, a general store and a postcard-pretty shallow lagoon with a sign that says “Private Lagoon.” It used to be a fishpond and even though the entrance has been dredged a few feet and small poser boat lives there, it remains private property, even though by law all of Hawaii's coastline is public.

Mike had kept the best for last: a cruise along Molokai's north shore to view up close the world's highest sea cliffs, which rise to a spectacular 3,300 feet. Thickly coated with native vegetation, they undulate like curtains and sprout high white waterfalls everywhere. We stopped in front of Halawa Valley and gaped. There's nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. And the only other way to see it is by helicopter, where the time to watch is measured in minutes, not hours.

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