Nor can we, bereft of every sail,
Attempt to steer obliquely on the gale.
For then, if broaching sideward to the sea,
Our dropsied ship may founder by the lee;
No more obedient to the pilot’s power,
Th’ o’erwhelming wave may soon her frame devour…
Robert Falconer: The Shipwreck, 1762
“You should circumnavigate Oahu before you sail to another island.” This from Benny, a cigarette drooping from sun-cracked lips. His leather skin and bullet eyes were better proof of close trials at sea than any certificate. Without another word, I planned my circumnavigation of Oahu.
Her gleaming lines rode gently in the quiet waters of the lagoon. I stocked her with food, water, and fuel; charged the batteries, cleaned the bilge, checked the radios, and monitored the weather reports leading up to the trip. Sea state was 6 – 10 feet, winds to 20 knots on the windward side. I had sailed in such seas before and, while glad to be finished, was none the worse for wear. I hoped it would be so again.
At midnight I slipped the lines and motored like an otter through the sleeping marina and into the bay, the lights of Honolulu a dizzying blaze to port. The familiar harbor channels passed in succession, the lights of Waikiki yielding to the black heap of Diamond Head. Beyond the Diamond Head buoy the wind and swell grew stronger. I shut down the motor and reveled in the swishing of water past the hull as the sails gathered. Scudding clouds blotted the crescent moon and hid the oncoming swell, but the steady lurch and roll were familiar friends in the deepening night. Perched on a gunwhale with hiking stick in hand, I watched the slow approach of Koko Head. Occasionally a larger swell would slap the forward quarter, sending a shower of water across the deck and wetting the foot of the sail.
Beyond Koko Head I bore the full brunt of the northeast trades that funneled between Oahu and Molokai. I planned to sail this portion in the first hours of morning when the winds were temperate. My plan worked, I think. After knifing through the three foot chop of the bay to the Maginot swell of the trades, I donned my foul weather gear and gripped the rail like a fading love. With every few sets the height and timing of the swell set me up for aerials. Plummeting down the back of a roller and springing up the face of the next like a rubber ball, the wind would catch the sails and loft the prow skyward for lingering moments until she fell like a breeching whale into the next trough, whitewater curling outwards on all sides as the whole boat shuddered, spray soaking the lower half of the sail and running down my neck. Further out from Koko Head, the swells were heaping up, some with foaming breakers.
People crossed the Atlantic in open oarboats. People sailed the world in boats smaller than mine. She was well found and easy to handle. Nevertheless, thoughts of the hull snapping in two at the keel rose occasionally in the deepening night, far from the lights of land, pressed beneath black sea and black sky with no horizon for reference. My headlamp showed only heaping black water and beards of white foam. If she sank or I went overboard, the chance of surviving was poor. A foaming breaker slammed the hull, throwing her to starboard and sheeting off the sail while drenching me as I wrestled the tiller back over. In a half hour I would be windward of the reefs and could come about to north and skim the troughs, a decidedly better ride. For now I was constrained to endure. Another breaker hammered the forequarter, water skimming across the deck as it poured off the sail, this time soaking me through. A few minutes later a wave essentially washed over the deck, unseen until it hurtled into my chest, knocking my feet from under me, though my one hand held firmly to the rail as the torrent washed over me. Water played around my feet for a few seconds until it drained through the scuppers. Shaken, I quickly tied myself to the rail with a spare hank of rope, thankful my ship could double as a submarine.
Coming about to northward was like Christmas. In seconds the relentless thrashing of heaping breakers, invisible in the black night until they clubbed the boat, became a gentle roll from side to side. Sure, there were some splashes and thumps, but they call it beating to windward for a reason. I skimmed along on a beam reach, foam sizzling away from the bow in curling arcs. The Mokapu Light was capricious as I fell into the troughs, blotting all lights from shore until I rose to the next crest.
The lighthouse fell away and the rocks of Kaneohe came abeam with the first tendrils of morning light. Night gave way to cloud-covered day in one long diffusion. I rounded Moku-Manu Rock and ran before the breeze to the treacherous channel of Kaneohe Bay. Dropping the sails, I motored slowly through the long channel, wary of the many coral heads. I had scouted the channel and had good charts, but it’s different when it’s your own boat and your mind is hamburger.
After an hour of tense navigation, I dropped anchor under the lee of a beautiful sand spit and backed down to make sure the anchor was fast. Satisfied, I shut down, turned off the running lights, hung my clothes to dry, finished my water bottle, and collapsed in exhaustion on the bunk. Sleep began to wash over me as the gentle lapping of waves washed the hull, the strain of the night released, my mind unspooling. Even as my body relaxed into the cushions and I felt my head roll to the side, something clicked on the edge of consciousness. Something out of sorts. Remembering the lessons of Blackthorne in James Clavell’s Shogun, I fought my way back to consciousness from the warm depths and rose to my wobbly feet. Pulling myself up through the companionway to the cockpit, needles of electricity shot through me as I saw coral heads hard astern. In a flash the engine roared and I punched it, prop wash burbling over the edge of the reef only a few feet away from the delicate rudder. I motored back to the sand bar, put it in neutral, and began hauling in the rode as she drifted towards the coral again. I pulled until I came close, then motored forward to the spit, drifted back while hauling in more, and finished hauling on the third pass. This time I nosed delicately up to the spit, the sandy bottom clearly visible in the clean water, and dropped anchor on dry sand. Drifting back, I let out sufficient scope and backed down until I saw the anchor tunnel deep into the heavy sand, as secure as it gets. Sitting at the helm for a spell to make bloody sure all was fast, I retired again to the cushions. Sleep was slow in coming, though, and fitful when it arrived. My mind was rattled by the close call; hitting the coral would have done terrible damage to the rudder and prop. Coral was everywhere – there was no option but to risk it. As I tossed and turned on the bunk, the sun burned through the overcast sky and heated the boat like a floating oven. With sweat trickling down my arms, I rose to the day. Bleary eyed and dehydrated, I tried to fill my water bottle. The 20 gallon reservoir was empty. Examining the tank, I found a hose clamp that had worked loose from the night’s pounding. Fixing the clamp was easy. Filling the tank would require a detour. Fortunately there was a small marina at the other end of the bay. I could fill up there, though it would add a few hours to the next leg of the voyage. I weighed anchor with sweat running off me and thirst building.
Motoring into the wind, I stacked the fenders on the port side, threaded through the moored boats and tied up without incident to a dilapidated dock in the strengthening afternoon wind. Mercifully they had a water hose that just reached the water tank through the forward hatch. In 20 minutes I shoved off, running back to the sand bar to wait out the worst of the afternoon winds and try to get a little sleep. The winds died after sunset and I rousted from my sauna for the next leg. I hustled back to the cockpit after weighing anchor and guided her through the coral heads to the channel, where I hoisted main and jib. Sailing smartly on a close reach, I exited the channel into moderate swell and steady winds, turning northeast after gaining leeway on the rocky coast. Clouds blotted the stars but the few lights of shore slid past with pleasing speed as I perched comfortably against a stanchion while long – period swell rolled placidly beneath the hull. Headlights appeared and disappeared on occasion, a comforting sign even a few miles away. If the ship sank, I would simply drift towards shore with the wind and swell, a much better situation than in the channel between the islands, where the next landfall would have been an island of human trash floating in the middle of the Pacific Gyre. Further into the night the wind picked up. No more lounging against the stanchion; I was back on my feet, rail in one hand, tiller in the other. The jib had slackened and the shape was showing wrinkles. Before things grew any worse, I decided to go forward and fix it. Bad news never gets better with time. Setting the autopilot, I gripped the rail against the possibility of a rogue wave washing the deck and wrapped my legs around the base of the mast like a Buddhist and prayed to the winch gods as a squall blew through – huge drops splattering my face as I cranked, pulling the luff tight. A heavy set rolled through as I finished, the boat careening into the trough, water ploughing across the deck and washing my feet as I clutched the mast. I couldn’t distinguish between water and sky in the dark, so I couldn’t tell if the next wave would be large or small. Afraid it would be larger, I dared not risk getting caught trying to move back to the cockpit. I clung white-knuckled as the bow shot skyward and plunged again, the anchor and bow disappearing into the wave, though not as deep as last time. Skyward again, then down, though only the anchor dipped. Then again, but the bow stayed dry. I pushed off the mast with my feet as I laid back on the deck, grabbed the rail, and let my body slide around until my legs dropped into the cockpit like the Dukes of Hazzard. I fell off into a broad reach and enjoyed a few hours of fine sailing.
While rounding the north point of the island, a heavy squall pounded me with squirrely winds, heavy rain, and heaping waves that made the deck heave and roll in a paroxysm of St. Vitus. Once about to the north shore, I relaxed with the quiet of the deep night and the simplicity of the run. My reverie was shattered when a stray gust jibed the main, nearly tearing the traveler from the deck. I regained the boat and inspected the rigging for damage. With everything intact, I pressed on with a sharp eye to weather. I recalled the words of my surfing friends with force: Never turn your back on the sea.
The shore skimmed past as the clouds thinned in the pre-dawn hours. Haleiwa fell abeam as the first grey of dawn filtered over the mountains from the east. Waimea Bay offered some shelter, but I had never anchored there. Feeling energized by the morning light and the promise of a clearing day, I pressed on for the western shore.
Lying becalmed in the glassy waters off Kaena Point a few hours later, I questioned my decision. Fatigued and pushed about by the surly currents in glass-calm water, I thought of starting the motor, but I wanted to see how it would play out. I considered the explorers of old who crossed the equator, working their way through the doldrums over the course of weeks. What mental anguish they must have suffered, not knowing if they would live through their voyage as water and food dwindled. Becalmed for only 30 minutes was frustrating enough. In time the current bore me round the point and into a new breeze. I trimmed the sails and slowly made way southeast down the Waianae coast, standing well off to stay in the strongest breezes until Pokai Bay. Motoring between a shallow reef and a jetty, I anchored in a picturesque cove. People played on the beach, their laughter carrying to me on gentle morning breezes. The sun was bright and the cabin roasting, even with the hatches open and handfuls of water splashed across the deck as a sort of redneck swamp cooler. I laid in the cockpit under the shade of the bimini, sweating steadily but happy to be back in familiar territory. Though the voyage home from here would be mostly to windward, I had done it several times before. If now hot, uncomfortable, dirty, and smelly, at least the worst was behind me. I swam around the boat to cool off and rinse away some of the grime, then snoozed on and off through the afternoon. Around sunset I cooked some pasta, my first hot food in a few days, and waved to other boaters who had anchored for the afternoon.
Refreshed by catnaps, hot food, and a resplendent sunset over the stern rail, I weighed anchor and sailed out of the bay on an easy run. Once in the open, she sailed a happy reach down past Electric Beach and around Barber’s Point, into the oncoming wind and swell from the south side of the island. The sodium glow of industrial lighting stretched from Barber’s Point through Ewa and Pearl Harbor to Honolulu Harbor, adjacent to my little slip. The peace of the west side gave way to a pounding swell, steady wind, and the glare of civilization. I hammered through the swell for seven hours, wondering at the strength of the wind, grateful I hadn’t tried it during the day when it would have been stronger. Closing in on the channel, I fired the engine, motored between
two enormous cargo ships anchored off the airport, and slipped quietly into the long ribbon of Keehi Channel. Exhausted from the long beat to windward, I watched dumbly as the channel markers glided past like sentinels. Knowing my senses were dulled, I fought the urge to rush, keeping careful watch. Cutting the engine at the entrance to the marina, I ghosted through the obsidian water to arrive as gently as an afterthought in my slip. Stepping off to the dock, I brought her to a stop with one hand and made her fast. Squaring away sails and electronics, I showered and plunged into deep, dreamless sleep after the trick.