KEOUA’S NOVEMBER TO REMEMBER
By: Rafael Ramírez
January 1991, Kealakekua, Hawai’i
As the 1990 paddling year comes to an end, Keoua’s paddlers busily make plans to fight off the boredom following the October Turnover* in the Molokai Hoe Channel Race. We decide to reclaim the South Kona coast as ours, by undertaking a three-day paddling and camping expedition. We will launch our double-hulled canoe at Ka Lae, South Point on the Big Island and proceed northward to our home waters at Honaunau. After much discussion and input, the details begin to fall into place.
* During the Molokai Hoe in October, our escort boat, the Chop Suey Girl, belonging to Uncle Moses Kalilikane of Molokai, capsized in 10-foot seas nearing Portlock and was towed to Oahu. Most of our gear was lost at sea but our three alternates, support crew and our race official were picked up by a Coast Guard Auxiliary boat and taken to Waikiki, where they joined us several hours later. We paddled without changes for the final 2 ½ hours of the race.
We will paddle from Ka Lae to Kaupua’a, the green sand beach at Road to the Sea, and camp overnight. A support crew will meet us there with camping gear, food, drink, etc. On the second day, we will paddle to Honomalino and camp again with the aid of our support crew. Finally, on the third day, we will reach Honaunau and celebrate our journey.
On Thursday, November 15, we’ll trailer our canoes and surfskis to South Point, camp overnight and get an early start on Friday, November 16, for the first leg of our trip. We plan to arrive in Honaunau on Sunday, November 18, 1990.
We’ve decided to take Kanaloa and Keoua Elua, two of our fiberglass canoes, rigged together, as well as two surfskis and a surfboard lashed to the canoes. Everyone will bring free-diving gear, spears, and food/water for each leg of the trip. The support crew will transport the camping gear, main food & water supply, and anything that we can’t carry in the canoes, from one campsite to another. We’ll also take fishing rods for trolling along the way, a cross net, and cameras to document the journey. I decide to also bring a small, folding anchor and 60 feet of nylon rope, just in case…!
As the departure date draws near, we have about ten paddlers committed, some tentatively due to jobs, family obligations, etc. Finally, on the afternoon of November 15th, the canoes and surfskis are loaded on the trailer and transported to South Point to set up our first campsite, before embarking on our expedition the following morning. I will join them before daybreak on the 16th. In command of our crew is Kurtis Yamauchi, the head coach; the rest of the paddlers are Kawika “Running Bare” Spaulding, Dave Kermott, Steve Caverly, Big John Emrick, Iron James Goodman, Princess Diana Wolking, Danny Mack, Sam Fry, and Wild Bill Kinney, who joins us at the end of the first day’s paddle. The support crew consists of Katharine Howard and Luanne Trevina, who’ll transport our camping gear, food & water supplies, from one campsite to the next, as well as prepare the meals, a most important component of our trip.
IN THE BEGINNING- Friday, November 16th, 1990
There was heavy rain and wind as I approached South Point early in the pre-dawn darkness. I left home at 4 AM and reached the campsite near the Ka’u boat ramp at 5:30 AM. As I drove up, my headlights revealed a nomad like assortment of plastic tarps flapping in the cold wind, dome tents, and several half-awake heads peering from their sleeping bags. It had been a hard day’s night with plenty of wind-driven rain but by all accounts, an excellent dinner which made up for the discomfort.
As daybreak slowly approached, we exchanged greetings, lit the stove and started a pot of Kona coffee as well as oatmeal. One by one, our crew came out of their nests and began preparing for the long day ahead. After some coffee and oatmeal, we held a safety meeting and began breaking camp, moving the canoes to the boat ramp in order to rig them. Katharine loaded up all our camping gear and left since she had to go to work that day. She would meet us in late afternoon with Luanne and Wild Bill at Kaupua’a-Road to the Sea. We proceed to rig the canoes, load up all our gear and surf skis, as well as Danny’s surfboard, and by 7:30 AM, we’re ready to go!
Looking out to sea, there are whitecaps and a steady swell breaking just outside the small cove at Ka’u. After taking some photos and carrying the canoes down the slippery ramp, we each take our seats, grab our paddles and wait for the signal to begin from Kurtis. I say a silent prayer: “May no harm or danger befall upon us…” We see only one fishing boat out at sea and it looks like it’s on a roller coaster. It’s now 7:40 AM
“Paddles up… Huki!
Our canoe glides forward and meets a breaker head on; I up the stroke, we cut through a few more breakers and turn right, heading for the point. We slowly warm up as we paddle steadily towards Ka Lae and round the point. The canoe is moving smoothly through moderate though windy seas and in 35 minutes we have reached the cliffs at Kahuku and are out of the wind. We have made it past what we thought would be the hardest part of the journey so we stop to rest, hold a safety meeting and gaze at the beauty around us. The water is calm and crystal-clear and we see a honu taking a peek at us. On our way to the cliffs, we’ve also seen several large kaku- barracuda speeding on top of the water. These, we feel, are good luck signs.
Everyone is feeling great; Kurtis pulls out his fishing rods and prepares to troll when we resume paddling. However, one rod falls in the water and several paddlers jump in to retrieve it. After several dives, we realize that the bottom is almost 50 feet below us. We also begin to drift and lose sight of the rod. I don my mask, snorkel and fins, then jump in to look for it. Soon, one of the boys spots the pole and I swim to the canoe to get my anchor and rope. After several attempts to snag it with the anchor, the pole slowly comes up from the bottom; one of the divers meets it halfway and retrieves it. We laugh and celebrate our good fortune so far. We’d thought the anchor was extra weight on the trip!
We resume paddling and ten minutes later, hook up! Kurtis has a fish on the line and we stop paddling while he fights the fish. The pole is bent double as we maneuver the canoe towards open ocean to prevent the fish from diving for the bottom and snagging or breaking the line on the rough coral. After a 15-minute struggle, we see the leader coming up; Steve grabs it and the ulua comes alongside the canoe then lands inside. It looks like a 20 pounder! We take photos and celebrate again.
With our spirits high, the paddling seems easier, we’re making steady progress northward; we look around at the shoreline and the distant silhouette of Mauna Loa with its long black lava flows cascading down to meet the sea. They look like superhighways to the sky. The wind is picking up again and some water is coming in from time to time, as we head for the point north of the big cinder cone, Pu’u Ki, near Keliuli Bay. We paddle into a strong current with the wind at our backs, bailing sporadically. The waves are getting bigger and more water is coming in over the gunwales. We’re now bailing in earnest as we paddle, knowing that swamping could spell disaster and the end of our trip!
A big wave comes in and I feel the water level rising in the front of the canoe; Dave Kermott and I are stroking and we both yell, “bail water”. Another wave comes in and we jump out of the canoes to lighten the load. I check my watch; it’s 10:40 AM and the sky is hazy but with few clouds. We count heads to make sure everyone is OK and transfer all our gear from Kanaloa to Keoua Elua. While some of us try to bail out Kanaloa, the rest are gathering loose gear floating past us and holding on to the canoe hulls.
I see Diana with an armful of paddles, trying to swim to the canoe, so I send Danny after her with his surfboard. He collects the paddles and returns to the canoe. Meanwhile, Diana is swimming towards the canoe, but the current is making it difficult and she’s falling behind. By this time, we’re paddling and bailing, headed towards the nearest point, making almost no headway into the current. I am now steering Keoua Elua from the front seat, with Kanaloa on my left, full of water. There are three people in the canoe with me, paddling and bailing when necessary. We know that Keoua Elua must stay afloat if we want to make it to shore. I keep looking back for Diana; she still hasn’t reached the canoe. I ask if she’s OK but get no answer. Finally, Danny goes after her in the surfboard and brings her back. What a relief! Now, we can look forward and concentrate on getting to safety; we’re all working together, pushing and pulling the canoes, taking turns paddling and bailing.
After an hour of this, we spot a small Cessna flying overhead and wave our paddles. The pilot acknowledges us circling once and a dip of his wings. We are not alone now; he will radio for help. Soon, we see a trawler on the western horizon but it keeps going south; no help there! Another hour goes by and in the distance, we see a red & yellow chopper flying south following the highway. It turns and heads out to sea in our direction; finally, we think, help is on the way! The Fire & Rescue chopper swoops down and hovers above us, counting heads and assessing the situation. Dave is now on his surfski but they tell him not to wander away from the canoe; they want us to stay together for our own safety. A diver drops out of the chopper and swims to our canoe, asks if we’re OK. He tells us that a rescue boat has been launched from Keauhou but will take at least three hours to reach us. He suggests that we be taken ashore in the chopper, leaving two paddlers with the canoe. We assure him that we can make it, so he takes Diana aloft in a basket and drops her off on shore. The chopper then lands atop the cliffs and stands by while we continue to paddle towards Keliuli Bay and calmer waters. We seemed to be making no progress until the last 500 yards, when the current must have shifted and we finally reached a small shallow cove, out of the wind and current.
In minutes, we were able to bail the water out of Kanaloa and reinforce the rigging, which had come loose due to the stress and buffeting of the wind and current. We redistributed our gear in the two hulls and were ready to continue to the nearest beach so we could land the canoes and rest our tired arms. We’d been paddling and swimming for more than three hours without rest and the closest beach was still a mile away at Pohue Bay. The chopper agreed to meet us there, making sure that we were all safe. With Dave and Steve in their surf skis, we paddled on to Pohue Bay and landed for the first time since our departure at 7:40 AM. It was now after 2:00PM.
The beach at Pohue was a beautiful white sand beach with a small cabin belonging to Kahuku Ranch. We saw several honu in the water and a short exploration revealed an empty turtle nest with broken eggshells, near a crevice in the rocks. The chopper radioed the rescue boat to turn back, since we were confident that we could make it unassisted the last two miles to our campsite at the green sand beach near Road to the Sea. We were alone again but feeling strong and exuberant after our ordeal. We regrouped at the cabin, held a safety meeting, took some photos and prepared to paddle the 2 ½ miles to our campsite, where Katharine and Luanne would meet us with food and shelter.
With the two surfskis leading the way, we leave Pohue with eight paddlers in the canoe. The wind and waves pick up again but the canoe is handling a lot better it seems, without the extra weight. However, water is still coming in from time to time, so we bail constantly to make sure we don’t swamp again. In less than a half hour, we approach the green sand beach at Kaupua’a, where Dave and Steve land their surf skis and guide us in. I steer the canoe into the beach and we all jump out and pull it up on the sand.
The beach is so narrow that the bows of the two hulls are still in the water. We realize that with the pounding surf, we can’t leave them on the beach overnight. After some discussion, we unrig the canoes and carry each one to higher ground about 50 yards away, over an embankment, and onto the old coastline trail. Now it’s time to find a place out of the wind to set up camp and wait for our support crew. It’s now 4:00 PM and it has started to rain.
We reach a spot behind some rocks and huddle together for warmth, waiting for Katharine and Luanne. Kawika and a few others go exploring and come back, telling us that there’s a better, more sheltered place to set up camp. We pick up all our gear and move, only to return to our original site within minutes. It was much windier at the other spot, so we settle down, shivering until Luanne arrived at 4:30 PM. When her Wagoneer drove up, we all converged on the hood and hugged it for warmth; what a feeling! We showered Luanne with kisses and started telling her our story, while we pitched our tents and set up the stove, started a fire, etc.
A short while later, Katharine drove up with Wild Bill, the rest of our gear, and the food! Russ “the Doc” Reese had brought back some fresh moose meat from Wyoming and that would be part of our dinner that night, moose steaks! We also had a cooler full of Steinlagers so we held a safety meeting that lasted well into the night. With the wind blowing steadily all night, we had to decide whether it’d be safe to continue as planned the next day, or an alternative plan. We agreed to wait till morning to see how the weather and ocean looked. If it were too rough, we’d bring the trailer down and take the canoes to Miloli’i, where we’d camp that night to resume the final leg on Sunday. With that settled, we sat down to a hearty meal which included the ‘ulua that Kurtis had caught much earlier that day. Before long, everyone was cuddled up in their tents or sleeping bags, resting sore muscles and awaiting the next day.
SATURDAY MORNING, November 17, 1990
After a cold, windy night (but no rain), we wake up one by one and prepare breakfast. Looking out to sea, there are white caps everywhere and the waves seem bigger than the previous day. The small green sand beach where we landed yesterday is shimmering in the early morning light. Another honu surfaces and looks at us curiously, then dives in the clear blue water. I feel sore from sleeping on the ground and have a slight headache, probably from the beers the night before!
We discuss our options for the day and decide to trailer the canoes out of there and take them to Miloli’i. Danny and Luanne leave to get the trailer in Honaunau, while Katharine has to go to work. I catch a ride with her to Ka’u, where I left my car. I planned to meet the gang at Miloli’i but on the way there, it starts pouring rain and I have no wipers. My brakes are shot too, so the descent to Miloli’i would be dangerous, so I choose to go home and come back with my truck. When I get home, the truck is gone so I lie down to watch TV and fall asleep. I awake that evening, rested and ready to go but decide to leave early in the morning and rejoin the crew at Miloli’i before 7 AM. On Sunday morning, I head for Miloli’i at 6 AM; it has rained non-stop all night and the radio reports flooding on all roads island-wide. As I approach Miloli’i Road, I see Kurtis and Luanne’s trucks headed back to Kona. Halfway down to Miloli’i, I see the canoe out at sea already. Although it’s raining steadily, the ocean looks calm. I turn around and drive to the ‘ili’ili beach at Kaohe, hoping to intercept the canoes when they go by there.
After waiting for half an hour, the canoes come into view and I wave to them. Dave is on his surfski, closest to shore, but he doesn’t see or hear me. They continue on their way to Honaunau so I drive home to sit back and watch the Forty-Niners-Buccaneers game, capping a perfect Keoua weekend!