Maui to Oahu – The Near-Death Sleigh Ride to End the Season

Let me start by reminding ourselves and our fellow cruisers that sailing and schedules do not and should not be combined.  Passages should always be undertaken with due consideration to weather and local conditions.  Under no circumstance, other than life-threatening, should we put to sea to make the next port because of a schedule or deadline.  We have always held true to our rule that visitors can either choose a location OR a date to meet up with us; but NOT both.  This prevents us from pushing the boat in conditions we should not be out in by choice.  The rule has served us well….until last week, when we were up against a deadline to make Oahu to meet up with family who were visiting for Thanksgiving week.  In hindsight we should have spent the week in Lahaina and sailed into Oahu the following weekend.  Even if that meant not having ample time to clean up Ellie before the visit.  The story that follows is our punishment for breaking the aforementioned rule.  Neptune was paying attention to our temporary lapse in judgement and smacked us for it.

We sailed up the leeward side of Maui as far as the Kaanapali coast before hitting the headwinds barreling down the channel.  The trades were funneling down the Pailolo Channel between Maui and Molokai at about 30 knots gusting higher.  Ahead of us were a sea of white caps and short steep seas breaking every third set or so.  We put in a double reef in the main and sheeted the sail as flat as possible.  We furled the genoa completely away, raised the yankee on our inner stay, led the sheet outboard and sheeted it flat.  We decided we were ready for the channel and fell off.  The sails filled, Ellie heeled and bore off across the channel at 7 knots.  Even under this reduced canvas she was making too much way on a beam reach (the most powerful point of sail).  We only have two reef points in the main and this is the first time I have wished we had a third.  I decided it wasn’t putting a dangerous load on the rig yet so I would just hand steer and enjoy the roller coaster ride across the channel.  It was only 12 miles until we reached Molokai and what I thought would be the lee.  We were tearing across the channel with big wind and breaking seas pooping the cockpit every 5 minutes or so.  I was in full foulies hand steering.  We’re hardcore so we threw out a handline with a cedar plug on the end.  We were convinced we could get a mahi at these speeds and we were right.  After 15 minutes the bungee went tight and I called Lyss to come pull it in.  The conditions demanded 100% of my attention so she was on her own to get it in.  She put on her gloves and pulled in a three and a half foot mahi.  It was fresh so was wildly flapping and flailing on the side deck and was getting blood everywhere.  She flipped him over in her arms and bear hugged the beast!  We had heard this worked and now we have evidence it does.  It immediately calmed down.  We tail wrapped him, made some cuts and threw him over the leeward side to bleed out.  We were still tearing across the channel at 7-8 knots when Alyssa went to work cutting off the fillets and baggin’ up the meat.  She finished before we passed the eastern point of Molokai and had cleaned up most of the blood.  We were happy to have fresh fish for the first time since the Marquesas.

Turns out that the trades howl through the Pailolo channel and then split when they meet Lanai and turn down the coast of Molokai ripping down the Kalohi Channel, between Molokai and Lanai.  So instead of finding the lee we found more 30-35 knot winds and the same big seas.  The big difference was that we were now sailing with the wind on the starboard quarter so the motion and strain on Ellie and her rig was much less.  The wind was still at 30 knots apparent but we had a nice sail towards Lono Harbor, what we had thought would be our nice overnight anchorage.  Lono harbor is a manmade breakwater on the SW end of Molokai that was built so they could harvest sand from Molokai and take it to Oahu to create Waikiki Beach.  We read that you can enter Lono Harbor in most settled conditions.  So that was our planned destination.

Upon approaching Lono we started to see breaking waves.  We studied the breaking waves and saw they were breaking on the east side of the breakwater so we figured it was just the trades breaking on the wall – business as usual.  I looked at the chart and we had detail to enter the harbor and the entrance was 50 yards wide so I felt we had enough room to maneuver even if we were fighting high winds on the way in.  We got closer and could see a swell sometimes across the entrance but never breaking waves.  We decided it was safe and began closing with land.  When we were a half mile out I told Alyssa that I was noticing a large swell and we should keep an eye on it as we went in because a rogue set could catch us in the shallow water outside the breakwater entrance and that could be really bad.  We were in shallow water (25 feet), all lined up and less than a tenth of a mile out when Alyssa saw saw a barrel and yelled, “Oh My GOD!”.  I turned my head and almost had a heart attack.  I was staring at an 18 foot wave face and half of it was breaking in a huge barrel.  At this point we are less than 70 yards from the entrance and that wave was on a mission to break right where we were and crash into the entrance of the harbor.  I threw the wheel hard to port, spun Ellie around, lined her up with the wave face and nailed the engine to full throttle.  We climbed up the wave face with the breaking barrel only 15 yards to starboard.  Once at the crest we saw the next one coming and it was even bigger AND it was already breaking.  I bore off to port and then lined up with the face before it hit.  We made it over the wave before it closed out and we made haste for deep water.  Once in deep water it sunk in just how close we came not only from imminent shipwreck but very possibly death.  If we had been caught broadside to that breaking wave it most certainly would have rolled us and threw us into the rock breakwall.  We realized how foolish it had been to try and enter that harbor when a large swell was running and also how lucky we were just to be alive.

The trades were blowing too hard to try and beat back up the coast of Molokai so we resigned ourselves to a night at sea and decided to make Oahu by the next morning, tuck Ellie in a marina and go celebrate being alive.  The only catch was that to get to Oahu we had to cross the Kaiwi Channel….at night…with stiff trades blowing…and a huge NW swell.

The seas did not get huge until we cleared the lee of Molokai and were exposed to the full wrath of the stiff NE trades and gigantic NW swell.  That’s when the seas got very steep, confused, and started breaking.  The wind was at 33-38 sustained and we were running downwind with 1/3 of the jib poled out to port.  The wind had created 13-18 foot waves that were mixing from the N and E around the SW corner of Molokai.  This sea state combined with the NW swell to create huge, steep, washing machine seas.  We thought Ellie was handling the sea state well until a few breakers crashed into the cockpit.  That’s when I focused my hardest to take the optimum track down the wave faces and make sure we weren’t rounded up into the wind, which would have put us beam-to the seas and at risk for capsize.  I was focused on the next set of waves when we were lifted up the crest of a particularly large wave that broke while we were at the top and threw us into the trough below.  The whisker pole hit the water and dug in, shuttering the rig and completely stopping forward progress.  We were alarmed and confused at what happened which was quickly followed by realization.  I got Ellie lined up again and after getting back on course we looked the rig over and were elated to find no damage.  We thought the sail may have ripped from the force of the pole being pushed aft in the fall but the line leading from the pole to the bow held and saved the sail, pole and quite possibly the entire rig.

At this point we were startled and began thinking about other options.  Could we run for Lanai?  No – it was upwind.  Could we run back to the lee of Molokai?  No – also upwind.  Could we lay to our sea anchor?  Bad idea – can’t stay put in a shipping lane and the trades are forecast to get even stronger over the next two days.  Keep running dead downwind?  No – it’s a hell of a long way to the Marshall Islands.  The realization set in that the safest place to be was in the lee of Oahu, 60 more miles SW.  It was going to be a long night.

It got dark.  There was no moon to illuminate the waves to help line up the breakers.  We took turns at the helm for the next 8 hours.  Dodging shipping traffic outside Honolulu was an added bonus to all the fun we were having.  No sleep was going to be had that night.

We covered the 60 miles in record time and were safely in the lee of Oahu by 2:00 am.  The waves began to subside followed by the wind.  We motored into the lee of the island and dropped the hook behind a curve of sand in front of a powerplant.  We gave each other a hug and were exhausted but happy to be safely anchored after a very trying passage.    We also swore that we would never again violate our rule about pushing it to make a schedule or accommodate a visitor.  We also vowed never again to cross between islands when the trades are pumping.  Sailing in Hawaii is no joke!  We haven’t seen seas that large since we left Northern CA last year.  We were also very proud of Ellie; she is one tough boat to come through all that unscathed.

We are alive and well now in the beautiful Ko Olina Marina in Oahu.  It’s the most expensive marina we’ve ever been in but worth every penny as far as we’re concerned.  This is resort country club living at its finest.  Beaches, pools, grass, grills, showers, laundry, restaurants, live music, watering holes and most importantly: FLAT WATER.  Ellie is safe and we are cleaning her up and giving her some much deserved TLC.  She sure deserves it.  The old girl has seen us safely across over 9,000 miles of ocean in the past year.  Time for her to take a few months off.  I think we’ll join her.

We are spending Thanksgiving here at the marina with Alyssa’s family, who are flying out from California.  We’ll be flying back to California at the beginning of December to visit friends and family for the holiday’s.  We’ll be back in Oahu in January to get Ellie ready to head south again.  

We plan to be in the Line Islands by April, Cooks by May, Samoa beginning of June, Tonga by July, Fiji in September, New Caledonia in October, and Brisbane, Australia before the onset of cyclone season.  At least that’s the current plan.  Written in sand at the low tide mark. 

Everyone have a great holiday season!  We’ll write again when back and prepping Ellie for her next  adventure on the high seas.

I wish I could share pictures from that night but we were too focused on keeping the boat safe to take any.  Here is a shot of me in foulies in the lee of Maui and a shot of Ellie in her slip at Ko Olina Marina, our home for the winter.


Lewis & Alyssa

November 22, 2014

Ko Olina Marina, Oahu, Hawaii


Thank You

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