Friday, July 22, 2011

First anchoring adventures on the Big Island

In our estimation, cruising in Hawaii is completely different from sailing in Mexico. We aren’t familiar with the weather patterns and there isn’t the well informed cruiser base of information we had in the Sea of Cortez. Still, we have much information to go with (Mehaffy cruising guide, Soggy Paws compendium, and NOAA weather radio) and are learning the patterns by observation with every day we are out. Since there is currently no lava flowing into the water around the very windy and exposed southern route, we chose to head north around the Big Island. To find safe anchorage, it is necessary to get around the northern point into the lee of the island which requires skirting the edge of the infamous Alenuihaha Channel where winds crossing the Pacific are funneled between the islands of Hawaii and Maui causing extremely increased wind and wave conditions.

Since 74-nm is a long way for us during daylight hours and we were hoping to avoid the afternoon winds in the Alenuihaha Channel, we decided to leave very early and make miles motoring until the winds filled in- expectedly around sun rise. Our alarms went off at midnight Thursday July 14th and we slowly organized to head out of Hilo Bay. As we pulled Rocky aboard around 0130, the sky opened for a wet send off. As usual, the rains passed quickly and we motored out of the harbor under the full moon. We were barely past the breakwall when Shawn spotted the first tug-towing-barge on its way toward the harbor. Smack in the middle of the shipping lanes, we set a course offshore to avoid and had barely relaxed after passing safely when Chris spotted a second round. This time, past Peepeekeo Point, we chose to pass on the island side of the tug and its barge so set course now toward shore. Once safely past, Chris took a sleeping shift and Shawn oogled the full moon, moonbows (yes, rainbows created by moonlight), the moon set and rainbows as the sunrise shone upon Mauna Kea.

By 0800 the trade winds had filled in with a solid 10 knots and up went the sails for an amazing sailing tour along the uninhabited and rarely visited northeast coast filled with extreme valleys. Shawn awoke from her cat nap to views of magnificent valleys cut into the island including Waipio Valley on the left, a wall of 11 (yes, eleven!!) waterfalls tumbling thousands of feet to the ocean and Waimanu Valley to the right. It was so beautiful that we just stared and kept trying to capture it with pictures as we enjoyed our downwind sail. Finally we spotted the ‘Upolo overlook we had stood at just over two weeks previous and quickly after we were passing the wind farm marking the north end of the island.

Of course did not manage to avoid the afternoon winds, so as we entered the channel and winds started to increase, we downsized sail area by dropping the main. We were lucky (and wouldn’t have done the passage if it had been forecast otherwise) to have only moderate tradewinds as when we rounded the island at about 1500 we saw solid 25 knot winds gusting to 30 with Tao flying under 80% jib alone. Then just as suddenly as the winds filled in, we were in the lee of Hawaii and had no wind at all. We chose to drop sail and motor in for ease of selecting an appropriate anchoring spot in these new-to-us anchoring conditions (finding large enough sand patches while avoiding commonplace lava, coral, and boulders). Nishimura Bay is amazing with a beautiful football sized patch of sand easy to anchor in. We set the hook in very light on-shore winds and watched the strange winds and swells over the next hour before the winds shifted 180-degrees to strongly off-shore. For the next two days conditions were the same, 15-knots gusting to 25+. Good to know that this is what this area sees with moderate tradewinds blowing.

We spent three nights and two days enjoying this amazing anchorage and had no idea how good these anchoring conditions actually were. Though it was windy, the set was solidly in the sand in a comfortable 35-ft of depth. It was crazy to look offshore to see the lumpy seas in the channel behind us and to realize how tenuous our hold to this island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is and how much open water lay behind us. We enjoyed wonderful views of Maui across the channel in the clouds, a reconstructed heiau (“religious temple” this one dedicated as a navigational aid used by the early Polynesians) on a cliff to the north of us, dramatic dark clouds sliding down the foothills of Maunu Kea creating rainbows each afternoon but no moisture ever reaching us in the anchorage, increased southerly swells and spectacular sunsets. Everything felt new here in conditions we were not familiar with, and we realize that Fatty and how the dinghy will perform under sail and rowing in different conditions is still relatively new to us (it was a bit awe-inspiring to think about the possibility of being swept out to sea in it). The first day Chris bravely explored rowing Fatty in the windy conditions and of course we found that Fatty’s hard bottom and keel allows so much less sideslip than Eeyore that rowing was easy in the conditions we had. He proceeded to scout possible landing areas for us to scramble ashore while Shawn baked bread and got more comfortable with each gust that didn’t budge Rocky’s hold in the sand below. The next day we spent exploring the area together first rowing a half mile to the neighboring Mahukona Harbor, filled with weekend revelers, for a snorkel and then gratefully back to Nishimura (which felt like our personal anchorage), to anchor Fatty, snorkel in and scramble ashore between swells. We spent several hours hiking along what was an old sugar cane plantation railway and other 4WD trails in the as-of-yet undeveloped open lands with million dollar water views.

Itching to find what we had understood as the “light wind” side of the island out of the wind tunnel we surely were still in, the next morning we sailed off the hook and headed south on the strong winds. After a mere hour of heavy winds and gusty sailing we passed a wind line and were becalmed. Good thing we had only planned to go a few miles so we had time to wait it out and see how the winds would fill in. We ate a nice egg and sausage brunch and an hour later onshore winds filled in and we had a beautiful sail south past Kawaihae Harbor (that apparently no longer allows anything but commercial traffic inside its breakwalls). Making such good time, we thought maybe we could make Honokohau by sunset, but as the land headed more westerly toward Keahole Point, it became apparent that it would be an upwind battle. So instead, we turned around and sailed into Puako Bay, at the base of Mauna Kea, which we had heard was a possible anchorage. We had also noted 4 anchored masts from offshore, so figured there must be a good spot.

Wanting to check out the entire area for a safe anchor spot we dropped sails, fired up Yannie, and slowly approached the reefs off Puako Bay toward the other anchored vessels. The water here is so clear you can see the bottom 50-ft away and the features appear to be near the surface. Ever so slowly we approached, Shawn watching off the bow and Chris watching the depth sounder, and crossed over the first dark area of rock with plenty of depth (30-ft). However, to get to the boats anchored in what looked like beautiful sandy bottom required repeatedly crossing over rocks and boulders that were getting shallower and shallower. It didn’t look like there was much room on the sand patch anyway and uncomfortable with the rapidly shallowing depths (13-ft below water line, that’s a mere 7-ft below our keel, was the shallowest we saw) we turned around and went back out to find our own nice sand patch in depths we were more comfortable with. After a bit of searching we found a good sized strip of sand where our anchor chain could lay completely on sand in the onshore winds. We dropped and set remarkably easily. Chris got his fins and snorkel and dove to check the set. All was well so we made ready for an evening in a roadstead anchorage putting out the flopper stopper to combat the roll. Abruptly the wind shifted to offshore and was immediately blowing 10 gusting to 15+ knots. As Tao turned around 180-degrees, our anchor chain snagged on the edge of one lone rock. Although frustrating we were grateful that the sun was still out and Chris was able to dive the 35-ft down to easily move the chain over the rock back into our private strip of sand. For the first time ever we were in a situation where more chain wasn’t necessarily better and we decided to pull some in so instead of our normal 5:1, only 4:1 (often quoted as recommended) scope. There was great star watching until the moon came up and the rest of the night winds were consistently strong offshore.

Although Rocky held solidly and our flopper stopper did its job well, it was an uncomfortable enough night on the hook that the next morning we were both ready to continue our southward trek in lieu of exploring the area. Sailing off the hook, we rode the strong offshore winds right out of any wind. We waited an hour drifting in the swells using little breezes that would come this way and that before we finally turned on the engine and motored toward shore where the winds finally filled in; unfortunately from the direction we were headed. All afternoon we enjoyably tacked southwest along the coast until we realized we didn’t have enough wind to get us to our goal before sunset. We decided to motor sail the rest of the way to Honokahau to ensure a good night of sleep and watched planes take off and land from the lava landing strip as we passed Keahole Point.

We reached Honokohau Harbor just before sunset Monday July 18th and did several passes searching for a possible sandy area outside the harbor where we had heard it was possible to anchor. Slim pickings, but we found one and dropped Rocky smack in the middle of it. As the sun set we were backing down to ensure the set and... it dragged! Another first, the sand layer must have been very thin. As the sun had now set we would no longer be able to dive to check our anchor set and since we had the option, we decided to motor into the harbor (we had phoned earlier just in case). It was a bit less-than-ideal to be coming in quite so late, but plenty of lights blazed and Chris had gratefully received good directions to an open mooring. We found ourselves in a tight basin and needed to back past the mooring for our bow into a 15-ft wide space between two small fishing boats. Thankfully the wind was calm, and after some tactical discussion while floating, Chris impressively managed to get us in first try. We did use the railing on one of the power boats to hold onto while Chris jumped off Moni to the dock to tie our two stern lines and Shawn grabbed the mooring with a boat hook to attach it to our bow. It was challenging but med-tied again we had a refreshingly calm night of sleep.


  1. Such cool pictures! I want to see a moonbow! Sounds like you're in a magical spot!

    Hugs all around,

  2. Every move and new bay is a story in itself. Thoroughly enjoyed, only wishing for a labeled map to stay oriented. The idea of finding patches of friendly sand for setting the hook is new to me...on the River I just try to avoid locations with goopy mud & seaweed mix. The pix are fantastic. Appreciate the humility of now hardened sailors learning new territory and environment. Thanks for the great post...Dad...

  3. Mum, none of my night pictures ever turn out, so no moonbow shots yet...

    Dad, you can see a labeled map by clicking on the "Our Current Track" tab, then select "hybrid" for the map type. We've been updating our anchored locations.

    Love to you both and thanks for checking the blog!