We were already sweating when we arrived at Honokohau Harbor in Kailua Kona on the big island of Hawaii. Our truck was loaded to the gunwales with gear, food and beverages for a weekend sail with our friends Brandon and Erin. My wife Joy quickly stowed the supplies on Happy Honu, our 27-foot Lufkin sloop. I busied myself opening sail bags while frenetically defending myself against our resident wasps with a cheap plastic oar.
I felt the wonderful elation of impending adventure as I fired up our little 10hp Suzuki outboard motor and shouted instructions to Brandon and Erin, who had never been sailing before, to throw off the dock lines. For those who have never had the pleasure of launching out of Kona, it is a hard fact that sailors are outnumbered at least 10 to 1 by the local fishermen, sport-fishing charter boats and a myriad of small paddling craft. Weekend traffic is intense and usually stressful.
We hadn’t made it 50 yards when the old Suzuki suddenly revved out of control. The tiller control was somehow locked in at full throttle, so I was forced to kill the motor, which left us drifting helplessly in the busy harbor channel. Joy grabbed the plastic oar and dug deep off the bow to paddle us toward the harbor wall. Seconds later I heard a loud expletive as the head of the paddle broke off under load.
Without further hesitation, Joy bolted belowdecks while I attempted to control our drift by sculling with the rudder. Our guests sat in the cockpit with sheepish grins on their faces, wondering if this was a usual occurrence. Soon we were putting wooden oars and boat hooks to work, inching our way toward the county dock. Once there, I took a good look inside the belly of the offending motor.
My brief inspection told me this would not be a quick fix. Years of UV radiation had taken its toll on the brittle plastic throttle gear at the base of the tiller and now it needed to be replaced. I hustled over to an excellent Filipino mechanic I knew who worked out of a hole-in-the-wall shop nearby. He held the rather pathetic part in his hand and slowly crushed it, then shook his head and uttered the two words every Hawaiian boater in need of parts dreads most: “Three weeks.”
Back at the dock, I discovered I could rig two wires to a throttle lever that did the real work of controlling the revs at the carburetor. I figured if I could bypass the plastic gear we’d be back in business. An hour later I fired up the motor and sat in the cockpit holding two wires, one wrapped around a bent fork and the other crimped onto a disposable Gillette razor. Razor go, fork stop—perfect.
“Are you sure about this?” asked my wife. Her tone was sarcastic, but also a little afraid.
A good yank on the razor served as my answer, and we bumbled out of the harbor. Once clear of the entrance, we hoisted the mainsail, cut the motor and enjoyed what I believe is one of the greatest sensations experienced by sentient beings—the first perfect moments of hearing water move along the hull of a boat under sail. We shared a few laughs over the morning’s escapades and decided that now, finally, we could enjoy our sailing weekend.
For the next few hours, that is exactly what we did. A sweet 10-12 knot southwest breeze allowed us to make our way northward without a single tack. As we passed the powdery white sands of Makalavena, the breeze stiffened to nearly 20 knots, and we enjoyed a good heel and some concentrated sail trimming.
Since we were all having so much fun, we decided to push on to the crystal clear lagoons of Kiholo Bay and risk arriving after dark. Unfortunately, as we headed north, the thermal wind created by the tropical sun beating down on all the black lava inland was rising fast. As soon as we hanked on a new, seemingly perfect-sized headsail, the wind increased just enough to overpower it. Finally, however, I saw Kiholo Bay and gybed to change course toward its pristine, protected waters.
Looking down the companionway, I could see Joy examining the chart. She soon came out and told me this wasn’t our destination after all. The howling wind barely masked our voices as we argued over the flogging chart. Against my better judgment, and despite the convincing evidence of a flashing black flag at an old waypoint logged on my handheld GPS, Joy convinced me we were still a few miles short of Kiholo Bay. So I tacked back out into the open ocean.
This proved to be a bad decision. As we rounded the next point, we came up against 10-foot swells and 30-plus knots of wind. Joy went forward and worked diligently to free a stuck halyard so she could douse the flogging headsail. With each cresting wave, her body was lifted clear off the foredeck. I told our guests to get on their life jackets and screamed over the spray for Joy to get back to the safety of the cockpit.
Under bare poles now, I fired up the outboard and turned back toward the calm of the last bay, whatever it was called. The huge following seas lifted the motor out of the water and then plunged it down, almost submerging it over and over again. Finally, it lost the battle, stopped running and would not start again. I struggled to raise it out of the water and pulled repeatedly at the starter cord until I slumped down exhausted. When I looked up again, I saw we were now less than 200 yards from some very ominous looking black cliffs, and that we were being pushed toward these cliffs by the waves and wind.
I sat for a moment and felt the six scared eyes of my crew scrutinizing their captain. Then I stood up and took a deep breath. “Right then!” I said out loud and pulled once, firmly and decisively, on the starter cord. Mercifully, the outboard responded, and we motored as quickly as possible into the lee of the cliffs.
As we made our way deeper into the bay, it became obvious that this had been Kiholo all along. I admit I now unleashed a heavy barrage of I-told-you-so’s in Joy’s direction. The ocean swells forced us to the back of the bay in search of a reasonable anchorage, and it was dark by the time we dropped anchor in less than 25 feet of water.
As we swung on the anchor the depthsounder sometimes dipped below 10 feet, so I was forced to lift our swing keel as a precaution. This made for an uncomfortable, rolly night aboard, and the howling wind rattling our shrouds did nothing to calm the frayed nerves of our guests. The next morning I dove in for a swim and found our anchor rode had wrapped itself around a razor-sharp coral head and had been reduced to string. Another hour and it would have parted.
We had a few more dramas on the way home. When I pulled the cord on the outboard, I watched as saltwater poured from a terrifying looking 6-inch crack down the shaft and wondered if it could get us home. I sent Brandon forward to hoist the anchor, and soon afterwards, as we heeled to a fair breeze, all my rode and the anchor slid off the deck into the briny. Brandon had simply coiled the rode and left it on the foredeck without tying anything off!
Three hours later, re-entering Honokohau Harbor, I was extremely glad the boat had a swing keel when some absentminded sailing in shoal water on my part led to a loud, but ultimately harmless grounding near the harbor mouth. In the end we had large grins on our faces and were wondering if anything else could possibly go wrong as we pulled into the dock after our exciting and rather expensive weekend with Mr. Murphy.