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CAVEMAN'S MEDIA

HURRICANE JOHN

John "Caveman" Gray
Action Asia Magazine, October 1995

   
 

"I'm still alive!" - Amporn Mongkun Gray, 1994

 

Author's Note: Sorry to say that during the best action I could not afford to drop my paddle and shoot photos.

   
 

Halawa Bay one day after John

 

"Brah, you not really go out today?"

I heard the same line twenty times. Every teenager on Moloka' i was at Halawa Bay checking out the giant summer swells, an August aberration. The surf shook the ground under our feet, and of course, when they saw me assembling my Sea Explorer inflatable kayak, everyone asked the inevitable. Would I actually launch today?

"Don't worry, I won't take a chance." After a while, it became a rote response to the predictable question.

   

Amporn enjoyed the rough seas

 

Koolau (Windward) Moloka'i's exposed seas, endless boulder beaches and complicated bays are perfectly angled to accept the full force of the powerful "Moloka'i Express" - and form a legendary study in rough water sea kayaking. The coast was made famous by Audrey Sutherland in her classic book "Paddling My Own Canoe" and my 1985 KGMB-TV Emmy Award winning documentary "Moloka'i's Forgotten Frontier" (produced by Mike May and Gary Sprinkle.)

Underestimating Moloka'i is to risk your life. Flippant attitudes, cheap equipment and a lack of seamanship skills led to several nasty injuries in the past decade. August is usually the calmest month on this most rugged of all Hawaiian coastlines, but even "normal" 4-6 foot seas with 15-25 knot tradewinds can be testy.

This day was definitely not "August" calm. The waters west of Baja form about a dozen hurricanes each June to October. Most pass south of the Hawaiian Islands, remembered only by weathermen. However, Murphy's Law of Tightly Scheduled Expeditions said my Moloka'i Homecoming would coincide with Hurricane John. The National Weather Service Marine Advisory for August 24 was 12-18 foot seas, 30-40 knot gusts and Small Craft Warnings. I would cancel a commercial trip, but after five years, I'd traveled all the way from Thailand to paddle my favorite coastline. Caution is my Password, but Small Craft Warnings weren't about to stop me.

From the moment I saw John's satellite photos in California, I knew our destinies were intertwined. I tracked hurricanes for eight years before I moved to Thailand, and I didn't like the picture I first saw ten days ago. Even as a baby off Mexico, the storm looked evil. I froze when I heard its name - John.

   
 

Unfortunately, my long range forecasting is still right-on. John became a giant. On August 23, the scheduled departure, my namesake passed South Point with 150-mph winds. Luckily, the Islands experienced only side effects - small craft warnings, a Big Island flash flood watch, and winter skies on summer days. The tropical skies were leaden and filled with rain, winds were gusting up to 50 knots, and the interisland channels were running 20-foot seas. The satellite said the storm was passing, so I postponed our departure one day.

On August 24th, John's Eye was southwest of the Islands. Theoretically, North-East shores were in the lee of the storm, but the cyclonic storm's outer swirls still drilled Moloka'i's East End with head-on fury, and it wasn't going to stop. Intense gusts would fill the vacuum behind the hurricane for several days, blowing choppy whitecaps off high, short frequency confusion.

I paddled 75 or 80 commercial trips down Koolau Moloka'i, and I wouldn't even consider these conditions in hard-shells. (The only decked boat I ever saw on the coast was limping home with a two-foot crack and plenty of duct tape.) However, with the extra-tough, stable Sea Explorer inflatables, today was a 50-50% probability.

I called Hank Young at Molokai Air Shuttle to see if he was flying. Hank grew up flying small planes inter-island and knows Hawaii's skies as well as anybody. Hank said it was a go.

I expected a true rock and roll experience in his five passenger Cessna 402, but Hank is a great pilot. The toughest part was finding the small check-in counter on the backside of Honolulu International. In the air, Hank found a corridor of strong but consistent headwinds, and the flight was surprisingly smooth. Curse or blessing, from 5,000 feet, we had an excellent view down upon a blanket of whitecaps. Individual swells were visible from up here, and they were big. There wasn't a lot of talking.

Just before we landed at Molokai "International", I realized I hadn't seen a single boat - or ship - between Oahu and Molokai. Of all the boatmen in Hawai'i, I was singular in my commitment, and wondered if I was truly stupid.

   

Even protected Ha'upu Bay was frothing

 

I accepted that I might get all the way to the beach at Halawa, and abort. From the lookout, 1,500 feet up, the water looked rough, but negotiable. I felt lucky. But from the beach, the sea was downright intimidating. Thick mountains of dark green liquid swelled above the horizon, with steep faces, short frequency and deep troughs. Sometimes the giants crested and pitched forward 400 meters out with ground shaking fury. Sometimes they backed off into carpets of foam that dissipated harmlessly until they reformed as 12 foot shore break. Unfortunately, there were no breaks between the waves. The sea was such a mess there was no predicting which direction a wave would fall until it actually collapsed.

Imaging myself before these monsters, I wondered how far I could paddle vertically - if I even made it past the inside break.

The swells amplified as they wedged into the bay, making it impossible to determine their actual height. Two decades on O'ahu's North Shore told me 20-24 feet, but big, thick and awesome is enough. Far outside, a mountain collapsed and closed out the entire bay.

I love this washing machine muck - when I'm looking out only for myself. This trip, I was responsible for three other lives. Things didn't look good.

   
 

The second boat - the Blue Bathtub - was piloted by Lorene Barry, an experienced, confident paddler and Emergency Room/Intensive Care nurse. Lorene's partner, Renee Plaisted, also works Emergency. This was Renee's first try at sea kayaking, but she lifts weights and she's in Lorene's stable inflatable. My unflappable bride, Amporn, is my paddling partner. An experienced white-water explorer and calm water sea kayaker, this will be Amporn's first try at big water. Weighing in at less than 90 pounds, Amporn won't be put-ting much torque into vertical faces.

These ladies were mentally prepared for the awesome "Power of Nature" scene before us. On our "postponement" day, we had a frank discussion of what to expect. One possibility was that we would spend our time and money flying to Moloka'i and driving to Halawa, only to abort on the beach. Another was that we could launch, yet still have a rough ride for all four days. The worst possible scenario was that it would still be rough on the last day, and we would land at Waikolu Beach, protected but almost two miles short of Kalaupapa, and portage the kayaks and gear across the large, jagged, loose rocks. All three ladies had a prudent yet confident attitude, said they were ready for the waves, and looked forward to the adventure. I believed they wouldn't panic in a tight spot, and would help if we did have that nasty portage.

We confirmed our flight.

Van Dudoit from Kukui Tours met us at "Moloka'i International". On the way to Halawa, we passed Cousin Junior's house. "Junior" Dudoit, owner of the toughest boat in these waters, is a Search and Rescue Captain for Maui County Fire Department. Van noticed Junior was on the water. Was it business or pleasure?

   

Junior said we could make it.
if we survived Halawa

 

Just before we dropped into Halawa Valley, we stopped for photos at the Lookout, elevation 1,500 feet. The sea was a mess. A curtain of foam lined the rocky Koolau (Windward) coastline. White water almost filled the Bay's small channel, leaving a tempting 10 meters of green water. Unfortunately, for hundreds of meters "outside", huge swells collapsed across the channel entrance, reforming on the boulders as shorebreak. There was even surf inside the cove.

Getting out of Halawa was no problem - for the first fifty meters. After that, we had to paddle through another 400 meters of cresting breakers. It wasn't a pleasant sight.

As we inflated the kayaks, Junior rounded Lamaloa Head in his Raden and bounced into the Bay. I laughed - even dead on into a hurricane, knowledge, equipment and brass balls are everything at sea. I ran to the channel entrance for a brief conference. Yes, Junior weathered the storm at his fish camp, and yes, if we got through the surf he though we could make the trip safely in our heavy-duty inflatables. After the hellos of five years past, Junior dropped into the channel, waited for an opening, then gunned his twin Z-drive across the peaks of the cresting breakers. In 30 seconds, he was beyond the Impact Zone and on his way home.

Once Junior rounded the East End, the water was really rough.

   

Our reward was the sea caves of Ha'upu

 

Paddling into the current and the wind, Junior's 30 seconds would take us at least fifteen minutes. We had a 10% chance of avoiding a crunch job - not very good odds when the backdrop is gray boulders rolling around in huge surf. Even if we survived the wipe out, a mountain of water dismembering our equipment could muck up a good trip. I decided to wait for the winds to drop off in the late afternoon - if they did at all.

We spent hours studying the huge breakers, imagining ourselves in front of these crumbling avalanches, unable to punch through six feet of falling foam as we fell backwards over the falls in our fully loaded kayaks. I wasn't thrilled with the scenario.

Finally, Hurricane John pushed far enough west that the East End blocked some wind. A relatively calm spot developed in the wind shadow, and the shorebreak was passable. After an hour of observation, it looked like we could sneak along the cliffs far enough offshore to make a 200-yard burst through the impact zone and into those 12-18 foot open seas. Lorene and Renee spent an hour practicing in the surf breaking inside Halawa Bay, and felt they could make it, so we decided to give it a go.

After an easy launch, we regrouped in our wind shadow refuge.

   

Even the lee was exciting

 

There wasn't any white water, but the currents rebounding off the cliffs created a confused chop that kept our teeth bouncing while we waited for a break. There weren't any - just endless lines of huge waves, some breaking, some not. I tentatively paddled out of our "refuge" directly into the stiff wind, inched closer to the swell and finally had a go at it. I yelled "Paddle! Paddle! Paddle" and gunned the Sea Explorer into the dramatic overhead troughs. In the front seat, Amporn paddled for her life up the vertical faces of cresting waves. With the outcome in question, I paddled furiously. At the crest of each wave, our momentum propelled the bow - with Amporn in it - six feet into the skies before slamming the flat bottom down onto the waves' equally steep backside with a great jolt and a loud report. Twice, with bow and Bride airborne beyond the wave, I punched through white water as the giant began to crash. The wave faces were triple the length of our 20 foot kayak. In the troughs, there was nothing to see but green. As long as we weren't in breaking waves, I loved this natural rollercoaster.

But whenever we just beat a wave, I worried about Lorene and Renee, 50 meters back in the Blue Bathtub. Each time I looked, they were still there, dropping back a bit, but still smiling.

   

Red sky at night, sailor's delight. ?

 

The huge slop was so messy it was difficult to decide when we broke through the surf line. We were in deep water, hopefully beyond the breakers, but the troughs were still monstrous, and huge, thick whitecaps were crumbling all around us. I didn't want to take a chance, and torqued out another 200 meters as fast as I could.

It didn't make any difference. Conditions were the same further out.

We regrouped with Lorene and Renee. I was worried they might be scared. The nurses were wet, smiling and so high they might as well have won the Super Bowl. They shouted that they had punched through three breakers and were driven backwards, but never overturned. I've been there, but never in surf this big. Sucking backwards downhill in foam, knowing that a capsize dumping you into who knows what, is a sickening feeling. We were lucky.

Or were we. Even outside it was uncomfortable. The skies were gray, the wind was blowing like a whistle at a mine disaster, and a light rain mixed with salt spray peppered our faces. I glanced back at Halawa, beautiful even in this weather, and decided it would be foolish to return through that surf. The next safe take-out was our planned landing at Junior's Hakahano fish camp, five miles down the coast in a protected cove. We had two hours of daylight to get there.

My concern switched to the crosswinds hitting us from the right. Inflatables are great in big, angry seas if they aren't caught in breaking surf. Now, giant surf was pounding Lamaloa Head's boulder beach off my left shoulder. To avoid this Mixmaster, we had to sideslip into the strong wind, grinding far enough out to sea to get blown around the point with a safe clearance. The penalty for misjudgment or lack of effort was an almost certainly fatal dump in the breathtaking shorebreak crashing on Lamaloa's boulder beach.

We punched straight into the roller coaster slop, blown sideways two meters for each one out to sea. I kept a cautious look at Lamaloa, and finally knew I had no trouble clearing the Point. I looked forward to the downwind sleigh ride, using the elements instead of fighting them. But about 200 meters before our portside downwind turn, Lorene called out, "I'm exhausted, and can't paddle any more."

   

In near darkness, Papalaua never looked better

 

The surf was breaking 200 meters out. Resting here would blow her straight downwind into the rocks at the point, but not around it. I yelled back "The seas are to rough for a tow, and the Ocean doesn't care how tired you are, so Paddle or Die!"

Threat of Death is an amazing motivator. Everyone paddled a little harder, and we soon turned down-wind. The rest of the day was a sleighride (for me, anyway), up and down waves, whitecaps occasionally breaking over our boats, with the elements rapidly

pushing us towards our protected landing. The sea was still too rough to take pictures, but we had plenty of time to enjoy the cliffs, pregnant with Hurricane rains that created countless 2,000-foot waterfalls.

This "tension release" time could have been bliss, but Amporn was sick as a slug on salt. Bonine works wonders on motion sickness, but doesn't do much for raw fright. She was lobbying hard for a fast traverse, but I couldn't desert our companions. My considerations were three-fold - navigating our own kayak; Lorene and Renee's safety; and getting Amporn to shore in time to save our marriage. (Happy Honeymoon, Sweetheart!)

   
 

Haka'a'ano Bay is protected in the summer

We rounded Haka'a'ano Point at Sunset, just in time to catch a glimpse of Papalaua Falls dropping into the dramatic, angular valley of its creation. The sight suddenly made the fear worthwhile and at last light we found ourselves inside the calm bay, the winds gently pushing us to our soft landing on the hard rocks of Hakahano.

Junior's fish camp never looked so good.

We unloaded the boats, set up inside the lean-to, and Amporn immediately disappeared into the darkness.

I soon found Amporn sitting on the all rock beach, to angry to talk - for what?

   
 

The next morning, when I asked Amporn why she wasn't speaking to me, this unflappable explorer of deep-sea caves and first-descent white water said, "Why should I talk to you. You tried to kill me yesterday!" I checked with Lorene and Renee, and was gratified to find the vote was only 1-2 against my execution. Of course, after they insisted on making this trip, what could they say?

   
 

Papalua with Bruce, 1984

We forgot the hike to Papalaua Falls when we postponed a day. It was just as well. The slippery walk along the surf-spattered boulders was dangerous, with a high probability of rocks falling off the 1,000-foot cliff after a major storm. The streambed is the only trail, and the waters were high and strong after the heavy rains. Flash floods are common, and time was short. We passed on swimming at the base of Papalaua's 1,350-foot high falls until next year. Papalaua hosted many of my favorite memories, so forgetting the hike was a tough decision.

We rounded Haka'a'ano Point at Sunset, just in time to catch a glimpse of Papalaua Falls dropping into the dramatic, angular valley of its creation. The sight suddenly made the fear worthwhile and at last light we found ourselves inside the calm bay, the winds gently pushing us to our soft landing on the hard rocks of Hakahano.

Junior's fish camp never looked so good.

We unloaded the boats, set up inside the lean-to, and Amporn immediately disappeared into the darkness.

I soon found Amporn sitting on the all rock beach, to angry to talk - for what?

   

Papalaua Aerial, 1983

 

Watching the surf crash on the rocks at Papalaua, I remembered the folks who crossed from Maui in their Zodiac. After spending the day, they capsized in the surf, lost their motor and were stranded for a week. Their "ordeal by starvation" made Honolulu headlines once Junior rescued them  - in the same valley where we fill our T-shirts with Mountain apples, mangoes, guavas and berries. Hungry folks can fish prawns from the stream and pop Opihi, a Hawaiian shellfish delicacy, from the rocks at the beach.

Everybody wanted Papalaua photos from their kayaks, so we had a serious discussion before we launched. Haka'a'ano was calm, but there were plenty of swells and whitecaps on the outside, and I was worried about the windage again. If we got lost in our photography, the winds might blow us into the surf at Kikipua Point. We decided to go for it.

     
 

Papalaua after Hurricane John

 

Of course, we cut it to close for comfort, so we put our heads down and ground into the wind. The paddle was nowhere near as intense as yesterday - only 15 minutes of headwind paddling - and we easily made it around Kikipua. Our reward was Kahiwa Falls, at 1,750 feet, the highest continuous falls in Hawai'i. Kikipua, site of an ancient Hawaiian heiau, is a magic place. The waters outside the point break were rough, but no problem compared to yesterday.

     
 

Ko'olau Moloka'i - Haka'a'ano lee off Kikipua with 1,700 ft Kahiwa Falls to Haloku

 

From Kikipua Point, our heading was directly downwind to Ha'upu Peak, a sheer sea cliff rising to a pointed pyramid easily visible against the 4,000 foot mountains beyond it. The downwind paddle was rough, but fun. We passed two majestic Hawaiian amphitheater valleys, Wailau and Pelekunu, and Haloku, site of the world's tallest sea cliffs. After the big rain, there were a dozen waterfalls dropping off the 3,000-foot cliffs.

     
 

Haloku Cliffs - 3,250 feet (1,000m.) - World's tallest sea cliffs, and difficult photos

 

Haloku is the largest rock I know. Nine-mile deep Wailau Valley cuts the cliffs on Haloku's East side, and six-mile Pelekunu Valley wraps around the West Face to join Wailau in the back. On top, a plateau of thick rain forest slopes down from 4,602 feet to the massive face of sea cliffs at the 3,250-foot level. Those five miles of sea cliffs completes the virtually impassable circle of cliffs. The plateau - 60 miles from downtown Honolulu - is one of the least traveled spots on the Planet.

I know of only one passage, a razor-edge "trail" that rises straight up the cliffs. On a video shoot, I once helicoptered over the thick carpet of still-virgin rain forest, never expecting and never seeing any trace of human activity.

This stubborn rock is several thousand times the mass of the Rock of Gibraltar. Tough as it is the cliff once started at sea level. Two million years of battering from the prevailing winds and the Moloka'i Express surrender the cliffs back to their current 1,000 meter height.

We were in "big shark" country a mile offshore, riding the full force of the Moloka'i Express across those 12-18 foot seas. (On a 1986 commercial trip, an 18-20 foot Tiger Shark panhandling a handout of poisson crue' nuzzled my kayak at this very spot.) An occasional whitecap filled our boats with foam, but we knew we were safe. Strangely enough, the sun came out and we could see the top of Haloku through the storm clouds, a rare occurrence even in good weather.

   

Big, but not rough

 

Except for Amporn's seasickness, we all had a great time coasting across the giant swells, taking in the massive grandeur of these huge cliffs. The wind, white caps and salt spray all contributed to an element of excitement, but we were relaxed, laughing, joking and in huge overhead troughs. While I was navigating the kayak, I spun around and shot the Blue boat on a crest, but cropped off the bottom half of the trough. It was my only chance to get a full stern shot. Paddling this giant rocking chair made life great, but the others didn't know about the "Pelekunu Rebound".

At Haloku's Western reach, Pelekunu's Umilehi Point juts half a mile into the Moloka'i Express. The ocean roars down the coast and bounces straight offshore back into the heart of the current. The volume of water is beyond estimate, and the resulting chop - up to another mile offshore - is the craziest deep water I know. On calm days, a well-defined chop line splits the open sea where the two currents converge at Mokohola Rocks.

   
 

Calm enough to take a photo

Amporn was enjoying Haloku's waterfalls, and didn't see the chop line coming. Entering the convergence reminds me of dropping into white water rapids, except these seas were pandemonium, whereas rivers are usually smooth above the rapids. If the rough seas weren't exciting enough, the kayak was immediately buffeted by thousands of tall, elongated "haystack" white caps rising out of nowhere. The first time I ever entered waters this confused - shooting the gap off Kauai's Kialuea Point on a wintertime north swell - I wondered if I would survive. I discovered that in the positive buoyancy inflatable, the haystack trying to capsize you from one side is counter-balanced by the chop trying to get you from the opposite side. You get bounced around like an antique jet struggling through the sound barrier - disconcerting at first, but fun once you realize you aren't going to die.

Even though I love this stuff, I worry for any other boats. I don't want to be forced into an open ocean rescue in these unswimmable waters, especially if I have to turn and fight back upwind. Photos are out of the question, and as we ride across this mile of craziness, I make certain everything is tied down and life vests are on. I told Lorene to come up to 20 yards (any closer might cause a collision), but the Blue Bathtub was rarely visible even from this close.

     
 

I decided that if we survived a mile of "Rebound" chop, we might as well negotiate a gap local's call "The Wall".

 

Our course to Ha'upu Peak takes us straight into a channel between the sheer cliffs and Moku Manu, a small sea stack a hundred meters offshore. All the elements bouncing down 15 miles of Koolau Moloka'i end up squeezing into this funnel. It's rough even on calm days.

The waters outside Moku Manu don't look much better than the gap. I decide to give "The Wall" a chance.

The last 200 meters before The Wall is spookier than being inside the slop. Haystacks bounced us around for the past mile, and we were thankful just to be in our kayaks, actually navigating them. The wind at our backs was blowing so hard there was no hope of turning back once we were committed to the pass, and the waters inside that funnel were twice as crazy as they were outside. I always cut left, close to the base of Ha'upu peak. The wind always blows from left to right as it sucks into the Venturi, and I wanted some margin for error if I must make a rescue. Paddling straight down the middle of the channel easily blows a troubled kayaker into Moku Manu sea stack.

We hit The Wall like Class V white water. The wind blew every direction at once, and the water was totally unreadable. I anxiously worked the rudder to keep us straight - broaching in here could be deadly. Luckily, the confusion dropped the swell down to 6-10 feet, but the chop more than make up for the size. The wind howls through the funnel with so much force that Amporn - six feet downwind - couldn't hear me tell her to sit down when she stood up to take a photo.

Navigating this washing machine, I couldn't consider picture taking. But seasick Amporn didn't think anybody would believe her without photos. She turned aft, steadied one hand with the strap securing the cooler, spread her feet the width of the beamy inflatable, stood up, and took two snapshots of the Blue Bathtub. (In one snapshot, the inflatable's bow is underwater.) It was like taking photos while riding a Brahma bull. I was amazed at this True Grit, thinking rescue at the same time. Thank goodness, nobody went in. I hope I never have a rescue at The Wall, and this was my roughest trip ever.

   
 

Laeokapahu Point is about 400 meters from The Wall. We stayed fifty meters from the cliffs, with huge swells breaking everywhere. No amusement park ride can compare. Safety is such an issue; the seconds were a lifetime for me. I want to get us out of this high-speed cement mixer as soon as possible. The waters inside Ha'upu Bay are generally calm, but Laeokapahu was totally awash. We were forced outside, but the winds sheered off The Wall with such force we had a difficult time rounding the Point and finding sheltered water. If we missed, forget Ha'upu - next stop would be the rock cliffs of Kalaupapa

Seven miles in one day - we gutted around Kikipua Point, rode a roller coaster past Wailau and Haloku, stuttered through the Pelekunu Haystacks and jet-streamed through The Wall. To end this mess, we had to gut it out once again against the headwinds before we found shelter in Ha'upu Bay.

We made it in fine style, but I anxiously I watched Lorene and Renee fight the winds. They finally made it.

There was a healthy surge even inside the rock cove below Joyce Kainoa's house. After considerable slips, slides, and accompanying cuts, I was positioned to help the Blue Bathtub enter Joyce Kainoa's naturally protected tidepool.

   

Falling onto the rock beach, Wai'ho'o'kalo

 

I was quite anxious to talk to Lorene and Renee. They were obviously beat, but exuberant about their incredible passage. Yesterday was survival and exhaustion, but this day was a fun achievement. We survived thanks to level heads, physical strength, seamanship, judgment, and proper equipment. Some foul weather kayakers may say that inflatables are cheating, but I would have aborted at Halawa if we were in hard-shells. We needed every edge of stability we could muster just to stay within the survival envelope.

Decked boats in these waters would require non-stop bracing and, when that failed, hours of Eskimo rolls. My guess is that fatigue would eventually take even the most skillful rough water paddlers. Surf skis - much to long and tippy for the short frequency chop and swells - may be unrideable (without a seat belt, anyway) in 12-18 foot seas at the Haystacks or The Wall. I'll leave it up to an expert like Bob Twogood to find out.

Since this was a Five year Homecoming, I ignored the "Closed for the Summer" sign at the track to the Kainoa Homestead. Sure enough, I was welcome at the top. (However, non-acquaintances should respect the signage.) I was anxious to see my old friend and Joyce's "life mate" Mike Donleavey. Unfortunately, this was an unannounced return, and Mike left the day before for the civilization of Honolulu.

   
 

Falls makes a great picnic spot...

We had a great time with Joyce. I caught up on Hawai'i's environmental battles, the status of the cultural renaissance and its extension, the Sovereignty movement. We laughed at political personalities and cried at Hawai'i's unbelievable political corruption and inept bureaucratic decisions. This trip, I learned from Joyce that (1) you can return home; and (2) some things never change.

Joyce couldn't believe we came through The Wall. I wondered how our landing would be on the rocks of Kalawao. With any luck, the seas would mellow out. We had two days before our final take-out.

   
 

Even under leaden skies, Ha'upu Bay may be the most beautiful spot on Earth. As usual, I was up before dawn, hoping to finally get some photos. All I got was ashen skies. At first light, I thought the seas might finally calm, but by 8AM all hope of entering Ha'upu's sea caves was gone as lines of large swells filled the Bay. That's OK. Amporn, Lorene and I are veterans of the Big Leagues of Sea Caving, Thailand's limestone caves. By Ha'upu, the Halawa launch, the Haystacks and The Wall already dropped the caves from the trip's limelight. I reminisced about these sharp lava tubes that weaned me for Thailand, but I wasn't about to enter their tight quarters in rough waters.

Just when we realized the seas weren't about to drop, I sighted a large plane coming at us at eye level. I had the camera ready (first time this trip) and caught a Coast Guard C-130 flying a low level search pattern. Joyce said that was the first C-130 she saw in a decade on the coast, so she got on the radio. "I asked about the plane," laughed Joyce. "They said they were looking for a boat from Maui - the only other folks crazy enough to out here besides those kayakers!"

   

80 meters under Joyce's house

 

We toured Ha'upu sans' caves, and I enjoyed my first sea turtle sighting in five years, a pair of very shy 200 pounders. We stopped for a picnic at the beautiful waterfall beach of Waiaho'okalo, lazily enjoying a paddle for a change. On the return, we took cautious glances at the swells beyond the Bay. They looked the same as yesterday.

One last glance at the caves - we could get into the two caves under Joyce's house. We snuck into the entrance only of the Needle Cave, but with its low ceiling it was foolhardy to try a full traverse of this narrow 100 meter tunnel was foolhardy. With its funnel-shaped entrance, narrow walls and low ceiling, a ripple at the entrance becomes a monster in the tunnel.

The big cave under the Kainoa house is a different story. Only 50 meters deep with a 10 meter ceiling and a navigable channel, it was easy to enter and get these shots. A photo of the treacherous Anapuka, the totally exposed "Jaws of Death", would have to wait four more years until our "Moloka'i Challenge" video shoot.

We returned to the cliff house knowing we cheated death to reach our sea-cave goal, and won.

     
 

On our last morning, things began to clear, but the surf did not look promising.

 

Tomorrow dawned with a breath of promise - it was now the fifth day since Hurricane John, and something had to give. After all, this was August, the calmest of all Koolau months. All I wanted was an easy landing at Kalawao. We didn't have the necessary safety margins for that difficult landing. If conditions persisted, I would land at Waikolu and hump the gear - kayaks included - over two miles of jagged boulders

The exposed rocks of Kalawao Beach are extremely hard in six-foot surf - normal for August. They are sharp, and covered with Opihi. Landing requires finesse and teamwork. I like three guides - one on the beach calling the swells and taking the bow lines of arriving kayaks; one swimming in the surf with fins (which I didn't have), prepared to be a sacrificial sea anchor in case of a broach; and one outside actually telling the folks when to go - or abort.

   

80 meters under Joyce's house

 

Kalawao is in the corner of Kalaupapa Peninsula, so strong winds make it difficult to maintain a holding position when waiting for a break in the surf. Losing it means blowing into the rocks at the base of the lava cliff.

For a few early minutes on the Fourth and Final day, I actually dreamed the wind was dropping, allowing an easy landing like this 1985 shot.

wistful thinking.

It didn't take a Rocket Scientist to see that Small Craft Warnings were still in effect. We got an early start in the predictable muck and paddled straight downwind to Kuka'iwa'a Point. The seas were vicious (again) and for only the third time, I didn't paddle through the rocks off the Point.

     
 

Our final day was beautiful, but the swells were still big and the surf landing ominous.

 

We didn't dare paddle behind the Huelo sea stack with its endangered palms, and headed straight through the gap at Okala Island. The wind was really sucking here, and for a few anxious moments, Lorene and Renee drifted dangerously close to Okala Island, but hard paddling helped them clear it.

We were off Waikolu beach, theoretically in the lee of Leina O Papio Point. A school of porpoise playfully greeted us, but this Omen did nothing to calm the water. Amporn looked down coast to Kalawao, and said she didn't want anything to do with that surf (despite the trip's drama, this was our first surf landing).

   

Huelo Gap on a good day - seastack on the left,
Kuka'awa'a in the middle. (1997).

 

She was more than happy to land at Waikolu and walk it. I wasn't, but then I broached our long double and log rolled unceremoniously through four-foot surf onto Waikolu's rocks. We bounced around on the rocks a bit, but we were both OK, and soon recovered both the boat and gear. The Kalawao Park pavilion was still a speck of dust, but I'd had enough. I waved Lorene andRenee on shore.

For obvious reasons, Lorene wanted to land at Kalawao. I didn't want to risk it, and waved her in again. The gals did better than I (their boats was four feet shorter), but still dumped. I was glad we pulled out here.

     
 

Ko'olau Moloka'i from Kalawao is one of the World's best views, but the rock beach is unforgiving and the surf was still nasty. We landed under the dark cliff at the far end of the beach.

 

Glad, that was, until I surveyed the portage. I'd been on this beach many times, so I knew what to expect. Ever since that Satellite photo in California, I dreaded this scenario. Sitting at Waikolu, looking at Kalawao and those two kayaks, the portage looked worse than anticipated.

It was early, 10AM. That gave us three hours until our pick-up, but we were also in the direct sun. (Murphy's Law says the Sun comes out at the Take-out.) I looked at the boats, the gear, the rocks, and my three paddling partners. We folded up the kayaks and I lifted the 60-pound Sea Explorer onto my shoulder.

It was a tough three hours.

A mile and a half in the hot sun with a kayak on your shoulder wouldn't be fun on a track. The beach was comprised of large, unsteady boulders, sharpened when they broke from the cliff. Each step was unsteady, and I never knew how a rock would behave until my blistered feet left it. (The ankle "pads" on the Nike sandals created so many blisters I exhausted my Band-Aids by the landing. I survived with duct tape across raw blisters.)

At the end of the beach, an abandoned jeep trail ran straight up the 100-yard cliff. It was always killer even after a normal take-out. Coming from Waikolu, it was hell.

I made four trips - boats, a gear bag and the cooler. I had relay help on the cooler, but that's still nine miles in three hours across shifting sharp rocks, in "sandals" with heavy gear balanced on alternating shoulders. I only had four major slips, but my shins were a mass of bloody cuts.

   

Huelo Gap on a good day - seastack on the left,
Kuka'awa'a in the middle. (1997).

 

Thank Neptune; my last memory of the trip was reuniting with my old friend Richard Marks, the legendary Sheriff of Kalaupapa.

Richard founded Father Damien Tours, a "Must Do" Hawaiian experience. Richard knows so much about the Belgium priest some say that he is Father Damien reincarnated. Richard, who has had three audiences with the Pope, certainly inherited Damien's independent spirit. Since Richard is such an authority on Hawaiian culture and Kalaupapa, visiting Kalawao Church with Marks is always a treat. After the Death march, just seeing my old friend was a wonderful high.

In front of an entire busload of tourists, I wept as we hugged, but nobody could see my tears for the sweat.

Rough or calm, Koolau Moloka'i is always dramatic, and always humbling.



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