At Work on the Bay

The fisheries of Kaneohe Bay have collapsed, but surprisingly, some boats still provide a livelihood.


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Like Outward Bound, but on the water, the Holopono program teaches seamanship as a way to redirect at-risk youth.

For many of these children, this is their first time on a boat. “Despite being an island state,” Stewart says, “Hawaii has the lowest incidence of boat ownership in the country.” It speaks to a lost relationship—a sad lack of connection between the students and the sea that surrounds them. Passing Coconut Island on the way back to the dock, Stewart gets the teachers to lead the children in the Gilligan’s Island theme song. The teachers sing enthusiastically. None of the children seem to know the words.

The Makani Olu tries to steer young lives.

Science and education provide the livelihood for many of those who still work on the bay. Perhaps the best example is the sail-training program on the schooner Makani Olu. Matt Claybaugh, the director of the Marimed Foundation, which owns the Makani Olu, has an abiding belief in the healing power of the sea. Through a program called Holopono, Marimed attempts to rehabilitate at-risk kids, taking them directly from the courts or juvenile detention and putting them to work aboard the Makani Olu. “It’s the gift of a change in perspective,” Claybaugh says. Claybaugh views the Makani Olu as a wilderness program. He knows the sea can be hard, and the stress can sometimes break down the tough reserve of the kids in the program. “That’s the counseling moment,” Claybaugh says. “You need to be akamai to that. Otherwise, you’re just sailing.”

The Makani Olu is a 96-foot, three-masted, staysail schooner. Like all schooners, it takes a rat’s nest of lines to manage the sails. When the Holopono program takes groups of kids to sea, they have to literally learn the ropes. They go on five-day, round-trip cruises to the Neighbor Islands, where they usually also participate in community projects. At sea, the kids work the ship, standing watches and taking turns at the helm. Even so, it takes a professional crew of five to sail the Makani Olu: a captain, a mate and three hands—surely the last professional sailors on the bay.

The pilot house contains a mini natural history museum for young students to explore.

After a recent charter trip for an Elderhostel group, I volunteered to help move the boat from Aloha Tower back to the bay. The crew is new, and I’m eager to see them at work. When I arrive at the dock, I find a full complement of five crewmen aboard. Jon Michienzi, the captain, sailed with the Makani Olu several years ago. He and the first mate, Ben Hopkins, have recently arrived from the tall ship Amistad. The other crewmen also seem to be experienced. But my main impression is how young they all are. Even so, we pull away from the dock without incident and set out to sea. Michienzi predicts a six-hour passage.

The trip turns out to be more boisterous than expected. The trades gather strength as we leave Honolulu Harbor, and by the time we make Koko Head, they’re blowing hard on the nose. Even motor-sailing, our progress is slow. At first, the ride is exhilarating. But we have to tack far out into the Molokai Channel, and the swells build and become confused. Many of the passengers become seasick. In the cabin, loose gear flies from one side to the other. The young crew becomes more subdued as the passage turns into real work. This is sailing in Hawaii. Even after we finally round Makapuu and begin the downhill run along the windward coast, everyone is obviously looking forward to the end of the trip.

Darkness sets in as we reach Kaneohe Bay. The trip from Honolulu Harbor was a long slog, but most of the real work is still ahead. In the failing light, we wrestle down the sails, furl them on their booms and get their covers on them. By the time we reach the Makani Olu’s mooring, we need the spotlight to find the buoy. The wind is still strong and it takes several passes before the crew manages to grab the mooring line with the boathook—only to find the lines are tangled and we blow off again. Finally, a couple crewmen launch the ship’s tender and manage to untangle the lines and get one aboard. The Makani Olu is moored. In the end, the passage from Aloha Tower takes 12 hours.

After shuttling ashore in the inflatable with the other passengers, I stand in the shallows and watch Hopkins head back through the dark to the Makani Olu. No doubt, the captain wants to discuss the mooring troubles with the crew. But I’m struck once again with the miracle that, against all odds, young people still go to sea. The idea makes me smile. Boats and the wind and snarled lines will always give sailors trouble. But, if an old schooner like the Makani Olu can still make a go of it, perhaps there’s still hope for those who make a living on Kaneohe Bay.

Freelance writer Dennis Hollier grew up in Enchanted Lake. His last piece for HONOLULU, in our July issue, was on a downtown barber school.

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