Kailua on the Water

The heart of Kailua may not be on land at all, but in the ocean, where generations of Kailuans have found adventure, recreation, even comfort.

When Marquesian paddlers were wrapping up a 1,900-mile journey nearly five and a half centuries ago, they most likely dug in for one last stroke, caught a gurgling spray of white water, and set the first human footprints in the powdery sands of Windward O‘ahu.

Perhaps it was at this very moment that the magical feeling of paddling Kailua Bay–which means "Two Waters"–was born. The sight of land, something the voyagers weren’t assured of on their cross-oceanic trek, had to invoke elation. Yet the waters that brought them ashore were certainly to be thanked. Maybe this was when that feeling was realized for the first time–something that I heard echoed during countless interviews with the people who spend perhaps the most time on Kailua’s waters.

Kailua Bay differs greatly from the paste-blue of Waikiki, which is speckled with hundreds of swimmers and surfers daily. The tumultuous currents of Waimea and the surrounding North Shore waters don’t always create the most inviting environment for recreational swimmers or boaters. Yet the water around Kailua has raised surf, sail and paddle champions.

Left to right: At 13 years old, Kailua’s Robby Naish wins the World Windsurfing Championship; Carol Naish, sailing just two weeks before Robby was born; Robby, age 9, with his first surfboard. photos: courtesy Carol Naish

There’s no shortage of people in Kailua who were born, raised and never left because of the water. I was fortunate enough to find more than a handful who were willing to share their thoughts on why.

"As soon as I could walk I was making little canoes out of corrugated tin roofing and tar," says Mike Kincaid, who was born on what was called the "Bishop Track" of Kailua in 1946–dairy farm land, which ran all the way to where Enchanted Lake now sits. "We would see who could make a canoe that could get all the way to the mouth of the river. When we got too old for that, we began paddling out to Flat Island for surf sessions."

Kincaid still recalls the handful of summer cottages on Lanikai Beach, hanging with the cowboys who tended to the dairy farms at Campos Dairy (where Daiei now is), and surfing the shore-breaks at Kalama.

In 1986, Kincaid helped launch the Naholokai Sailing Canoe Race series, to revive and teach Hawaiian sailing techniques. That same year, nine sailing canoes lined the bay in Kailua, and the sight alone hooked Kincaid–who had recently returned from a decade on the Mainland–on spending the majority of his time sailfing her waters. Since then, he has participated every year in the event, which occurs in 72-hour stints between April and October, and sails between all the major Islands before returning to Kailua.

"It teaches you a lot about the ocean. It teaches you more about yourself. The experience is a cleansing, of sorts," shares Kincaid, who was president of the Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Association for 18 years. "It’s a spiritual journey that can be fluid and graceful at 10 or 12 knots, or exciting at over 20 knots. Either way, Kailua is the greatest training ground for a sailor. It’s full of unadulterated, head-on trade winds. Anyone can paddle or sail downwind. But you have to learn to do both into the wind before you consider yourself any type of waterman."

When people talk about "watermen" of Kailua, the name "Naish" is rarely overlooked.

Carol and Rick Naish moved to Kailua in 1968, and wasted no time in buying the first Hobie 14 that would appear on Kailua Bay. They would go on to form the Hawai‘i Hobie Association, and initiate an open tournament that in 1973 saw 100 Hobie Cats arrayed on the bay.

"And people say the waters are crowded now!" Carol Naish says. "They really have no idea. There were 10 times as many people in the waters of Kailua Bay at any given point back then as there are now. It was fantastic. It was a different time."

During that next year, guys were selling custom-made sailboats out of their garages in Kailua, as the word spread of the ideal conditions on the windward side of O‘ahu, according to Naish.

"We were buying tandem blanks from Clark Foam and making our own. It’s around this time that [her sons] Robby and Randy got hooked on windsurfing," Naish notes. Robby would go on to win the World Windsurfing Championship in 1976 at the age of 13.

In 1977, Carol Naish and her husband Rick set up the first Hawaiian Cup Regatta, and the Naish’s became Kailua’s first tourism liaisons, a position they certainly didn’t ask for. They helped international press who came to cover the event find couch space in their friends’ guest houses, recommended local restaurants and travel agencies.


canoe clubs:

Kai Oni Canoe Club
Shirley Kalama, 258-1530

Kailua Canoe Club
Kawai Mahoe, 371-2462
Lanikai Canoe Club
Bob Puakea, 247-1428

Windward Kai Canoe Club
Hui Wa‘a Association.
Henry Palakiko, 221-3546

Hui Pakolea
Kathy and Scott Makuakane 263-1047

dive specialists:

Aaron’s Dive Shop
307 Hahani St., 262-2333
O‘ahu Dive Center
347 Hahani St., 263-REEF

kayaks, windsurfing & kiteboarding:

Authentic Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Experience
130 Kuailima Dr.

Hawaiian Watersports
354 Hahani St., 262-5483

Kailua Sail Boards & Kayaks
130 Kailua Rd., 262-2555

Naish Hawai‘i
155 H-am-akua Dr., 262-6068

Twogood Kayaks Hawai‘i
345 Hahani St., 262-5656

"We ran the tournament until the athletes started complaining that they needed to get paid, essentially," Naish says, adding that around the same time Pan Am became the lead sponsor of the tournament. "That’s when we decided it was time to step back and open a store. It fit our Kailua lifestyle more."

"There really is something about the water culture in Kailua," Naish adds. "I remember one time this British journalist pulled into Kailua at 10 p.m., and called me to ask where the nearest hotel was. I told him he could crash on our couch. He was so happy! It sort of describes the feel of Kailua. It’s like home."

As I learned throughout the interviews for this piece, Kailua has a habit of becoming "home" for people rather quickly. A common theme I noticed was that it gets inside people quickly–and they become territorial about it.

"Some people come over here on what is supposed to be an ‘epic’ day. They are expecting Maui or Gorge [Ore.] conditions, and I tell them all the same thing. Get a big board. Ride out to the center of Kailua Bay. Stop and sit down. Look around. You are in the most beautiful place in the world."

If sitting in the middle of Kailua Bay on a board is meditative, then paddling an outrigger canoe as part of a team would be like the first time you really "got" yoga–meditative, with motion involved.

On any given weekday, you can see the cars parking behind Kalapawai, next to the bridge by Buzz’s, or at the start of Lanikai. People are stretching in front of their cars, preparing to get a good paddle in before the sun sets. I asked Molly Mosher-Cates, past president of both the Kailua Paddling Club and the Kailua Historical Society, what she thought about the phenomenon.

"I think what attracts most of us to paddling is that it’s a family sport. From 10 years old to 55 and up–everyone can participate. It provides balance in our otherwise hectic lives," says Mosher-Cates, who has been paddling in the Kailua circuit for 30 years.

It’s not uncommon, says Mosher-Cates, to see entire families paddling for a team. "Phil Foti and his two sons have won the Moloka‘i Channel race a number of times, and Phil’s wife also paddles for the Lanikai team. He’s in his late 60s, and still races today."

Scott Makuakane, head of Hui Pakolea, takes a slightly different approach to paddling. His organization, whose name mean’s "to train and grow straight," is the only noncompetitive/ community service-oriented paddling team in Kailua. The group’s "Project Pure Light" takes place the third Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., meeting on the town side of Lanikai Beach. Scott and his team members take challenged patients from local hospitals on outrigger canoe rides to participate in afternoon paddles.

"Everyone who is involved is blessed," says Makuakane. "We give people a way to go somewhere they would otherwise never go. It’s the giving of freedom. And our guests are surrounded by caring hands and the healing waters of Kailua Bay."

Makuakane talks passionately about some of the autistic passengers they have had over the years, some of whom rarely uttered a word under nurse or family care. He tells a story about two such children who got out on the water and started screaming.

"I had to ask their caregivers if everything was OK, and they just told me ‘This is wonderful! They are so happy!’ It’s an amazing thing to see," he adds.

A woman the Hui Pakolea team took out recently had not been in the water since she dove into shallow sand and broke her neck, becoming paralyzed.

"It was hard at first, but after she got more comfortable, it was noticeably therapeutic for her."

Eric Rusnak, the artist and founder of Aloha Lures, took a childhood interest and turned it into a successful business–one that has never left Kailua Bay. He has been running boats, fishing and paddling in its waters for 25 years.

"When we got out of grade school there were three options: fish, boogie board the shore break or paddle out to Flat Island for surf. Swimming and diving were all a part of those activities. We were fully encompassed by the waters of Kailua Bay," says Rusnak, who adds that the gentle trades would always blow you back to shore. "It was a very safe training ground. It paved the way for bigger waves, to train for bigger adventures. It made pushing the envelope easier."

Rusnak’s lure business is a direct extension of his early days on the bay, when he would swim to the reef and back, watching schools of fish and how they behaved. Now he spends most of his time creating lures that draw from these childhood labors.

"Growing up on the bay, you are constantly watching the tide changes, the wind shifts and the moon’s phases. You get a real strong connection to what’s happening around you," says Rusnak.

The shifting wind and weather patterns on Kailua Bay might be most familiar to another member of the Naish family–Robby Naish, world windsurfing champion 23 times over, and still counting. I was able to catch up with Robby Naish this February between a Jaws session with pals Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox, and a photo shoot for a national adventure magazine. Robby has windsurfed and kiteboarded all over the world, is considered one of the most successful windsurfers of all time, and is a founder of the kiteboarding phenomenon. Robby has been designing, testing and tweaking sails for both sports most of his life–in 1996 his company launched with that exact purpose.

Hui Pakolea is a Kailua-based paddling club that takes hospital patients out onto the water to experience the healing powers of nature. From left: the club’s coach, Alexis Freeman, Scott Makuakane, president, and Alison Ritson, vice president. photo: Joss

"I learned to surf on the Kailua shore break. The bay is so consistent, it’s the best place for a beginner to learn any water sport. It has its days for the advanced guys, but you can’t ask for a better spot to grow up," Naish says.

I asked Naish if he was aware of the scene that has popped up on the grassy knoll between the ironwood trees on Kailua Beach and Kalapawai Market, where dozens of kiteboarders gather nearly every afternoon. He seemed happy to hear the news, noting that, as long as there is some moderation and people are respectful of the surrounding environs, all should be OK.

"Kailua Bay ought to be shared. I remember growing up [near Lanikai Elementary] thinking we had this great little secret beach. It’s a wonderful place that I hope more people from town experience. More people need to get in the water in general," he adds. "A few years ago I was the only guy out there kiting. Now, well, on any given day there can be 20 or 30 people out there."

But what about the landscape underneath the often wind-blown surface of the bay? Keith Zeilinger, a hospital pharmacist at Castle Hospital, has been diving in the waters of Kailua Bay since 1974.

And, "Only a few miles out from shore there is a fossilized stream channel that must have formed during the Ice Age," says Zeilinger. "It’s so close to home, and most people have no idea."

Zeilinger would like to see more preservation of the bay, he mentions, rattling off a long list of fish that used to be much more abundant.

"It’s not unusual to see the ocean floor in 100 feet of water when we are out a few miles," Zeilinger says, referring to the incredible clarity of the waters off Kailua. Among the 60-foot underwater cliffs and valleys, he and his dive partner, Vince Ritsen, an ER doctor, have found stone octopus lures, old net weights and the occasional relic from early canoe voyager days.

Which brings us back to those Marquesians who first landed on the Windward side; or even their Tahitian conquerors, who arrived the same way. When people today ride the waves, sail the winds and paddle the chop of Kailua Bay, it links them to those who rode, sailed or paddled before them. The wind in your hair, the sun on your skin, the sight of the Ko‘olau looming in the background, you know people centuries before you felt and saw exactly the same things.

As Robby Naish puts it, "It’s unadulterated." Nothing has been changed on the water, in the sound of the wind, or heat of the sun, or the feeling you get from all three. It’s a sum derived from an equation containing all of those parts. Some days it’s more of one, less of another. Every day it’s a little bit different. Each excursion is slightly more beautiful than the last, if not solely for the reason that you were able to get out there just one more time.