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Sailing Hawaii's Alenuihaha Channel

Jonas StenstromThe crossing of Alenuiha'ha:
by Jonas Stenstrom

The water between Maui and The big Island of Hawai'i ,the Alenuiha'ha channel (or I'll-end-you-ha-ha channel), has sometimes been referred to as the most dangerous channel crossing in the world. Bordered on the Maui side by the 3000m tall  Haleakala and on Hawai'i by the massive 4100m shield volcano Mauna Kea, north eastern trade winds that get funneled thought the channel blow gusts of up to five times more velocity than the surrounding waters.  This is the story of our hairy crossing across the channel in our jimmy-rigged Cal-25 sailboat.

We had everything on the boat ready the night before leaving. We woke up just before sunrise to begin our final adventure back home. It was a clear calm morning. The weather forecast had predicted eastern winds, 10-15mph. This was close to being too much (as the channel has much greater wind gusts) but as long as the winds stayed in an easterly direction we should be fine. We had to be fine, this was the only day for us to sail back, we had the option of sailing back or leave the boat behind. No way we were going to leave our mission vessel that had taken us this far anywhere but in her well-earned spot on Oahu!

Rob Nelson on SailboatLeaving the Kaunakakai harbor we found the sea completely calm with a northerly swell. The sail was this time already prepared at the first reefing to avoid the troubles we had had at sea a few days before when the strong wind had caught the boom during a hectic reefing. Without notice the boom came flying from starboard. In the corner of my eye I could sense the movement and I just managed to duck a split-second before it took my head out. The experience had taught us that it would probably be a good thing to have the sail reefed before being hit by the channels' treacherous weather.

We were trying to use our motor as sparingly as possible but this morning there was no other way. The sun rose and we were still motoring. We were greeted into the channel by a group of humpback whales saluting our journey with their blowholes. The GPS gave us an estimated arrival time that would make the return trip far shorter than expected. We were in very good spirit and couldn’t understand why we had been given so many warnings and even “don’t even think about crossing that channel in a 25-footer!!” Half way across to the channel to Maui the surface was just as smooth as when we started. It felt like there couldn’t be any wind in the whole world at this point! A quick glance at the horizon hinted that maybe this wasn’t true after all. Strange clouds and turbulence were building up as the weather gods seemed to have an argument whether or not we should have a safe trip back or be put to the test.  Little did we know but the naive feeling we had that life was going to continue being this easy for the rest of our lives was soon to disappear….

We could see the eastern coast of Maui rise taller from the sea. We had already been on the water for over 6 hours. The winds were for the first time of the day starting to pick up. We saw a chance to gain a bit more speed. The sails were hoisted and the motor turned off. The boat was booking it towards Maui. We even had hopes to make it to Molokini crater before sunset to do a late afternoon scuba dive.

Sail on SailboatUnfortunately soon after the sails had been hoisted the winds started switching direction. Instead of giving us a nice push from the east we had winds hammering us right in the face. We had to beat it against the wind. Every tack felt like we were sailing back and forward on a straight line perpendicular to the direction we wanted to go. Waves started washing over the boat. Everything was drenched. We were sitting in wetsuits under our rain jackets. Whenever outside we had to have out harnesses clipped in to the boat. Molokini had just emerged for a second at the horizon but was gone again. We were not getting closer anymore. The rain mixed with salt spray from the ocean made our eyes tear. After a few hours of trying to tack our way using the sails we decided that the only way we would get out of this in one piece before the wind built up to a storm was to crank up the little outboard motor again. The sail was taken down completely. With the motor we went head on into the waves. Our Cal 25 “Liquid Sunset” went up the waves and dived into the next. Waves washed us around and everything on the boat soaked. We had a dry-bag ready with all the necessities if we would have to bail out or if the boat would roll; EPIRB, cell-phone, glow-sticks, flashlights, GPS and of course, a video-camera to document everything… Previous experiences of sinking boats sent flashbacks to our heads… (READ that story). It just can't be happening again right?

It was going to be a long night so we had to take turns resting. The resting was more of a trying to lie down and not get tossed to the other end of the boat or get hit by something. We had already given up on having things on shelves or seats. Now everything we owned was piled up on the floor. The roof of the boat had apparently not been fully restored and started taking in some water making even the inside wet. The dream of diving Molokini had long disappeared. Now it was just a fight against the weather gods to allow us to rest and refuel in Lahaina, Maui. Progress was slow. The estimated time of arrival on the GPS kept increasing for every minute that passed and we realized how slow we were actually moving.

The sun was setting. When we finally got to Molokini crater it was just dark. Running lights were brought up. The gas tanks were starting to feel worryingly light and we still had hours to go…

Rob Nelson sleepingThe batteries to the GPS were also running low and now it could only be turned on for about 30 seconds at a time. We kept hammering into the waves with the hope that the island Kohoolawe would soon shadow some of the wind for us. In pitch darkness we tried our best to aim towards some lights on Maui that would keep us in the right direction, as we had to save the last batteries on the GPS. It was my time to have a rest. Cold to the bone from being soaking wet for the last 4 hours I took my wetsuit off half way. It would have to come off soon enough anyway. I made some room on the bunk inside and lay down. Holding on to whatever I could find and jamming my legs in under the sink I stayed pretty still.

We were finally approaching Kohoolawe and prayed the wind would slow down.
And it did… We were exhausted but relieved at this point. Still a fair distance to cover but at least we wouldn’t have to worry about the big waves anymore.

WhalesThe rocking of the boat allowed my exhausted body to relax but just as I was about to fall asleep I hear Rob from outside: “Holy CRAP…!” It was with a quiet voice like he had just said what his mind thought. It got me on my feet in a split second. I looked out on the port side of the boat and managed to just get a glimpse of the enormous dark shadow that had just surfaced less than 10 meters from the boat for a breath of air. In the tiny light of the moon the humpback whale, way bigger than our small boat, effortlessly moved through the water and dived down somewhere under us again. This seemingly unlikely danger had not really occurred to us until now. I went back and tried to rest for a few minutes.

We decided that the rest of the way we would both stay up and keep an eye out for whales and other boats. Now our running lights were dying too which meant that we had to sit and aim our headlights towards anything that looked like another boat so they could see us.

Eventually we saw the familiar lights of Lahina harbour and just before midnight we tied up the boat to the dock with only a last sip of gas left, no batteries to the lights, almost out of water and a GPS that now stayed on for 15 seconds at time. To end the day, the nearest gas station was a good 1-1.5 mile away with two 25 litre tanks… and it was only the first leg of our sail back, two more to go…. Why so many of our trips end this way I shall never know. In some ways I wonder if we are lucky or unlucky

Written By Jonas Stenstrom
Experienced during our 2004 HAWAIIAN EXPEDITION


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