Among the beautiful islands of Hawaii, only Kauai is called "the Garden Isle." To sail along any of its shorespast spectacular water falls among green cliffs and valleys or fertile fields rising gently toward deep green mountains or beaches lined with palm treesis to appreciate how richly Kauai deserves its sobriquet.
For its beauty as well as its hospitable harbors and anchorages, Kauai may well be the most attractive voyaging destination in this most attractive state. Yet few of the thousands of boaters in the Hawaiian Islands sail around this island. If you could spend even as short a time as a week circumnavigating Kauai, you could daily find an idyllic anchorage among the several in this largely neglected cruising ground.
The prospect of getting to and returning from the island has undoubtedly prevented many boaters from visiting Kauai. Voyagers from Oahu or the other Hawaiian Islands must cross the Kauai Channel. With careful planning, however, you can overcome this challenge and cross the Kauai Channel in either direction without trauma.
Weather forecasts should be the first consideration for boaters making this or any other crossing between the islands of Hawaii. The seas are most comfortable, of course, if the winds are light and variable. In such conditions, the seas are typically no higher than four feet. In such conditions, you’ll almost certainly need to use your engine to get from Oahu to Kauai.
When moderate trades are blowing, the seas will most likely be between four and eight feet. While these seas may be lumpy, they generally pose no danger to the well-found boat, and the winds almost guarantee a relatively swift passage. After moderate trades have been blowing for several days, the seas may build up to as much as 12 feet. The passage from Oahu to Kauai would still be feasible under these conditions; however, if at all possible, wait for the seas to die down before making the return trip to Oahu, when you’ll almost surely be going to weather.
Avoid strong winds
If strong trades are blowing or are in the immediate forecast, follow the example of experienced Hawaii sailors and wait until the winds decrease and the seas calm before setting out across the channel. Such winds create 12- to 18-foot seas, nasty conditions for boats traveling in either direction.
The few voyagers who do make the trip to Kauai typically depart from Honolulu for a non-stop 115-mile passage directly to Hanalei Bay, on the north shore of Kauai. Hanalei Bay, the largest anchorage in the Islands, is the most popular choice because it always seems to have room for one more boat and it’s as beautiful a bay as perhaps any in the world. For the first 24 hours of the direct route, vessels often must plow through big seas, with the crew getting bounced around for hours. But the trip doesn’t have to be this traumatic.
A more comfortable route to Kauai is a less direct one. By hugging the western coastline of Oahu, after you round Barbers Point, going as far north as Poka’i Bay or Makua Anchorage, you gain several advantages. One of these is that you’ll begin your passage with several hours of calm conditions rather than heading into the rough channel almost immediately. A trip along the western coastline of Oahu is a trip in protected water, where light air and relatively smooth seas are the rule.
Another reason for a departure from Poka’i Bay or Makua is that it shortens the trip across the Kauai Channel from 115 miles to 89 miles. If you make this more northerly crossing, you can depart from Poka’i or Makua just before dark, after the seas have begun to lie down, and enjoy nearly calm seas for the first few miles while you’re in the wind shadow of Oahu. Then you’ll reach the waters of the channel well after dark, when the winds and waves will generally have subsided.
Another option when you aren’t pressed for time is to spend a night and day in Poka’i or Makua and be ready to leave the following night. (If you plan to anchor in Poka’i Bay, check with the harbor master at Waianae Small Boat Harbor to find out if any outrigger canoe races are scheduled in the bay. If none are scheduled, you can anchor inside the breakwater. If races are scheduled, you can anchor outside, 200 feet north of the end of the breakwater. The water here is still relatively calm because of the indentation of the coastline.)
The third advantage to this route is that it results in a better angle for crossing the channel. Those voyagers who go directly from Honolulu to Hanalei set a course of 300° magnetic from Barbers Point on Oahu to Kilauea Point, on the north coast of Kauai. The prevailing trades are thus slightly forward of the beam. On the other hand, if you cross from Poka’i or Makua, you’ll be on a course of approximately 293°; the prevailing trades will then be slightly aft of the beam. Though this difference may seem minute, it can be monumental when you consider the differences in the motion and speed of the boat.
First landmark on Kauai
On the north coast of Kauai, the first noteworthy landmark is the meticulously restored Kilauea Lighthouse. At Kilauea Point, you’ll alter course about 30° to port to follow the north coastline of the island. The entrance into Hanalei Bay is six miles west of the lighthouse. A prominent landmark for Hanalei is the large white Princeville Hotel, its several stories stepping down the cliffs of Pu’u Poa Point on the eastern side of the entrance.
Reefs extend out from the points on both sides of the entrance, but boaters who stay in the middle will have no trouble avoiding them. The distance between Pu’u Poa Point to the east and Makahoa Point to the west is one mile; the distance between the two reefs is 0.70 mile, making Hanalei one of the easiest anchorages to sail into or out of in the Hawaiian Islands.
This bay is large enough to accommodate 100 boats, and the sand bottom provides excellent holding. Because the bay faces north, the motion is minimal during the late spring, summer, and early fall. During the winter, however, the north swell enters the bay, making it both uncomfortable and unsafe most of the time.
Once the anchor is down, you have many choices for entertainment, among them watching the drama over the pali ("cliffs"), where the clouds grow dark and thick and then drench the mountain peaks and valleys already verdant from this almost daily pattern. You may be eager to head straight for town, where most services (except fuel) are available and where you can still savor the small-town charm of Hanalei, despite the tourists crowding its sidewalks and streets.
This past summer, we spent several days on our sailboat, Carricklee, anchored in the south center of the bay, some distance from the more popular, and congested, east end near the fishing and swimming pier. We swam, snorkeled and went for a sport-boat ride several miles up Hanalei River, where yellow and melon-colored hau blossoms floated downstream to meet us, just like in the movies. Later, we made an easy landing with the sport-boat on the south shore of the beach and walked the two short blocks to the main street of Hanalei, where we caught the bus. For only $1 per person, one way, the bus will take you to the end of the line in both directions, from Ha’ena State Park to the west all the way around the east end to Lihu’e, on the southeast side of the island. We snorkeled with the sea turtles and tropical fish at Ke’e Beach and hiked the Kalalau Trail, on the Na Pali Coast, to Hanakapi’ai Beach. We even splurged and rented a car for a day to take a closer look at Kilauea Lighthouse; the lighthouse sits in a lush park and overlooks one of the most beautiful little coves in all the islands.
When we left Hanalei Bay, we headed our bow west along the north coast of Kauai to explore the many other inviting anchorages and harbors along the north, west, and south shores. The reasons to continue counterclockwise around the island are practical ones. Between Hanalei and Nawiliwili Small Boat Harbor, the three anchorages and small boat harbor are ideally spaced for a short sail between each destination. Then, when you end your cruise of Kauai, you’ll be in Nawiliwili, with but a 72-mile return trip to Makua or Poka’i. For a passage from any place on Kauai to Oahu, you’ll be hard on the wind, but, if you set your course for Makua or Poka’i, you have the option of falling off if you need to and laying a course for Honolulu.
On the other hand, if you choose to take a clockwise route around the island, you’ll find no tenable anchorages between Hanalei and Nawiliwili, and you’ll end at Ha’ena, the Kauai destination most distant from Oahu.
West of Hanalei, before the coast begins to bend southwest at Ka’ilio Point, the shoreside panorama is enough to justify a voyage around Kauai. The lush green ridges and valleys, each seemingly more glorious than the one before, with miles and miles of white sand beaches at the foot of sheer cliffs, are mesmerizing.
Our first stop along this stretch was only three miles west of Hanalei, at the small, rarely used anchorage off Ha’ena Beach State Park, perhaps better known as Bali Hai from the movie South Pacific. Finding the anchorage was a challenge, for we had no readily identifiable landmark to guide us. Because the chart showed an extensive reef at the point, we plotted the location of the anchorage, carefully, and then used our knot log and GPS to guide us. Once we’d made our "instrument landing" at Ha’ena Point, the water breaking a half mile from shore left no doubt about the location of the reef. Giving the reef plenty of respect, we swung Carricklee wide to the northwest before turning south and cozying in behind it, about 200 yards from the beach and 150 feet from the reef.
A smaller anchorage, holding not more than two or three boats, lies between the beach and the reef. The entrance into this inner anchorage is about 100 feet from the beach at the southeast corner of the outer anchorage. Water depths in the channel are more than 20 feet. The narrow entrance through the reef, slightly less than 100 feet wide, requires that you exercise extreme caution if you decide to take your boat into this inner anchorage. When we were there, a sailboat and a few large RIB Zodiacs with snorkel tourists aboard had gotten there ahead of us, so we elected not to take our boat into the inner anchorage. Leaving Carricklee anchored safely outside the reef, we explored the inside anchorage and beach with our sport-boat.
Anchored off Ha’ena Beach, we were near several sites of interest, among them a large dry cave across the road from the park and two wet caves at the west end of the park. Swimming and snorkeling along the beach and the reef are excellent. Only a mile west of Ha’ena Park is exquisite Ke’e Beach and the beginning of the Kalalau Trail, which climbs high above the ocean along the Na Pali Coast. But perhaps the most pleasant activity for boaters at Ha’ena is sitting in the cockpit watching the waves breaking against the reef off the bow and the clouds forming over the Na Pali to the south and west.
Leaving Ha’ena and rounding Ka’ilio Pointstanding out to give the reef there its due respectwe turned a few degrees to the south as we passed Ke’e Beach, this beach marking the end of the north shore road and the beginning of the Na Pali Coast, indescribably beautiful, especially when viewed from the water. Interspersed among the green cliffs and peaks and valleys were dozens of waterfalls cascading into the ocean from a great height while others fell into unseen caverns or pools high above.
With 20-knot winds for the nine miles between Ha’ena and Nualolo, we had a smooth downwind sail on a broad reach, making us even more receptive to the awe-inspiring Na Pali Coast. (Nualolo is also a choice destination, but so choice the charter boats fill this small cove daily.) For the last 5 miles to Polihale, we motored in the lee of the island.
Polihale (also called Treasure Beach), a roadstead 14 miles southwest of Ha’ena, comes into view immediately after the mountains of the Na Pali Coast begin their inland track, no longer dropping straight down to the beach or sea. The anchorage is easy to find at the northeast extremity of the three miles of white sand and sand dunes of Polihale State Park.
Roll stabilizers rigged
You can anchor at any of the small coves north of the end of Polihale Beach about 150 to 200 feet from the cliffs, carefully avoiding the few rocks and patches of coral, easily distinguishable from the sand in the clear water. Though we were well protected from the trade winds blowing, we did notice a bit of swell. We rigged one of our roll stabilizers for the night before jumping into the sparkling water for our evening swim. (We’ve found our two roll stabilizers to be indispensable as we anchor in roadsteads around the Hawaiian Islands. They’ve secured for us many a good night’s sleep. While one stabilizer will suffice in most roadsteads, in others you may desire the additional stability that comes with one out on either side of the boat.)
Near sundown at Polihale feral goats began making their way down the cliff sides east of us, their plaintive bleating distinct through the quiet air. Alone in the anchorage, we enjoyed a perfectly unobstructed view of the "green flash" at sunset and a night with no lights in our world except for the stars.
After Polihale, the next good stop is Port Allen Harbor 20 miles to the southeast, located on the south coast of Kauai. The passing scenery between Polihale and Port Allen has its own interest, but it falls far short of the spectacle of the Na Pali Coast. The mountains are still visible, but they are several miles inland. Between the water and the mountains is the Mana Plain, its name describing the significant difference between it and the Na Pali. Indicative of civilization, roads, houses, and fields of cane on the gently sloping plain replace the steep and uninhabited pali.
As you near Barking Sands and Nohili Point, call ahead to the Pacific Missile Range Facility on VHF 16 to make sure no missiles are being tested that day. The facility at Barking Sands often has boats, divers, and helicopters working in the area, so boaters should be alert as they transit this part of the coastline.
The light on Pu’olo Point readily identifies Port Allen Harbor. Once you’ve passed Pu’olo Point, you can easily spot the breakwater marking the entrance into the harbor 0.75 mile to the east. Inside the harbor, extending out from the land on the starboard side behind the breakwater, is a large pinkish-colored warehouse with a rust colored roof. On the land immediately east of the breakwater, a number of fuel tanks are visible from miles at sea.
Port Allen is a mixed bag for boaters cruising the island. It has a small boat harbor inside the larger harbor, where visiting sailors can often get a slip if they call ahead. From the harbor to a small shopping center with a grocery store, a bank, a laundromat, restaurants, and various other businesses is a pleasant 15-minute walk. Beyond the shopping center, another 15-minute walk to the west, is the old plantation town of Hanapepe. Some of the small stores now house restaurants and arts and crafts shops, but the town nevertheless retains the flavor of the plantation era. A monkey pod tree spreads its blossoming branches in a high canopy from one side of the street to the other at the east entrance into town.
Although shopping and exploring make Port Allen appealing to boaters, the surge in the harbor is another story. Getting into and out of a slip is the first challenge. And, once in a slip, you may need to rig numerous lines to keep your boat from banging into pilings and docks.
The pretty little Wahiawa Bay is only 0.9 mile east of the breakwater at Port Allen. Identifying this small bay requires only that you use your knot log to tell you when you’ve arrived. The entrance opens suddenly when you’re directly south of the bay.
Wahiawa is a tiny bay, only 150 yards wide and 400 yards deep, tucked in between two cliffs. As a getaway to a secluded bay, it is unsurpassed. The bougainvillea growing wild along the cliffs protecting this bay and the turquoise water frothing white over the rocks along the base of the cliffs present a feast for the eyes. We didn’t go ashore here, though the little beach at the head of the bay begs for exploration. We simply enjoyed the ambiance. Unless you need the provisions or services available at Port Allen, Wahiawa Bay is a far better destination. You can swim and snorkel in the smooth water of Wahiawa in complete solitude and have the stars and moon to light your way.
Continuing on around the island another 16.5 miles will bring you to Nawiliwili Harbor, the most important harbor on the island, with a marina, commercial docks that handle barges and ships, and a Coast Guard facility. Not only is the harbor important in itself, but it is only two miles from the largest town on the island, Lihu’e.
Finding Nawiliwili Harbor offers little challenge. A light on Ninini Point, which extends out almost a mile from the coastline, marks the entrance to the Nawiliwili Bay. The light is shown from the top of an 80-foot buff-colored concrete tower. From Ninini Point, the breakwater protecting the harbor is approximately 0.7 mile west. Once inside the breakwater, you will turn to port. The entrance to the small boat harbor is approximately 0.5 mile from the breakwater.
If you have not called ahead and arranged for a slip, you’ll have to tie up at the loading dock on the starboard side just inside the small boat harbor while you check in with the harbormaster. Although the breakwater keeps the waters inside Nawiliwili Harbor calm, the winds whistle through the area with authority. Even inside the small boat harbor, the wind will make tying up difficult when you approach the loading dock because they will be beam on and perhaps 20 knots. The winds will blow you away from the dock, making it frustrating but not dangerous. Once in a slip, however, you will find the wind and water in the bay entirely comfortable. Nawiliwili is the only harbor on Kauai that’s an all-weather harbor.
Once settled in at this harbor, you can sit in the cockpit at dusk and survey another view of "the Garden Isle." Kalanipu’u Peak rises almost vertically for 779 feet from the water at Carter Point, its emerald green covering reminiscent of the Na Pali Coast. Puffy clouds hide the higher peaks behind the harbor.
In Nawiliwili are a mini-market, a produce stand, and a couple of gift shops. All other services are two miles away, in Lihu’e. If you get to Lihu’e, spend an hour or two in the museum, where you’ll get a brief but comprehensive introduction to the history of this island.
"Maika’i Kauai, hemolele i ka malie."
This line from a Hawaiian chant describes what Kauai has always been: "Beautiful Kauai, peaceful in the calm." With planning and flexibility, you can find both the tranquillity and the beauty of this Garden Isle.
Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy are the authors of several marine books.