That Time on the Sailboat

Growing up in Portland, both my parents were far from their families of origin. Dad was from DC and Mom was from Hawaii. They met and married in college at Mt. Angel, Oregon where Dad was a basketball player and Mom was a cheerleader. Later they made their home in PDX (my affectionate term for my hometown and also its IATA airport code) for the next couple of decades. Mom used to take Cheo and me to Hawaii to visit family fairly often as we were growing up. In the ’70s it was almost every year, and in the ’80s almost every other year. I always enjoyed flying on a big ol’ jet airliner like a Boeing 777 from Portland International to another major airport like Seattle or LAX before making the long hop over the Pacific to the islands. Back in the day we would fly on Pan Am or Northwest Airlines and the pilots would give us lapel wings as we would board. The stewardesses, as they were called back then (before the politically correct “flight attendant” term was in vogue) would give us decks of playing cards with the company logo on them to keep us entertained. Once we were airborne they would come down the aisles offering “coffee, tea or milk?… coffee, tea or milk?” and snacks like honey-roasted peanuts. I remember Alaska Airlines had the best airplane food and they advertised it too. It was about three or four hours trans-Pacific, so sometimes we would get to see a movie using these weird plastic-tube headphones that connected to the armrest. They looked and felt like a toy stethoscope. Everyone would have to crane their necks to get a view of one of the two or three screens attached to the top of the cabin over the aisle. Not the best movie watching experience, but for the time it was fairly luxurious. Air travel itself was a treat back in the day. My favorite part was the takeoff when the giant engines roared to full power and your stomach would drop as the g-force pushed you down into your seat while the heavy steel winged tube full of people lifted off into the stratosphere. What a rush!

Mom came from a large family, the youngest of six, and grew up on a working ranch on the Big Island. Whenever I came to visit with her I would meet new cousins as the families grew and expanded. Most of that side of the family remained in the islands, spread around Oahu, Maui and Hawaii, the Big Island. Grandpa was a rancher in Waimea (also called Kamuela for the original postmaster, Samuel Parker of the Parker Ranch family) for decades, so when we’d visit we would get to ride horses and ride around in his old truck. We also got to do chores like slop the pigs or hose down the pigpen. For fun we got to go to the beach at Spencer Park or Kawaihae, where my cousin Lani taught us how to snorkel.

In May of 1980 (I remember it because that was when Mt. St. Helens blew up), we were in Hawaii for one of our family trips with Mom while Dad stayed behind in Portland. We were also in Hawaii two years later when my little sister, Ayanna, came with us for the first time at the age of one.

A friend of my cousin Lani invited her to come sailing with him and a friend, and she invited my Mom, Cheo, who was 8, and me to join them. Grandma drove us in her red Reliant K station wagon down the long, winding highway from Waimea to the dock at Kawaihae. (This was before the huge resort at Waikoloa was built and the resort at Mauna Lani was still brand new. The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was established and known for being the gold standard in luxury accommodations on the Big Island. I used to want to own that place.)

It was a very windy day, and as we went makai down the hill, I could see the white-capped waves everywhere. It looked a little unusual, but at age eleven what did I know about oceanography?

Cheo and I clambered out of the back of the wagon, kissed Grandma, and excitedly prepared to board the boat. It was the first time for us to go on a sailboat and we were psyched. Mom and Lani came aboard, introductions were made, and the skipper made ready to shove off.

So off we went on our maiden voyage, watching the dock behind us as we trolled past the jetty and out into the open ocean. Cheo and I drank Orange Crush as the bright Hawaiian sun shone down on us with all the ferocity of a tropical summer. The skipper and his mate drank Primo beer, a popular local brand, and tried to ply Lani and Mom with the same. Mom didn’t have any, and Lani wasn’t long out of high school so I doubt she partook, so the sailors helped themselves to a double portion.

The seas were noticeably rough, and the boat rocked back and forth and side to side, literally tossed by the waves. It wasn’t long before Cheo and I took turns clinging the side of the boat and losing our Orange Crush into the Pacific. When I say I was seasick, I mean I was so nauseous I wanted to die. Between the hot sun and the wind-driven sea spray and the motion of the ocean, there was no way a landlubber kid like me was going to digest anything on that boat.

The only temporary relief was the sight of my poor younger brother, faced caked with salt and orange barf, and I laughed. I laughed and pointed and said, “Look at your face!” It wasn’t that I took pleasure at his misery but that my own hurling and dry heaving found the appearance of his visage humorous. That is, until Mom sharply reprimanded me and pointed out the irony of my own situation. “Go look at yourself!” she told me, more miffed at the pilot and his lecherous mate for endangering her and her kids than she was mad at me for making fun of my brother.

I went below deck to the cabin and found the lavatory mirror. Then I laughed at myself and my own orange barf-crusted face and sea salt splattered cheeks. Then I started crying because I was so miserable and wanted to get off this sailboat of doom. I couldn’t stay below deck very long since the heat was stifling even though the rolling was slightly less intense.

For my first sailboat ride this wasn’t turning out to be very much fun. The waves were so huge the boat tilted almost parallel to the surface more than once. It’s a wonder we didn’t capsize. The sailors knew we were in over our heads and decide to try to turn back. They tried to raise the sail and the wicked wind was so violent it ripped the sail. Mom was seriously upset at this point and almost lost her temper when she found out the CB radio was broken or nonexistent.

So there we were in the remnants of what I believe, based on the dates and some Wikipedia research, was Hurricane Daniel, which passed through the Hawaiian archipelago as a tropical depression in July 1982. Although we had no rain, the wind and waves on the sea were probably enough to have had a small craft advisory. Hindsight.

All I know is I wanted to be off that boat and the crew knew they needed to get these young kids and their mad Mom back to shore, so they redoubled efforts to return to safety.

Miraculously, the skipper was able to pilot the boat to a small cove south of where we had embarked, and once there the waves and wind were calmer. But our misadventures were not over yet. The captain (and I use the term loosely here) tried to drop anchor, but the coral reef below us cut the line. The mate donned a mask and fins and dove in to retrieve the anchor, and the anchor held fast on the second try. However, the mate said he may have seen a shark down below.

Oh great, how are we supposed to get off this boat with a shark in the water? By now Mom was livid, and demanded to be put ashore. The only solution they could come up with was to use the sailboat’s dinghy to row the four of us guests back to shore where there was a small beach more akin to a driveway, flanked by piles of sharp black lava rock, leading up to a gravel road and more lava rock.

Women and children first, as they say, and Cheo and I were buckled into life jackets (at least they had those!) and the group lowered Cheo into a small aluminum two-man dinghy while the waves continued to toss the boat up and down. We didn’t risk putting all four of us into the dinghy since the waves would probably capsize it. So we took our chances with the shark and Mom and Lani flanked me on either side in the water behind the dinghy, pushing the tiny craft toward the beach, which was probably only two hundred yards away.

Mom, a devout Christian, started praying out loud as well as saying soothing words to Cheo, who was laying spread-eagled face up in the dinghy, clinging white-knuckled to the sides as Mom, Lani and I kicked and pushed the little boat through the water for the longest five minutes I can remember.

As we finally made it to shore and climbed up the sandy slope toward the road, a white pickup arrived and a hotel security guard stepped out. “What are you idiots doing out here?” he exclaimed. Mom told him the whole travesty about how we were going out sailing with these guys who were more interested in beer and Lani than the safety of their passengers. The guard graciously loaded us up in his truck, with Cheo and I squished in that little space behind the seats in the cab, and drove us back to the Mauna Lani resort. Mom called for Grandma to come pick us up while Cheo and I washed our barfy little faces in the hotel restroom.

It was a long time before I went sailing again, but I still love the ocean and Hawaii and I’m grateful we all survived the incident. But if you ever invite me to your boat, I will make sure the radio works.

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