It was at sunset, after a frenzied Saturday workday, when Jane and I finally arrived at the Heeia canoe landing to begin our paddle to rendezvous with friends on Kapapa island over two miles offshore along Oahu's windward coastline. A cool, windless tropical evening; perfect for star gazing, good food, "talking story" with friends and a leisurely group night paddle back home across a glassy sea.
Cellular phone coverage was spotty. We were late, but knew fellow kayakers Chuck, Tom, Athena and Jeff were already on the island. We began to pack our kayaks with the darkening sky in mind. Jane had her emergency bag attached with bungee cords right on deck where essential items could be quickly reached when needed and put a flag in her fishing rod holder so we could be easily spotted on the water if necessary.
I put on a regular life vest instead of my usual inflatable and had my headlamp handy. I tried again to raise Chuck on his cellular phone on the island without success. Just before launching I turned on a VHF marine radio and scanned channel 16 for the Coast Guard and other boaters and channel 72, which we kayakers customarily use.
Almost immediately, I heard Jeff calling for us from the island. I confirmed that we were about to launch and he warned us to steer to the right of the island to avoid exposed reefs between the sand bar and the island. He said that he could see coral heads "all over the place". The tide was unusually low that night.
Paddles leashed to our boats, Jane and I set out into the twilight. We did not paddle directly to the island as that would have taken us over the shallowest part of the bay and definitely over the now exposed coral heads. The sky was still aglow behind the Koolau mountain range to our backs. We could barely make out the island as it began to blend into the darkening horizon.
The island off to our left turned from light to gray then disappeared from sight altogether with the darkening horizon. A planet or star appeared on our starboard side half way up in the sky. Normally Venus is the brightest object that appears directly after sunset but we did not have our star chart to confirm the planet/star's identity. Off to the right we could see two-channel markers blink their color lights one close and the other about a mile off.
channel led away from the island and was used by regular boat traffic.
I found that by leaning your head close to the water you can sometimes
pick up unlit channel markers by their silhouettes against the lights
that may be on shore. That was how we found the Hilton Lagoon channel
on one moonless night.
We debated whether to paddle in the channel or cut across the sand bar heading towards the right of the island. We decided to cut across, as the channel would have taken us too far off course.
As it got dark enough we began to see a flickering light on the horizon. Growing closer we realized that the "islanders" Chuck and Jeff had started a fire to guide us to the island. But for the fire, the island was invisible on this moonless night. Getting to the sandbar seemed to take unusually long in the twilight but we finally saw the color of the ocean beneath our hulls lighten to indicate that indeed we had reached shallow water.
Eventually the four-inch draft of our kayaks was not enough and we got out and pulled our kayaks across the shallowest parts of the sandbar. We called Jeff on the radio and informed him that we were now about halfway there to the island, pulling our boats. He acknowledged, wished us well and would stay on the channel to see if we needed assistance.
Sloshing through the shallows wearing our reef walkers, I looked around for any dark shadows with dorsal fins that may have been attracted to the splashing noises that we were making. There are reportedly hundreds of Hammerhead sharks in the bay that we were in. Apparently, none of them noticed us.
Finally, reaching a deep enough place where we could get back in our boats again, we kayaked into the night still grazing occasional shallow but submerged coral. We aimed to the right of what we thought was the island to avoid those awashed coral heads mentioned by Jeff. Approaching closer we then turned left towards the island.
Ocean swells coming across the outer reef begin to be felt as they gently flowed beneath our hulls. We shortened the distance between our boats so we could hear each other then paddled on.
Jane and I, both experienced in dealing with waves coming without warning, were still startled when suddenly a wave hit. We could not see the waves before they approached in the darkness. Jane's kayak turned 90 degrees and I rode the wave over its crest. Neither of us capsized.
Not the one to test fate, I turned on my headlamp which gave me a second or two warning before more waves approached so I could turn my kayak into them.
Jane preferred to go without a light and used the "Braille" method of feeling for the waves. We managed to avoid all of the coral heads as we paddled into the lee of the island.
The "Islanders", Chuck, Tom, Jeff and Athena, waded out in the shallows to guide us in and help carry our boats to dry land. After warming ourselves by the fire we feasted on a great meal of steak, mahi-mahi, barbecued chicken, Caesar salad and bottles of various refreshments as we night fished.
Tom and Athena were the first to paddle back that night with VHF radio, waterproof lights and light sticks in hand or attached to their boats.
They stopped several times to radio us, but the battery was weak, transmissions crackling in and out, and our friendly fire glowing more and more distant.
Later, they reported that the water was like glass, except for two swells. One rolled under them without incident. The other, however, picked up Athena's boat and charged it right toward Tom. A shout of warning and quickly applied paddle skills braced the boat and brought it up along side instead of colliding with Tom. They then made it back to the canoe landing safely and quickly.
As we sat by the fire that night, we gazed at the stars above us. In front was the canoe landing beckonning our return. Behind us was the Little Dipper with the North Star at its tip.
I realized then that a way to find the island on a moonless and cloudless night would be to steer towards the North Star from the landing. We, however, had the voices of friends and the glow of a welcoming fire guiding us in the dark.....
is a veteran seakayaker
and serves as president of
Honolulu's kayak club,
Hui Wa'a Kaukahi
For guidance in outfitting your kayak with appropriate lighting and night
see our article on this site: "Kayak Lights & Kayak Lighting Techniques For Dawn, Dusk & Night Paddling" By Tom Holtey
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Related Article: California
Coastal Kayaking: Goat Rock Arch By Moonlight By Mike Higgins
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