When I was a kid I used to go to my calabash aunt and uncle’s house and borrow their sunfish sailboat. This assumed family of mine were relatively old-time Hawaiian residents, (for Navy haoles) having arrived in the late 50’s. In the mid-60’s they purchased a beach house on an ‘out of the way’ beach, and if you’ve been to Hawaii in the last 30 years, you know, there is no longer any ‘out of the way’ Hawaii… unless it’s on another island.
My calabash family’s beach house had a single walled construction the likes of which might have sheltered plantation workers if it had been more inland and surrounded by the red dirt of the pineapple fields, yet their house was right on the beach, and you know what they say in realty… location, location, location. It had a small driveway, a small sailboat that could be dragged into the ocean by the string bean of a kid that I was, and a view that allowed you to see the curvature of the earth. That’s about it for their house, excepting the fact that it had wonderful inhabitants and a talking mynah bird that said, “Alooohaaaaaaa!”
When I would visit with a friend to go sailing, my calabash uncle, would sit and paint like an impressionist at their outdoor bar and barbecue shed all weekend long after working his can off for the state transportation department. His wife was dutifully active in many social pursuits on the island, and had a fondness for hula that, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand. She loved to dance hula, and as their Hi-Fi belted out the treble-heavy wailing of old school, notably high-pitched Hawaiian music, she would gracefully sway and bob to the music while practicing. When we arrived to go sailing, she’d simply waive at us, blow a kiss and point us towards the boat. To this very kind couple, my buddy and I were the crew of their battered plexiglas navy.
Kendall and I would awkwardly drag the forlorn sunfish to the beach with him trying to lift the front with the built in handle and me straining to hold up the aft end. Once the ordeal of getting the boat to water was accomplished, we’d set to work getting the sail rigged while wading chest deep in the warm Pacific. In our pre-take off check list to ensure a safe sail, one of us would always set the cotter pin in the dagger board to make sure it never got away from us.
Once the safety list was was finished, we were off to the races with Kendall minding the sheet and me manning the tiller. If the winds were favorable the boat would pick up speed and plane out as Kendall and I leaned far backwards to counterbalance the effects of the wind in the sail. If we played our cards well, and balanced our weight enough, we would simply skim above the water screaming along as fast as the wind would take us. We’d spend hours battering that boat in the wind and the surf, and being that we were on the windward side of the island, that little craft would pick up pace and roar off wherever we pointed it. Skimming the top of the water at a break-neck pace with our backs inches off the clear, light blue sea allowed us to imagine that that tiny, worn sunfish was a real race boat. Such was the life, and we knew it was good.
After sailing for hours in surf, calm, flat or storm, we’d return to shore, dash the sails, pluck the dagger board, wash the boat, and join my calabash aunt and uncle for a coke and some sandwiches. We’d ‘talk story’ about what was going on at our individual high-schools, and how my aunt and uncle were doing, occasionally striking on political matters. My ‘uncle’ was very involved in the politics and policy of the 50th State, which is why my leaving Hawaii to go to college on the mainland would be bittersweet for me.
Many years later, when I returned from college, I continued to visit my uncles’ house in order to enjoy that aged, yet still fun to sail, sunfish. I received the same warm greeting from my aunt and uncle, but now I no longer needed help getting the boat to the water, and could actually lug it down to the beach over the plants by myself. It seemed that little had changed, and sailing the old craft was delightful. I eventually called Kendall to see if he wanted to get back into sailing, and he figured he’d give it a whirl again, for old times sake. When we both loaded onto the craft and got underway, we found it decidedly slower than we both remembered it.
As we moped along we tried to go over the reasons for the slowness of the boat. We’d rigged the boat the same way. The sail looked to be in good shape. The dagger board looked to be in good shape, if in need of a new coat of lacquer. Only the daggerboard locking cotter pin, which was kind of corroded, needed a bit of coercion to seat in position, but that was taken care of by a pair of needle nosed pliers that we chose to leave on the deck of the house.
Kendall and I kept wondering about the problem. Why were we going so slowly? As we pondered the issue a really great gust of wind picked up, and we began to pick up speed going down the beach. The only tell-tale sign that this was truly an awesome burst of wind was that out of the corner of my eye I could see that almost every chair, towel, blanket and purse on the beach was beginning to fly directly into the brush further inland. As the gust blew down the beach people began to cover their eyes, grab their sand blasted shins and watch in vain as sundry items blew by them. I’d have chuckled at the time, but I soon had bigger fish to fry.
As the breeze picked up to a harried pace Kendall and I stopped trying to figure out what was slowing us and began to fight for control of the boat as the bow began plowing whitewash over the tiny deck. The mast began to distort a bit as the sail strained taught from corner to corner and the tiller began to lose it’s desired effect as we began to nose forward, churning water over the deck and splashing wildly against incoming swells. We tore off leaving a wake of roughly churned water behind us and I began to lean far back off the aft end of the little boat to try to bring the nose up. We powered on, laughing about the great gust that we’d come onto, and the rather voluminous amount of water we were constantly taking on, wiping off, spitting out and having to bail.
At that sudden breakneck pace, in a howling wind and with water splashing over the deck we instinctively followed courses that we had always taken as kids. Our mentally charted route coincided with dark coral heads that appeared somehow more ominous in the azure, now white capped water. Through the salt spray we yelled at each other that the coral heads looked dark enough to seem nearer to the surface than they had been years before. Surely, they couldn’t be that much nearer the surface.
In fact, they were. The coral was bigger, because coral grows. Duh! And our dagger board was lower, because, apparently, we too had grown. In a split second reaction to this desperate realization of nature’s growth and our girth, Kendall quickly reached for the corroded cotter pin with his free hand and attempted, in vain, to pull it out in order to raise the dangerously low center board. Without any purchase on the corroded and jammed pin, his water soaked fingers slipped off. In the midst of another large spray he grabbed at the pin again, and as he did, the boat shuddered severely. Then all went remarkably calm.
We began to blow sideways to shore, quietly. No more violent splashing over the bow. No more heaving at the lines. Not even much compression from the tiller. Now we were just blowing straight to shore in abject silence. In the smoothing foam of our once proud and frothy wake I could see parts of the dagger board and a large portion of the tiller. With what rudder there was, I aimed us for the beach, and the wind was much more helpful getting us there.
We sat and regrouped for a moment, a little crestfallen, watching the chaos of the people on the shore trying to pull their beach wares from the fauna and rubbing sand from their eyes. That’s when we started laughing, and we didn’t stop until we got to shore.
Eventually, we got the boat back to my calabash family’s home by walking it through the waist deep water near the shore. With the breeze down, and the beach suddenly devoid of other visitors, it was quick business. On our way we were even able to find some of the larger pieces of the shattered centerboard, which was slightly more disappointing due to the fact that these shards of wood had found a way to beat us to shore.
Back at the house, we washed and packed up the boat, checking for any serious damage along the way. When the boat checked out, we got set to have a drink with my aunt and uncle. My calabash aunt, dressed in a full length muu-muu with puffy shoulders and a laced collar, met us on the back porch with two Primos and some snacks. Eventually, my uncle joined us as well and we sat a laughed at the loss of the dagger board and the tiller. He and his wife sat and listened to our pretty innocuous story with rapt attention and enjoyed a their own drinks, a mint julep for him and a white wine for her. As the afternoon waned we made a deal to replace the boat parts and waved goodbye for the week. My calabash aunt and uncle both yelled “Aloohaaaa!” from the yard as we waived our thanks. As we loaded up for our ride back into town with the broken remains of the daggerboard we could still hear their bird from its cage, “Alooohaaaaa!”
Lucky you live Hawaii, to know Aloha.