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Lahaina – Historic Gem of Hawaii

In 1979 I sailed aboard a 67-foot ketch from Oahu to Lahaina on a full moon night. It was supposed to be about a twelve-hour sail and the captain had me drive the boat all night long. It was nothing short of magical. The full moon cast its silvery beam as I drove the boat windward in heaving and plunging eight-foot seas to the Valley Isle. Maui earned that nickname because there is a large, broad valley in between the 10,000-foot Haleakala peak to the east, and the 6000-foot west Maui mountains.

We pulled into the Lahaina small boat harbor early in the morning and I’ll never forget just how quiet, calm and strikingly beautiful it was. In Hawaii, there is definitely a windward side and a leeward side to the islands and on the leeward part of those beautiful  lush green mountains sits Lahaina—“merciless sun” in Hawaiian. Folks way before me had carved out the best little harbor for miles around. Think, Jimmy Buffet’s “One Particular Harbor.” All around me there was a dazzling display of fishing, sail and tourist boats gently tugging on their mooring lines. I thought I had found boat heaven!

Photo of a marina in Lahaina taken before the devastating 2023 fire
Photo of a marina in Lahaina taken before the devastating 2023 fire.

As the ancient capital of the kingdom, ruled by King Kamehameha, this idyllic setting was the place of legend. In Lahaina, and blocks from the harbor, there were multiple fish ponds and the Hawaiians were experts at aquaculture way before most societies even thought about the subject. Ruling was built on the “Kapu” system, that is when resources were getting low, or Royalty wanted more than the commoners, they would simply outlaw those resources from being utilized. Overtime, those resources would be replenished and the royalty (Alii) would lift the Kapu on those items. Try and close your eyes for a moment and imagine this idyllic tropical paradise that despite strict rules, had abundant food, near perfect weather and where royalty rode giant koa wood surfboards on waves that still break hip high nearly every single day.

This incredible society went happily on like this for hundreds of years until Captain Cook “discovered” the Sandwich Islands (as he called them) and later, white Anglo-Saxon protestant missionaries who thought that they needed to save the locals from themselves lest they burn in hell. The reverend Dwight Baldwin built a home in the heart of Lahaina so he could keep an eye on the locals and make sure that they were wearing clothes and not out surfing among other things. 

Photo of the welcoming calm waters of Lahaina taken before the devastating 2023 fire
Photo of the welcoming calm waters of Lahaina taken before the 2023 fire.

Next up in Lahaina were the whalers, who discovered that the calm clear roadstead on this leeward side of the mountains afforded them the best spot to rest, restore supplies, and go ashore to consort with local women and get tanked up on grog. The missionaries didn’t like this so naturally they built a little prison out of blocks made of coral. It stands to this day.

Pearl Harbor was ambushed by the Japanese on Oahu, World War II commenced, and the United States seized control of the islands. Hawaii was admitted into statehood in 1959. Big business found that Hawaii had the perfect climate and cheap labor for the cultivation of sugarcane and pineapples. Soon after, bright green sugarcane fields adorned the countryside. Water was plentiful due to the ever-present trade winds, and everybody had a job if they wanted one. Canals and reservoirs of water were all over the place and folks were much more wary of tsunamis than wildfires. Rightfully so, as a tsunami hit the Hilo side of the big island of Hawaii on May 23, 1960, killing 61 people.

The waters surrounding the islands are rich in pelagic sea life and commercial tuna boats were built to catch them. These boats were designed and built by Japanese craftsmen to catch skipjack tuna (aku) primarily.  Measuring 90 feet, these boats were quite a sight to behold. Here’s how they worked: Early in the morning, the aku boats would anchor offshore and take a smaller boat close to shore and net hundreds if not thousands of sardines (nehu). They would then travel offshore and find the schools of tuna. One guy would throw out handfuls of the sardines, water sprayers would shoot out water from the stern, and the crew threw out feathered jigs thus hooking the tuna and heaving them over their shoulders and into the hold.

Photo of a palm tree lined  street in Lahaina taken before the devastating 2023 fire
Photo of a palm tree lined street in Lahaina taken before the 2023 fire.

Fast forward to the time of Hemingway and the birth of modern-day sport fishing. Probably as a result of the skipjack fleet of sampans, it was realized that there were monsters swimming around the Hawaiian Islands. An innovative man by the name of Henry Chee started pulling lures he made out of plumbing equipment—and they worked! These lures worked so well in fact, that one day Capt. Cornelius Choy took a group of Canadians out fishing for the day and they landed an 1805-pound Pacific blue marlin! Big Julie or Choy’s monster as she was affectionately referred to, would have been the all-time world record if it weren’t for the fact that more than one person had reeled her in. In the early seventies, these sportfishing boats found homes in Lahaina harbor and one of which was the 34-foot Merritt, Finest Kind owned and operated by Capt. David Hudson. Finest Kind was the darling of the fleet and the prettiest boat I’ve ever had the privilege of working on.   

Tourism exploded in the Hawaiian Islands, and developers built condominiums all over the place. In Lahaina, new businesses were sprouting up seemingly every day. The town was in serious danger of being ruined by hot dog stands and used car lots. Fortunately, there was a historical society—the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. They did a pretty good job and tried their best to curtail some of the scourge. They struggled along with fundraising and standards but once a man by the name of Jim (Kimo) Luckey took the helm of the fledgling LRF, things really began to change for the betterment of this great little town. Under Kimo’s steady hand, the missionary home of Dwight Baldwin was restored, the oldest print shop west of the Mississippi was rebuilt and a myriad of the other historical projects were preserved. 

Aerial photo of a marina in Lahaina before the 2023 fire
Aerial photo of a marina in Lahaina before the 2023 fire.

One of those was the whaling museum ship—the Carthaginian. She was originally christened as the Komet, bought in Sweden and brought to Lahaina via the Panama Canal. She was rebuilt as an authentic brig of the bygone era of whaling and housed a great little museum in her hold. In later years, she began costing the LRF around $50,000 annually and the decision was made to scuttle her offshore as an artificial reef. If it weren’t for Kimo Luckey, Lahaina would have become something akin to unremarkable. Please don’t misunderstand that comment, it would still be beautiful and everything but lacking in a whole bunch of cultural qualities.

Which brings us to the present day, and the tragic loss of Lahaina on August 9, 2023.

Prior to the inferno that engulfed Lahaina, hurricane Dora passed by the islands to the south and brought gusts of wind that were clocked at 75 – 85 miles-per-hour. These winds swept down the west Maui mountains and met with an unknown ignition source somewhere along the way. I’ve heard that the warning system failed and as a result, an apocalyptic nightmare ensued. As of this writing, Lahaina and the lives of more than 99 people have perished so far, and 11,000 are without power and water. Thousands of families displaced—many people literally had to jump into the ocean to escape the flames!

Photo of a destroyed marina after the devastating 2023 fire
Photo of a destroyed marina.

Lahaina residents first heard the sirens from firetrucks and saw the smoke up toward the mountains. They didn’t think much of it and eventually, all was quiet. The Maui fire department then responded to an active fire in East Maui—more than an hour away on a good day. Then, a hot spot resurfaced in Lahaina but this time the wind was gusting upwards of 85 mph and the first responders were all the way over on the other side of the island. All hell broke loose, and the town was quickly engulfed in flames. The “one particular harbor” was utterly and completely destroyed. My last boat there, the 35-foot Bertram, Reel Hooker, is now gone. God only knows how long it’ll take to get that harbor up and running enough to allow boat operators to once again ply their trade.

 In a weird, sort of twisted way, we’re fortunate that this happened in Hawaii and not someplace else. People have come together and helped one another so much and stories are pouring in about complete strangers helping each because of the aloha spirit. This in Hawaiian is called “kokua” (help each other). I guess when you live on an island, it’s really important to put your differences aside and help one another as much as humanly possible. Maybe there’s a lesson here.

The Hawaiian people are resilient, tough and I know that Lahaina will eventually be rebuilt properly with a nod to its historic past but it’s going to take a long while.  So with that, I bid a fond Aloha to Lahaina, see you again someday and mahalo nui loa for all the great memories!

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