Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Ben Ferrari
As we leave Lahaina Harbor, the Pacific Ocean is a velvet blue expanse with hardly a white nick of wind. The late morning breeze, though light, is still strong enough to propel a sailboat. That’s good, because today is the first regatta of the Lahaina Yacht Club’s 2016 season, and I’m excited to help monitor the action from aboard the race committee boat.
Ian Ponting attempts to measure the wind speed with a tiny wind vane attached to his cellphone. “Eight knots on the geekometer,” he crows, pleased with his gadget’s accuracy. Ponting serves as rear commodore, in charge of the club’s races both big and small. As we motor out into the deep blue, he and fellow club member Dan O’Hanlon heave huge yellow buoys overboard to mark today’s course. Unlike racetracks on land, regatta courses are contingent on wind direction and shift accordingly during a race. Other contingencies Lahaina yachters might encounter? Whales and submarines.
Eight trim sailboats approach the start line. Among them are Snickers, the club’s own Olson 30, and Gung Ho, the fastest boat in today’s lineup. The boat captains trade friendly banter, jockey for position, and try not to ram into one another—or worse, lose their wind. Ideally, when the start horn shrieks, they’ll sail between the buoys on a strong tack.
O’Hanlon and Ponting synchronize their watches. I raise the four-minute signal flag. O’Hanlon hollers out a ten-second countdown and then blasts the horn: the race is on! Sails fill and surge forward. O’Hanlon immediately shoots up a flag, alerting a boat that it crossed the line prematurely. Gung Ho must maneuver back to the start, losing precious minutes. Gung Ho’s captain and owner, Keahi Ho, takes the penalty in stride. Competition during these club regattas is just stiff enough to make the races fun.
Yachting is a relatively small sport on Maui—which is surprising until you consider the limiting factors. Hawai‘i is a far reach from everywhere; sailing to or from this isolated archipelago is a major commitment. Sailing within Hawai‘i isn’t easy, either. Small-boat harbors are few and far between here, and slips are in high demand. The channels separating the Islands are infamous, known worldwide for their volatile seas and currents. When you leave a Hawaiian harbor, you enter the wilderness of the open ocean.
That wilderness is a siren’s call to some, such as beloved restaurateur Floyd Christenson. Back in the 1960s, he and his family sailed around the South Pacific before setting anchor in Maui and opening Mama’s Fish House, one of the most successful restaurants in the state. He and a handful of other sailors founded the Lahaina Yacht Club in 1965. They transformed a dilapidated laundry on Front Street into an oceanfront clubhouse and contracted Hawaiian artist Sam Ka‘ai to design a burgee—the pennant that identifies the club. Ka‘ai drew a white sperm whale on a red backing.
“I grew up with that logo on everything,” says Ponting. Like most club members, he honed his appetite for yachting elsewhere before moving to Hawai‘i. He’s originally from the Bay Area, but his family has been entwined with Lahaina Yacht Club for decades. In 1974 his uncle won the club’s showcase regatta, the Vic–Maui. Held every other year since 1968, the international yacht race starts in Victoria, Canada, and ends roughly two weeks later in Kā‘anapali. When a boat arrives at the finish line—no matter what time of day—club members greet it with banners, refreshments, and flower lei.
Naturally, when Ponting moved to Maui sixteen years ago, he gravitated to the club. “It was kind of seedy back then,” he admits. Aside from the Vic–Maui, “there was no sailing.” It’s well known that sailing clubs without active boating programs become drinking clubs. For close to twenty years, the “yacht” part of the Lahaina Yacht Club languished while its sailors waited for a slip to open up in Lahaina Harbor. Finally, eight years ago, the harbormaster called. Once the club had a place to park a boat, they bought one: Snickers.
Today, Snickers trails behind the other yachts in the race. The current leaders, Noa and Boondoggle, approach the first mark, a buoy they have to clear. Gung Ho suddenly darts between them, having jibed from far behind. In one sleek maneuver, Gung Ho has stitched up its lost time. All three boats round the mark in perfect sync. Their crews strike the jib sails and hoist silky spinnakers, which inflate like brilliant balloons.
Soon the entire fleet is sailing with the wind towards the finish line. The spinnakers cut a colorful swath across the backdrop of the West Maui Mountains. On calm days like this, sailing is a profoundly serene sport. But even on gusty days when the wind roars through the rigging, a sailor’s inner ear registers the absence of an engine’s high-pitched wail—registers and rejoices. To harness the wind, to hitch a ride on the planet’s very breath is a kind of magic.
O’Hanlon and Ponting keep an eye out for humpback whales, and for the Atlantis Submarine, which has surprised a yacht captain or two in the past by surfacing unexpectedly. As Snickers passes by, they assure me that she’s not a slow boat, but is often skippered by captains and crews in training. The chance to sail her is one of the perks of club membership.
The perks are many. Throughout the year, the club hosts numerous regattas and fishing tournaments. Members have exclusive access to the clubhouse that hangs over the water on Front Street. They can flash their membership card to gain entrance at almost any yacht club in the world—including posh addresses in San Francisco or Shanghai. And, perhaps best of all, Lahaina Yacht Club offers junior and adult sailing lessons.
“We’re trying to nurture the community,” says Ponting, who helped launch the club’s junior sail program in 2009. “It was the most sought-after summer camp on the island—with no advertising.” The club now hosts Hawai‘i’s largest junior regatta. “Teaching kids how to sail gives them a great sense of self, responsibility, and teamwork.”
Teamwork is essential in the final moments of today’s race, to capitalize on the building breeze. As each yacht crosses the finish line, I record its time down to the seconds. We won’t know the official winners until O’Hanlon calculates the scores based on each boat’s handicap. The last boat limps in lazily, its crew already cracking open beers. We motor off to retrieve the buoys and catch several humpbacks frolicking. We dive into the deep blue, to listen to their underwater songs—yet another perk of the sailing life.
A few hours later, the clubhouse fills with sailors freshened up and ready to celebrate. Trophies from past regattas glitter behind the bar and colorful burgees from yacht clubs around the world hang from the rafters. The chef piles snacks onto the crowded tables. I sit down beside Nancy Goode, who crewed today on Boondoggle. She remembers the moment she discovered the power of sailing, forty years ago in Southern California. A boat captain handed her a line and told her when to pull on it. She felt the boat move faster. She was hooked.
Goode and her boyfriend planned to sail around the world. When he decided to go without her, two fellows from Alaska found her crying on the dock. We’re sailing to Hawai‘i tomorrow, they said. She joined them. Upon landing in Lahaina, she got a job on a trimaran, leading snorkel tours. She now skippers monthly ladies’ sails, introducing other women to the wonders of travelling by wind.
O’Hanlon interrupts the socializing to announce the regatta’s winners: Noa places first, Gung Ho second. Jeff Kaiser, the gracious club commodore, stands to make another announcement. “Twenty years ago, Kea Ho won Sportsman of the Year,” he says. “History repeats itself. I’d like to congratulate his son, Nalu Ho, for winning Sportsman of the Year in 2015.” The deserving eighth-grader recently sailed with his father to Tahiti and back. He grins shyly and accepts his award—clearly a club member in the making. Meanwhile, Goode locks eyes with me and pencils my name in for her next ladies’ sail.
Attend a regatta: Lahaina Yacht Club hosts regattas year-round. You can hitch a ride on a yacht for the day, enter your own boat in the race, volunteer aboard the committee boat, or help welcome the incoming Vic–Maui racers. View the club’s calendar online.
Learn to sail: Lahaina Yacht Club offers five-day sailing lessons for adults (co-ed and women only) and juniors (ages nine to fifteen). Novice sailors should know how to swim, have strength enough to hoist a sail, bring gloves, and wear layered clothing and sun protection. Adults: $200 member, $400 nonmember. Juniors: $250 member, $300 nonmember
Become a club member: Two existing members need to sponsor you. Attend some of the events above and you’re on your way.
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