I’d been in choppy seas before, but this was something else entirely. Every few seconds I’d feel air beneath the hull of my kayak, or get drenched as a wave crashed over the bow. A light but steady breeze was whipping up considerable swells. The kayak was pretty stable, but I pointed the bow into the waves just to be safe. I could hear the surf smashing into the big rocks behind me, but at the same I wasn’t exactly eager to start paddling for the open sea.
So began my first kayaking expedition at night. My friend Travis Tiffin—who had gone out at night in his kayak many times before—had been talking to me for a few days about how great it was out there at night under a full moon, just relaxing on a glassy black ocean lit only by the running lights of the boat or the bioluminescent algae churned up by the paddle.
I thought about it. I loved paddling out by myself in the morning—heading out off shore where you couldn’t hear traffic or other people and just bobbing in the water, watching the sunrise over Haleakala. Heading out at night, under the conditions he described, would be spectacular.
But this was different. There was no bioluminescence, no full moon (it was obscured by clouds) and the trip was far from relaxing. I was in water rougher than I’d ever encountered before, with virtually no visibility. The whole world was dark, with just some scattered lights on shore at the hotel just south of the boat ramp. I couldn’t see the big lights at the ramp itself.
“What do you think?” Travis yelled. Even though he was just a few yards off my port bow, I could barely hear him.
“It’s pretty rough,” I yelled back as a wave crashed over the bow.
“This is nothing,” he said. Then he pointed his paddle straight up. “I’ve been out when the waves were this high.”
It was a little after 10 p.m. when Travis and I launched into the deceptively calm, sheltered waters surrounding the Kihei Boat Ramp—he in his gigantic blue Queen Mary of kayaks that had a spare paddle, a paddle leash and two cargo holds, and me in my squat, short, yellow job that sported a carabiner for clipping my Locals to some nylon netting. Between us we had glow sticks, waterproof flashlights, hanging lights for wearing around the neck and even a headlamp.
“So you don’t keep the flashlight on all the time?” I asked just as we began carrying our kayaks down to the water.
“No,” he said. “You keep the lights on too long and you risk attracting stuff.”
“Stuff?” My imagination began racing.
“Yeah. We’ve been out before and gotten bumped by things.”
“Things?! Like sharks?”
Travis just shrugged his shoulders.
If you haven’t already figured it out, Travis is a true adventurer. He’s gone all over the world and experienced all kinds of wonders. Once, at night, he launched out of Makena Landing and paddled all the way to Molokini and back—a total trip of seven miles. He was just about to the islet when he realized his kayak was taking on more water than he should. He made it back to Makena, but apparently just barely.
“Paddling out was tough, but paddling back was easy,” he told me. “I mean, if you stop, you die.”
I was thinking about that when it came time to paddle back to the boat ramp. We’d only been about for 20 minutes at most, and when I turned around, I noticed the current had carried us south. Suddenly I realized that meant paddling back against the current, with waves crashing into my left side.
But paddle we did. The swell buffeted and knocked the kayak about, but didn’t roll her. I was soaked by the time we came around and entered the shelter of the ramp, but also elated. It had been difficult going, but it was also undeniably fun.
By now it was nearly 11 p.m., and the moon had broken through the clouds. “If you don’t mind, I’m going back out,” Travis said. And he did.
He didn’t get very far. The next morning he told me how he paddled straight out, away from the shore, hoping to find calmer water. It was a forlorn hope. He went out maybe a mile, then turned around and hightailed it back to the boat ramp.
“It was rough out there!” he said.
Photo/image courtesy Travis Tiffin