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These 3 nautical experiences on O‘ahu will lure even avowed landlubbers

Guests on a private charter enjoy playtime in the ocean. Photo by Asia Brynne

I was born and raised in Hawai‘i, but—surprise!—I don’t surf. Or snorkel. Or even swim. Yet that hasn’t prevented me from loving the ocean as much as any old salt. The Pacific is Hawai‘i’s biggest playground, and I enjoy being on it instead of in it.

Whatever the watercraft—cat, kayak, ferry, or liner—I breathe in the fresh air, feel the sun and salt spray on my face, and marvel at the vast expanse of blue before me. Out there, the words of the late, great ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau always come to my mind: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

Vida Mia: a restored Jazz Age yacht

Private charter boat

A picturesque anchoring spot for a private charter. Photo by Asia Brynne

In 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed, leading to the decade-long Great Depression. But looking at Vida Mia, which was constructed in California that year, you wouldn’t have guessed that global economies were in turmoil at that time. With an oak and Port Orford cedar hull, an interior of gleaming teak and mahogany, a porcelain clawfoot bathtub, and tempered stained-glass cabinets, the 61-foot motor yacht was the epitome of luxury and elegance.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, wealthy businessmen used such “commuter yachts” for pleasure and to get to Wall Street from their Long Island, New York, estates. Very few such antique boats that are certified to carry passengers remain in the world, and Vida Mia is the only one based in Hawai‘i. Over the decades, the yacht has been the pride and joy of multiple owners; the fourth brought her to Hawai‘i in 1963.

“You could build a boat that looks like her, but it wouldn’t have her history,” says owner Brynn Rovito. “Families have lived on her; countless weddings and other celebrations have taken place aboard her. Vida Mia is rare, she’s beautiful, and it’s a privilege to have her here.”

It’s a privilege to ride aboard her, too. Tours hug the Waikīkī shoreline at a leisurely pace. Stroll wherever you like on the boat, seeing areas where former owners, their friends, and their families ate, slept, and played. The sunset dinner cruises feature a seafood supper of Hawaiian fish ceviche, shrimp cocktail, Kualoa oyster shooters, blackened ‘ahi, spiny lobster tail stuffed with king crab, coconut panna cotta, and a premium open bar.

Rovito loves to see guests talking story, creating cherished memories, and appreciating a vessel that has been through many changes in the past 94 years. The crew’s training includes learning the boat’s history.

“I feel a tremendous responsibility to be a good steward of Vida Mia,” Rovito says. “Having the right business plan is essential, so that people can enjoy her and she can be properly maintained. You can’t do booze cruises with her; you can’t change her story line. She has a special spirit, and she tells you what she can do, how often she can go out, how many people she can carry. She tells you what makes her happy.”

Vida Mia offers coffee cruises (whale watching is a bonus November through March), sunset dinner cruises (with a fireworks show on Fridays), and themed special-event cruises. Adult prices begin at $89. The pet-friendly boat can accommodate groups of up to 36 people. Ask about kama‘āina rates, special events, and corporate and private charters.

Captain’s log

Vida Mia has appeared on the silver screen with Hollywood Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer (Snatched, 2007). In 2021, the boat appeared in HBO’s Emmy Award–winning television show The White Lotus.

Kamoauli: a floating classroom


Kamoauli at sea. Photo courtesy Kamoauli

What started with 3 friends scribbling notes on a napkin while lunching on tacos in December 2016 evolved into a far-reaching educational mission designed to kōkua kids, strengthen communities, and enrich visitors’ experiences. The venue is unique: Kamoauli, a 46-foot double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe that has been certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. Its name is a contraction of ka mo‘olelo a uli, or “the stories from the deep blue sea.”

Rob Riekena, Koa Wright, and Nelson Rodrigues initially wanted to launch a mentoring program for at-risk youths. One thing led to another, and 2 months later, they were considering a much bigger endeavor: a canoe that could serve as a platform for hands-on learning about Hawaiian history, culture, beliefs, values, and practices.

The vessel, made of Tongan cedar obtained with special permission from Tongan King ‘Aho‘eitu Tupou VI, had to be dismantled for shipment from Tonga to Honolulu and rebuilt by 20 volunteers to meet Coast Guard standards. Owner-operator Riekena, a retired general contractor, is also one of Kamoauli’s 3 captains.

Kamoauli musicians

Hawaiian music is a big part of the onboard experience. Photo courtesy Kamoauli

“This is my passion, my way to give back,” he says. “I’m thrilled to have helped create the model for an innovative floating classroom.”

With Waikīkī as a backdrop, you’ll learn by doing. Onboard activities relate to Hawaiian food, lei, language, tapa, music, dance, weaving, and traditional games. True to Kamoauli’s name, you’ll also hear stories about Hawai‘i from a native perspective. Conversations revolve around your interests; some have delved into complex topics, such as the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Children making poi aboard Kamoauli

Pounding taro into poi. Photo courtesy Kamoauli

Refreshments are typical of what Hawaiians of old would’ve eaten: poke, smoked marlin, sweet potato, coconut, papaya, mango, fresh coconut water, and pa‘i ‘ai—thick, undiluted taro that you’ll pound yourself. Everything is served with wooden bowls, platters, and utensils, all part of the mission to emphasize sustainability and environmental stewardship.

“We regard Kamoauli as a pu‘uhonua, a sanctuary,” Riekena says. “Whatever is going on in our lives—if there’s pilikia [trouble]—our crew leaves it on the dock and, hopefully, our guests will too. We start every trip with an ‘oli [chant] and end it with an ‘oli. What we share in between is aloha and ‘ike [knowledge]—it’s authentic Hawai‘i, the real Hawai‘i.”

Four 2-hour cruises depart daily. Adults, $200–$250; children, $100–$125. Ask about kama‘āina rates and private charters.

Captain’s log

Kamoauli’s leisure excursions subsidize onboard science, history, and culture programs for school groups ranging from elementary through college levels.

Partnerships with like-minded organizations have been formed. For example, Kamoauli serves fresh produce from O‘ahu farms, including Ma‘o Organic Farms in Wai‘anae, known for its mission of “connecting youth and land through the daily practice of aloha āina [love of the land].”Smoking and consuming alcohol are prohibited aboard Kamoauli. “The canoe is a special, sacred place,” Captain Rob Riekena explains. “Because of that, this kapu [taboo] can never be broken.”

Waikiki Sailing School: wind-powered adventure

Preparing the sailboat Essanza for a lesson

Getting ready to set sail on Merrill's 33-foot sloop, Essanza. Photo by David Murphey

To this day, Matt Merrill clearly remembers the storm.

“There was lightning, thunder, and heavy rain, and the winds were blowing at 44 knots,” says the owner of Waikiki Sailing School (WSS). “The seas were at least 25 feet high, and they were tossing us all around. The sky was dark even during the day.”

In the summer of 1979, Merrill had just graduated from McKinley High School. Uncertain about his future plans, he decided to join friends as a crew member on a 38-foot trimaran for a 6-month sailing voyage in the South Pacific. He had grown up in a sailing family, but this would be his first transpacific journey.

The squall buffeted the boat for 7 of the 28 days that it took the group to sail 2,109 nautical miles from Hawai‘i to the Marquesas, their first stop. “It was terrifying for a few days,” Merrill says. “But trimarans are pretty stable, and we didn’t have any equipment failures, so I gained confidence in the boat and its ability to navigate rough seas in full gale-force winds.”

Woman learning to raise the mainsail

Learning how to raise the mainsail. Photo by David Murphey

Merrill also gained confidence in himself, and he returned from the voyage knowing that sailing would be his future. Over the years, he worked various boating jobs, from building vessels to repairing them. He launched WSS in 2006, holding a captain’s license and a sailing instructor certificate from the American Sailing Association (ASA). Today, his slate of ASA courses can be taken individually or bundled together as a “sail-and-learn” charter on either his 33-foot or 44-foot yacht.

For the 7-day adventure to Maui, Moloka‘i, and Lāna‘i, student crews assist Merrill with everything from raising, setting, and trimming the sails to taking the helm, furling the jib, and dropping the anchor. There’s also ample time for relaxation, including swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. If the yacht berths in a harbor, students can disembark to enjoy nearby activities and attractions.

Matt Merill

Captain Matt Merrill. Photo by David Murphey

“I love teaching people about sailing and sharing the high of gliding on the ocean, powered only by the wind,” Merrill says. “We can anchor in a hidden cove one night and move to another one the next night. On a boat, you can see incredible parts of Hawai‘i that you can’t from a car, plane, or on foot.”

Prices for the Maui, Moloka‘i, and Lāna‘i Sail start at $4,550 for up to 3 people.

Captain’s log

Matt Merrill first cruised in 1961, when he was just 6 weeks old. His parents took him, bundled in a blanket, when they sailed their boat along the estuary in Alameda, California.

Cool historical fact: If an officer of a ship died during a voyage, the crew would hoist blue flags and paint a blue band on the hull to signify they were grieving. That’s supposedly how the term “feeling blue” (sad) came to be.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi has enjoyed ocean adventures on kayaks, ferries, catamarans, sailboats, cruise ships, and Zodiacs throughout Hawai‘i.

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