Wild Ride

Kai Explorer packs a nautical punch

By: Dawna Robertson

I had sailed with John Charleston before. He captained a 44-foot catamaran that cruised the coast off Waikiki Beach toward Diamond Head. I considered it a “picnic sail,” as it was generally mellow and preferred by tourists seeking postcard scenery over nautical marvels.

His new excursions are quite the opposite. Not for the faint of heart, Charleston’s Kai Explorer offers eco-tours geared to adventure lovers wanting wet and somewhat wild over meek and mild.

The beauty with the Kai Explorer, according to Charleston, is that it’s his gig. He owns the boat and has created the itineraries, which he willingly tweaks to his trekkers’ desires. Kai Explorer clientele differs from the typical Waikiki visitor wanting to get onto, rather than into, the water. These eco-outings embrace those lusting for excitement and experiences that are off the beaten aquatic path, so to speak.

I was one of a dozen who loaded lunch, beverages and gear onto Charleston’s 24-foot Willard Rhib inflatable at Moanalua Bay in Hawaii Kai an east Oahu gateway to Hanauma Bay and Makapuu Point. The ocean action on this particular Sunday was what Captain John rated a “five out of 10.”

Our two-hour tour headed north, hugging Oahu’s eastern coastline. Aboard Captain John’s signature jaunt, we traveled past the exclusive Portlock neighborhood, along China Walls, beyond the bay at Hanauma and along a remarkably raw area toward the Makapuu Lighthouse and Rabbit Island.

These views via the ocean were simply breathtaking from both the beauty and the buoyant motion. I kept a solid grip on things, considering the ups and downs we were experiencing, as my sunglasses splashed with salt water over and over again. The day was definitely a thrill ride.

“This has been my goal since moving here in 1999,” Charleston explained. “I always wanted to work for myself and give people a fun experience. I want visitors to see the Hawaii I visit on my weekends. So these eco-tours are designed for tourists, guests and friends who want to go beyond Waikiki.”

We spotted massive endangered sea turtles floating just below the surface and the spout from a lingering humpback whale in the distance.

“We’ve got the whale watching bonus from January to March,” Charleston added. Eyeing one so late in the season was truly a treat. “And we generally see monk seals and dolphin pods as well.”

As we passed China Walls below Portlock, I was amazed at how rugged, yet beautiful, the landscape appeared. It was the familiar contrast that so defines Hawaii.

Charleston pointed out ledges where fishermen perched at night. Ladders dangled down ridges to provide them access to these isolated areas.

“From the land, you see these guys walking toward the ocean at night, wondering where they’re going,” he said. “The fishing is great here. They haul their gear, climb down the ladders to a ledge and fish all night.”

Even more remarkable to me was a solo paddler looking so vulnerable in his one-man outrigger canoe. He flashed us a confident smile, as if to acknowledge our awe of his skills. Infamous as one of the most challenging navigable channels in the world, Kaiwi is an effort for any vessel. We were simply on the fringe of its wicked ways that day, with waves bouncing us up and down like a basketball. I found solace in the fact that I had such confidence in Charleston’s skills.

What I most appreciated is the fact that he took a diplomatic approach to our cruise. Since the day was a bit bouncy, Charleston asked us to vote on continuing to Makapuu or heading toward Aina Haina to snorkel. My vote was the tiebreaker (I raised two hands, but no one noticed). Off we went to explore the underwater world. It was an extremely mellow change from our earlier rough riding. While I enjoyed both versions, this finale was greatly welcomed.

About half the group jumped ship to swim with the colorful reef fish. Others chose to relax in the calm waters that encouraged floating just as much as exploring.

After nearly two hours, we headed back. It had been an exciting day that gave me a fresh perspective on Oahu.


Kai Explorer
377 Keahole St., E-208C
Honolulu, HI 96825

Kai Explorer operates eco-tours along Oahu’s eastern shore. Private charters are available.

Rates: Two-hour Eco-Adventure (Monday - Saturday for $69; two-hour Snorkel Cruise (Tuesday) for $55; one-hour Whale Watching Tour (seasonal) for $35; one-hour Sunset Cruise for $55. Waikiki Transfer Hotel Pickup for $10.

Commission: Varies from 10-20 percent. E-mail jag_inc@mac.com for a travel agent information kit.

Miscellaneous: The boat is equipped with Coast Guard approved adult life vests and safety gear. Snorkel equipment and cooler are provided. Children’s life vests are available upon request. Minimum age is 7 or 70 pounds.
Captain and crew are CPR and Lifeguard Certified. Scuba diving is for certified divemasters only.