Sailing the Kohala Coast on the Imi Loa

Sailing the Kohala Coast on the Imi Loa

Back in September of last year, we were lucky enough to be invited to sail on the Imi Loa. We haven't forgotten about our epic voyage and for some reason I haven't been able to stop thinking about sailing ever since.

Imi Loa Sailing Kohala Coast Big Island

Imi Loa sailing the open seas, Kohala Coast, image: MIke Varney

Imi Loa translates to mean "explorer" in Hawaiian and is the perfect name for this pinnace - a narrow and graceful boat designed to sail with varying rigs or to be rowed. This particular boat is a representation of the early 19th century maritime era. These types of boats were used to explore unknown shores and to convey people and supplies to larger ships. The Imi Loa is 32-feet long, rows ten oars and is fitted with two masts. It's made almost entirely out of wood and is a sight to behold.

The Imi Loa was designed by distinguished marine architect Melbourne Smith and constructed in the winter of 2007-2008 in Rockport, Maine. Thanks to the generosity of a wonderful man named Woodson K. Woods, also known as "Woody", the Imi Loa now calls the Big Island home. It is now part of the Ka Makani Ho'okele Program, at Hawaii Preparatory Academy (HPA) that teaches students small boat rowing and sailing, seamanship, coastal navigation, marine science and history through expeditions along the Kona and Kohala Coast.

Inspecting the Imi Loa at Kawaihae Harbor

Checking out the Imi Loa in Kawaihae Harbor

We received the invitation from Woody and headed to Kawaihae Harbor on a beautiful Saturday morning. It's not often that you see a boat like this, especially here on the Big Island so we arrived with wide eyes and wonderment. We met the crew and got to know each other before getting the boat into the water. This was a pretty tricky task in itself, because if you don't know Kawaihae Harbor, it is a very small (and busy) boat harbor, where you can often find children swimming, people fishing and canoe/outrigger teams practicing - all of them sharing the entry point at the end of a gravel, dirt road. 

Crew of Imi Loa getting ready for take off

Checking the sails Imi Loa kawaihae harbor

Testing the rigging and sails before take off, Kawaihae Harbor

Paddling or "sculling" the giant, wooden oars in unison was a challenge but at the same time, so much fun. Sculling is an alternative method of propelling the boat forward and there is a special way to do it. I've never really paddled anything quite like this before!

The wind that morning was ideal for sailing. Light and breezy as we headed out of the harbor and gently increasing as we headed further out to sea and North along the Kohala Coast. It was magic to see the mast and sails go up and the Hawaiian Flag flying in the breeze.

 Getting to know the imi Loa boat and each other

Magic sail aboard the Imi Loa kohala coast big island

The crew in a state of relaxation, mid-sail, Big Island

We anchored along the coast, taking a break to snorkel and dive along the coast together. Along with an assortment of coral reef and fish species, we were greeted with a Spotted Eagle Ray. It was a humbling experience to be able to enjoy the marine life while knowing the beautiful Imi Loa was patiently waiting for us to return home. 

Beautiful views of the kohala coast

Eric maiefski Sundot Ohana on board the Imi Loa sailboat

Eric Maiefski enjoying epic views of the Kohala Coast

I can honestly say that I don't know a whole lot about sailing. I would consider myself a basic sailor with very little knowledge of knots, terminology and protocol. Despite my lack of knowledge, everyone on board made me feel welcome. I enjoyed every minute on the water that day and remember thinking I never wanted the trip to come to an end. 

Ever since sailing that day on the Imi Loa, I have developed a new appreciation for sailing and a constant desire to do more of it. Something about the wind taking you places. The history of the pinnacle. The way your mind has to work to think of all the elements involved in a smooth sail. The camaraderie you develop with others in such a short time on the ocean. There is always so much to learn, so much to enjoy and so much to appreciate. 

image by mike varney of the imi loa sailboat hawaii big island

Imi Loa in full sail, imagel: Mike Varney

Christina henline on board the Imi Loa sailboat hawaii Big Island

Tina Henline, feeling blessed to be part of such an epic voyage

I am grateful for the experience I had on the Imi Loa and feel proud to be part of this Sailing Ohana. 

Woody's gift of the Imi Loa to Hawaii Preparatory Academy and the Big Island community is only in its early years and it will be exciting to see the future unfold for this beautiful boat and its crew. 

If you would like to learn more about the Ka Makani Ho'okele Program you can contact HPA on (808) 885-7321 visit their website or email David Giff at:


Dog crew on board Imi Loa sailboat hawaii

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