After being out of the water for a year due to COVID, the Ka‘awaloa glass bottom boat, a fixture in Kealakekua Bay, was launched Saturday and returned to her mooring ready to take passengers on an unforgettable journey.
Gordon Leslie built the boat in 1979, and her maiden voyage was in 1980.
The idea to build the boat came to Leslie after he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam in 1971 after serving in the U.S. Navy with the Underwater Demolition Team.
“I was a captain on the Jeannie Marie and the Captain Cook VII. As we would come around the point to come into the bay, you know I was born down here, and would think boy I would love to have something like this down here. And that’s how the idea was created,” he recalled.
At the same time, he was with the brothers that were coming up with the idea of the Hokulea with Herb Kane.
“Herb Kane designed the Hokulea down at Ke‘ei Beach. We were all there when he was drawing the canoe and that’s how the canoe idea came up. I built the canoe myself, but had help from friends who were fiberglass experts, so I learned to fiberglass from them,” he said. “The hull is nothing but a racing canoe hull. We built two hulls, then I modified them a little bit to get more flotation and water displacement and then I came up with the idea of the glass bottom viewing boxes.”
He ran the tour for six years, but in 1986 the state gave him a cease and desist order because the bay is an underwater marine conservation park they didn’t want any business conducted in the bay.
“You could come in the bay but couldn’t operate from the bay,” he said. “But they allowed me to keep the family mooring so I have been using the boat as a recreational boat and pleasure boat all these years.”
A couple of years ago, Leslie went back to the Board of Land and Natural Resources to plead his case, noting how many commercial operators now run out of the bay.
“They agreed and reinstated my permits and that’s how we got started,” he said.
“I took it out of the water to refurbish for commercial use about three years ago. I had to get it in compliance,” he remarked.
Leslie relaunched Ka‘awaloa last August but from August to January there were rough seas and he wasn’t able to operate at all.
“We started operating Jan. 1, 2020, but when COVID hit in March, we suspended the business,” he explained.
He brought the canoe out of the water and drydocked her on his property across from Napo‘opo‘o pier.
On Saturday, after receiving state approval last week, Leslie and his skilled crew hoisted the boat onto a flatbed truck and returned her to the water.
Leslie had a certificate of inspection from the Coast Guard to operate as a 24 passenger vessel.
“But this time, I didn’t want to have a cattle barge so to speak so we only take six people out at a time now,” he said. “It is much, much better. It is more private. people enjoy it more. It’s all worth it for us.”
Leslie said the two-hour historical tour is COVID compliant.
“She is 42 feet long and has 24 seats but since we only take six people out, we put three on either side and they are 6 feet apart,” he said.
Passengers can swim or snorkel from the boat within sight of the Captain Cook Monument or view the abundant marine life from the glass bottom.
“We want to really elaborate on the history of the area and people really like that,” he said. “In two hours you can’t cover everything so we try to pick and choose what we want to talk about. There are some things you can’t avoid like the Captain Cook history.”
Cruises can be booked through their website moanaoceanadventures.com.