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Saltwater Rodeo

Article by Ashley Stepanek

What's the fastest way to Molokini? It's with Blue Water Rafting, owned and operated by Captain Mark De Rensis since 1985—his fleet of high-powered rafts chase daily from Kihei Boat Ramp to the famed Molokini islet, and to rarely visited places along Maui's Gold Coast, including La Perouse Bay, Kanaio, and even Kaupo. No paddles and currents are relied upon in this ocean adventure: it's 100-percent pure engine power that drives Blue Water's vessels and provides maneuverability into smaller areas, like sea caves and lava archways, that bigger boats just can't get in and out of.

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For the combination Kanaio/Molokini trip, De Rensis and his gang of "ocean wranglers"—in this case, Captain Ted Grupenhoff—meet us at 6:45 a.m. at the Boat Ramp. Driving south along South Kihei Rd., we turn right into our destination past Kamaole Beach Park II. (If you're coming from Lahaina, it's best to drive along Sugar Beach and through Kihei; from Wailea it's a five-minute drive north on the lower road.)

Parking is easy. There's plenty available in the dirt and gravel lot to the right, found up from the entrance. Prepping ourselves at the car ("What did you sign me up for?" my friends implores, rubbing the sleep from his eyes), we're dressed in minimal, water-resistant clothing (swimsuit, tank top, long-sleeve cover-up; those "shants," pants that zip-off above the knee; slippahs)—there could be "a small dousing or complete waterfalls," the reservationist tells me over the phone. Wear removable footwear, she says, since you'll go barefoot onboard; and don't think about wearing a hat . . . it will blow right off. Apply tons of sunscreen and bring sunglasses that can be strapped to your head, so they don't fall off. If you plan to bring a camera, recommended to capture the view (but take at your own risk), then invest in a dry bag.

Down near the water we check-in with First Mate Greg Morgan—he warmly greets us and organizes the group, approximately 15, to load the ALMAR RAIV Pineapple Express. We ask about the boat's name, and Morgan explains that Blue Water recently purchased Pineapple and repainted it royal blue to match the company—before, it was colored green and yellow to look like the fruit. Only problem is, now the boat name doesn't match the new color—De Rensis would like to change it, too, but he thinks that might bring some bad luck. Oh, the challenges of marketing and raft juju!

Once we're onboard, Grupenhoff and Morgan give a safety briefing. Then we're shown where and how to sit for maximum adventure: Grupenhoff straddles the raft's wall with his outside leg bent, resting in front, and his other leg bent with foot firmly planted inside. Then come the ropes, which, Grupenhoff tells us, we are to rely on for "three points of contact": they line the inside and outside of the wall ("hold the ropes loosely so they don't chafe when the boat is in motion"), and line the deck. You're supposed to tuck your inside toes underneath. For those unsure about this position—maybe it's uncomfortable, or doesn't feel very secure—it's better to sit on the cushioned benches in the middle of the raft. This area also has a canopy for shade.

But we want the full on, entirely exposed, riveting raft experience—the "saltwater rodeo," Grupenhoff calls it. So we sit on the wall, and hold on for dear life.

He revs the engine and throws the boat into a series of figure eights to give us a feel for the "motion of the ocean," so that we can predict when to hold on tight and when to slacken. "No death grips yet," says Grupenhoff, with a mock cackle, "it's a long ride." Then the raft lurches to over 20 knots in eight to nine foot open-ocean swells, and we're caught up in a blur of wind and spray past Wailea, past Makena. I look around to see that everyone has lapsed into a kind of meditative state, our bodies rhythmically rolling with the boat, our hands automatically gauging when to hold, our faces plastered with goofy smiles despite being pelted by the elements. Suddenly someone bursts out, "YEE-HAH!"

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