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The Lāhainā Roads

It’s not about automobiles – this is the area where ships anchor off Lāhainā.

Lāhainā Roads, also called the Lāhainā Roadstead is a channel of the Pacific Ocean in the Hawaiian Islands. The surrounding islands of Maui and Lānaʻi (and to a lesser extent, Molokaʻi and Kahoʻolawe) make it a sheltered anchorage.

The central location of the Hawaiian Islands between the continent and Japan whaling grounds brought many whaling ships to the Islands. Whalers needed food and the islands supplied this need from its fertile lands.

Between the 1820s and the 1860s, the Lāhainā Roadstead was the principal anchorage of the American Pacific whaling fleet. During that time, up to 1,500 sailors at a time were on the streets of the small town.

One reason why so many whalers preferred Lāhainā to other ports was that by anchoring in a roadstead from half a mile to a mile from shore they could control their crews better than when in a harbor.

“This mountain barrier (West Maui Mountains) shuts off the trade wind, and Lahaina roadstead is as smooth as the proverbial millpond, though a brief time may bring the sailor to a wind-tossed portion of Neptune’s domain of a very different finality.” (The Friend, April 1903)

“Four channels lead into this inland sea, from the north, from the west, from the south, and from the southeast, and each has its own significant name. The islands which make these channels are seen most comprehensively from the hill back of the town -“

“Molokai on the right, stretching westward; Lanai directly in front, blocking the ocean on the southwest; and Kahoolawe, long and low, on the left, running southwestward.” (The Friend, April 1903)

“The anchorage being an open roadstead, vessels can always approach or leave it with any wind that blows. No pilot is needed here.”

“Vessels generally approach through the channel between Maui and Molokai, standing well over to Lanai, as far as the trade will carry them, then take the sea breeze, which sets in during the forenoon, and head for the town.” (The Friend, April 30, 1857)

“The anchorage is about ten miles in extent along the shore and from within a cable’s length of the reef in seven fathoms of water, to a distance of three miles out with some twenty-five fathoms, affording abundant room for as large a fleet as can ever be collected here.” (The Friend, April 30, 1857)

“I shall never forget the finest sight of ships under sail I ever saw. It was a beautiful Sabbath morning at Lahaina. A very few ships were anchored off our place. The familiar cry of “Kail O!” was early heard and a glance towards the point towards Molokai revealed a ship under full sail coming down the channel.” (Paradise of the Pacific, 1906 – referring to 1851-1861)

“It was soon followed by another and another until the increasing numbers ceased to be numbered. It was a fine sight as they came into view. As if some common agreement they had all agreed to make the port the same time. They had come from the Arctic and the Okhotsk sea”. (Paradise of the Pacific, 1906 – referring to 1851-1861)

After whaling ended, the Roadstead continued to be used.

Since the 1930s, the US Navy had been using the Lāhainā roadstead between Maui and Lānaʻi as a protected deepwater anchorage for fleet deployment.

While the support facilities were limited on land, the location offered a convenient alternative to the crowded Pearl Harbor for temporary fleet basing.

Through the 1940s, Lāhainā Roads was as an alternative anchorage to Pearl Harbor.

While planning for the attack on the US Pacific Fleet, Japanese planners hoped that some significant units would be at anchor there because with Lāhainā’s deep water, those elements of the Pacific Fleet in all likelihood would never have been recovered.

The possibility that the Pacific Fleet would be at Lāhainā anchorage was taken seriously in the plan of the Japanese naval strike force for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Scout planes were dispatched from the fleet, and submarines were sent to Lāhainā Roads to inspect the anchorage. (The ships were at Pearl Harbor.)

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