An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
Does offbeat and off-grid mean off your rocker? I was going to find out when we decided to take a few more days away from Prism and visit Puna, a sprawling region in the south of Hawaii. It’s where people go when they reject the groove of Hilo and want to find a new rhythm entirely. The locals are collectively known as Punatics, and Jim was itching to meet them. I fancied the arty vibe, yoga classes, hot pools and snorkeling, so we set about trip planning.
The first thing we learned is that being a hippie is expensive, at least if you’re travelling spontaneously. We wanted to find somewhere to stay on the coast, but the place with the home-built huts was full, the one with the shared bathrooms and hot tubs was ridiculously expensive and the clothing-optional one just seemed weird. We ended up booking another Air BnB at Black Sands- which is not a beach at all, but an off-grid development up the hill from the coast. Our room was delightful, with views over the rainforest and a happy population of bright green day geckos outside. Our lovely host, Susan, was very welcoming and it was worth the steep cycle and interesting bus journey to get there.
We’d taken the bus from Hilo to Pahoa, popping our bikes on the rack on the front. I’d watched the world out the window, whilst Jim broke the cardinal rule of public transport- Do Not Make Eye Contact. He spent the one-and-a-half hour bus journey being regaled with the near-death experiences of an aging musician whose brains seemed pickled by too many illegal substances. Getting off the bus and on to the bikes was quite a relief!
The scent of marijuana hung over most of Pahoa. There wasn’t much to the town- a health food store, a few restaurants, some shops selling second hand books and tie dyed clothes. It seemed like smoking was all there was to do. We had lunch at a bar, and got chatting to a glass blower named Tom who seemed very sane, then hopped on the bikes and took on the rolling hills to Black Sands.
Kalapana used to be a village. Then the lava came, slowly burning down forest and destroying homes. The flow is still active today, and people cling to the edges, making the most of the fact that the authorities don’t care what you build on land which could become a lava field in a couple of years. Potholed roads can be a worthy exchange for freedom if you’re happy with tank water and solar power. Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar has turned its end-of-the-road location beside the old flow into a thriving business. There’s a market there every Wednesday, full of local vendors selling everything from clothes to woodwork, jewelry and glass. There are also dozens of food stalls and a live band. We grazed our way through green papaya salad and watched some hula dancers take to the floor for an impromptu performance. Then the band turned to classic rock and roll, and even Jim’s ankles wanted to get moving. The clientele were a fun blend of tourists and locals, the atmosphere was amiable and the coffee cake was amazing. Outside there was fire dancing, and that unmistakable scent again.
Jim and his ankles don’t like walking, but he was willing to give it a go to stand on the edge of the lava flow. The viewing here is totally unregulated- once you get past all the warning signs, you are on your own. No signs, no barriers, no path. The landscape here is still being born- always changing as the flow switches direction and changes in intensity. The start is a moonscape, though houses have already begun springing up, their unique architecture reflecting the quirky personalities of their owners. With no soil, gardening is impossible, though tubs of grasses or hydroponic arrangements gave splashes of green.
The rock beneath our feet was iridescent in places, covered in shimmering gold or patterned with rainbow strands. It was also sharp and brittle. We had to take care not to fall- no mean feat on the tortured ground. Lava had hardened in rope like coils and enormous domes, often shattered in the middle. Some areas were smooth and others looked like they had been bulldozed. What on earth could turn huge chunks of rock over like that?
The temperature rose as we got closer to the flow. Between the lack of path markers and the uneven ground, taking a direct path was impossible. Some walkers returned having never found the flow, others pointed us in the right direction. Steam vents became more frequent and the air stank of sulphur. And then- finally- we found the lava.
It was constantly in motion, red-hot syrupy rivulets. One cascade would harden and new one would start to run. Cracks glowed and grew; hardened patches were pushed aside as the pressure increased behind them until a new wave of molten rock bowled them out of the way. The landscape behind us began to make sense as I watched it being formed. I was mesmerized.
I had the flow to myself for a while, perched on a very solid slope a few feet away. The ground was still too hot to sit on, and a melted shoe nearby reminded me to keep checking the soles of my trainers. Jim soon joined me and we must have spent half an hour watching the earth being born. A group of tourists came, venturing beyond the slope and walking on the flow, treading on rock that had been liquid a few minutes before. Not the safest place for that Instagram-worthy selfie. We left them to it, and Jim had great fun complaining all the way back to our bikes (it gave him something to do).
The wind howled all night, and in the morning Jim called the harbourmaster to check up on Island Prism. Good job he did- her anchor had dragged and night security found her up against the university dive boat. Details were vague- she’d been moved and the fire brigade may have been called. They thought everything was ok- but our heads filled with thoughts of damaged stanchions and gouges in expensive dive boats.
Our hostess Susan leaped to our rescue and drove us all the way back to Hilo. We found Prism tied up securely against the strong winds which were sending whitecaps over our previously calm little anchorage. Tom, who works on the University boat, joined us to inspect them. Both vessels seemed scratch-free, and we thanked him for his help the night before as he’d been called in the early hours to wrangle our misbehaving yacht. We moved Prism, with two anchors out this time, glad that no expensive boats were damaged and our home was ok.
We’ll never be sure exactly why Prism dragged. Our Bruce anchor is twice the weight it needs to be, we let out 20 metres of chain in the 3 metre deep anchorage and most of the seabed in Radio Bay is mud, which offers good holding as the anchor digs in well (it’s also a pain to clean off the chain when you haul it up). We always reverse the boat to set the anchor, and try again if we’re not sure it worked. All I can think of is that the bed may actually be a mix of mud and rock- once we hauled up the second anchor and it was suspiciously clean. It’s possible we were just resting on hardpan, rather than being dug in. Or maybe the strong gusts were simply enough to move the boat despite the heavy anchor and extra chain. Perhaps Prism just had abandonment issues and wanted a hug from the dive boat. Thankfully no harm was done and everybody was remarkably nice about it.
Our Puna adventure cut short, we decided it was time to think about moving round to the west side of the island. Another boat came to join us in Radio Bay for the last few days- Mahina Tiare, owned by John and Amanda, who cruise the world training up blue water sailors. Their numerous circumnavigations have given them a host of fascinating stories, and we were lucky enough to catch up with them for coffee before we left.
Then it was time to raise the anchors and head up and over the north of the island, to the sunny side of Kona.
Our first few days in Hilo, Hawaii were pleasant. After checking in with customs- who were very pleasant and easy to deal with- we made our way to Walmart to buy me a cheap bike. Wheels opened up the city, and we began to explore.
The waterfront is beautiful. Devastated by two tsunamis, the locals didn’t want to move back in so it’s now mostly parkland. A string of parks run along the coast, some with wild surf and other more sheltered and suitable for paddling amongst the rock pools. We fell in love with Banyan Drive, dotted with trees planted in the 1930s by figures such as Amelia Eaheart and Babe Ruth. Jim insisted on pedaling through it any time we went to or from town- and Suissan restaurant and its excellent raw fish salads- known as poke- was a draw as well. To celebrate our wedding anniversary we cycled north to the gorgeous tropical botanic gardens, and pedalled the lush rainforest and tumbling waterfalls of Four Mile Drive. The people were friendly, and slightly offbeat. We were invited to join in an anti-nuclear sit-in, and saw downtown bustling on the day of the women’s march. The anchorage was calm and secure and we only shared it with a couple of other boats. There were even warm showers ashore.
And then it rained. Not just showers but ten days of constant downpours, and so humid that everything on the boat felt sodden. Drying clothes was impossible, and even clean things from the wardrobe felt moist. The intense humidity had my computer going haywire, and watercolours took all day to dry. We even fired up the diesel stove as I shivered in my jeans and jumper, feeling damp and not at all as if I was I the tropics. Despite ten years of disuse, the stove fired up well and heated the boat nicely. We opened a tin of duck and roasted some carrots and potatoes- very tasty, but not how we’d envisioned spending our days in this island paradise.
By day ten, Jim and I were fed up of being cooped up. There is no public access to the mooring area at Radio Bay, which is next to the cruise ship terminal and container port. Cutting through the port was forbidden, and so any trips ashore involved rowing the dinghy to shuttle the bikes to the nearby public beach. Keeping the bikes ashore was not an option due to the high risk of theft. We ventured through the rain to the Astronomy Centre, feeling near to hypothermia under their blasting air conditioning, then dripped our way round galleries and museums. We were about ready to give in and endure a soggy sail to Kona, reputed to be the sunny side of the island.
Then I checked the forecast- a single solitary sun icon for the following day! We decided to seize it, hastily booked accommodation and woke up bright and early the next day. And it truly was bright- the sky was free from clouds and for the first time we saw the full bulk of Mauna Kea- highest volcano in the world- towering over Hilo. Shouldering our backpacks, we pedaled down to the bus station and loaded ourselves and our bikes on the bus to Volcano National Park.
The bus dropped us off at the visitor’s center on Mount Kilauea. It was a very short cycle to reach the first viewpoint on the rim, looking down into a huge caldera of black, red and ochre with smoky plumes rising from it. A sickly yellow cloud hung above, to be blown down the mountainside as ‘vog’- volcanic fog which often obscures large parts of the south of the island, even when the weather is clear. Vents puffed away around the crater rim, giving a sulphuric tinge to the air. The most prevalent plants were ferns and the ‘ohi’a, with red flowers almost identical to New Zealand’s endemic pohutukawa. This clever plant was able to close the pores on its leaves, holding its breath whenever the vog became stifling. Between the ferns, vapours and scarlet blossoms, we could have been in Rotorua.
Kilauea’s most unique point is best visible at night. It is the world’s most active volcano, and at night its lava lake can be seen spitting molten rock up into the sky. Once, visitors were allowed onto a lookout right above the lake. A great experience- but one night the volcano went ballistic and the lookout was destroyed- what wasn’t instantly burnt was hurled across the park, with lava bombs literally hot behind it. Thankfully, being 2am, the park was deserted and nobody was hurt- but if the eruption had taken place in the daytime it could have been a very different story. Crater Rim Drive was soon truncated to avoid barbecuing visitors. Definitely a safer choice, but I was disappointed that I could not gaze down into the turbulent heart of Pele’s realm. After the up-close theatrics of Mount Yasur in Vanuatu, Kilauea felt like a distant show- the difference between standing front row in a stadium concert and being so far back that the main act is little more than a dot on a stage. But it was still much better than watching it on YouTube the day after- so I’ll be happy with what I got. After all, you don’t get to see flying lava in Rotorua (for which the locals are probably very grateful).
We spent three full days up at Kilauea, exploring lava tubes, cycling the wel-named Desolation Road and enjoying countless breathtaking views over the craters. I walked across the caldera Kilauea Iti whilst Jim attempted a strenuous uphill bike ride towards Mauna Kea. We extended our trip by a day, met some local artists and found a fabulous Air BnB to spend our final night. Rather reluctantly, we eventually loaded our bikes back onto the front of the bus and headed back to Hilo, to return to the banyans and contemplate our next adventure.
If you've been following my Facebook page or AndreaEnglandIllustration on Instagram, you'll know I successfully completed a month of sea monsters- that's 30 monsters! Here they- the first dozen are on my previous blog post.
So what have I learned from the one month challenge?
Daily practice really does help your skills- my hatching and stippling abilities improved greatly over the month. I also found that I began thinking more about how to add depth and drama to each monster, and how to show texture. I think a monster a day really did help my ability as an artist.
Daily monstering also changed the way my brain worked! The stories for each monster became as important as the design, and they began to develop together. I started to think through little details which enriched both. Sometimes the story was the first stepping stone, other times I thought of a physical feature.
Inviting people to give monster suggestions on social media gave the challenge a whole new dimension. I was rewarded with a host of rich concepts and enjoyed chatting to everyone about their ideas. Sadly I didn't have time to draw all of them but I sent a digital image of the monster to the people whose ideas I chose. If I’d have thought of this earlier, I'd have done it once each week of the challenge!
A final thought is that size matters. I was drawing these ridiculously detailed monsters on A4 paper. It allowed me to get those details down but did take a lot of time (which fortunately I have). If you're contemplating a challenge, think carefully about the size and media you choose! Or consider building in flexibility so that you can allow for time-poor days. And allow yourself a bit of leeway- I'd sometimes sketch ahead or start inking ahead of time if I had a good idea or knew I had a busy day coming up!
And where to next? I'm working on additional illustrations for a book of monsters, and also have received a monster of a commission! It's Secret Squirrel at the moment but is very exciting- I'll try to give you some sneak peeks soon!
In the meantime, I'd love to know which monsters are your favourites- leave me a note in the comments!
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.