Oahu is the “Gathering Place” because it has Honolulu, the state Capitol, is the most populated island and by far has the most going on. Oahu is most significant for boaters because it is the only Hawaiian island that has a Westmarine. Oahu also has several private marinas and Hawaii state small boat harbors. The largest, Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor is nearest to the world renowned Waikiki Beach. The waters just offshore of Waikiki are sheltered from the trade winds by the iconic Diamond Head crater, making it the most popular place for boating in the state. Everyday numerous tour boats take people for snorkel and sunset cruises, scuba diving and whale watching from October to April every year. On Friday afternoons sailboats start and finish from Ala Wai harbor for the regularly scheduled Friday night sailboat races. Some of them stay out afterwards and watch the fireworks launched from the beach in front of the Hilton. There’s also an active boating scene and beautiful anchorages in Kaneohe Bay, on the west side out of KoOlina and Waianae and on the north shore out of Haleiwa.
Points of Interest to Boaters
Ala Wai Harbor is the biggest and most active recreational harbor in the state of Hawaii. Located next to Waikiki and with the quickest access to the Waikiki Bight, a popular boating area in the lee of Diamond Head, it is first on our list of points of interest to boaters. Most of the slips at Ala Wai Harbor are administered by DLNR-DOBOR and there are two yacht clubs, Hawaii Yacht Club and Waikiki Yacht Club that manage their own slips. There is an unofficial “Happy Face” yacht club that as of this writing is temporarily occupying what used to be the old fuel dock at the end of the 600/700 row. While membership of a yacht club usually gives you reciprocity with other clubs, the three yacht clubs on Oahu don’t extend that between each other. They want you to commit to theirs and there is a bit of a rivalry between them. With the state harbor slips and the two yacht clubs, there are around 700 slips in Ala Wai Harbor. There’s a long wait list to get a permanent spot in the state harbor and you have to be a member of the club to get one of their slips but getting a temporary slip for your boat is not difficult. The state harbor will give you up to 120 days of temporary mooring, that you have to renew every two weeks. The yachts clubs are friendly and hospitable and if you call ahead they’ll try to find you a temporary spot.
When entering and exiting Ala Wai harbor, be careful of the surf break on the Diamond Head side, “Bowls” is a popular surf locals break and many boats have ended up on the reef there. Some boaters like to cut the channel between the outer #1 and #2 and next pair of buoys, # 3 and #4 but this is not a good idea. Just stay between the buoys, that’s why they’re there. The range lights into Ala Wai are helpful at night. Just on the Diamond Head side of Ala Wai channel is an area called Turtle Canyon where there are a several submerged mooring buoys for day use. Charter boats use these buoys for snorkel tours and anyone can use them if you know where they are. The day use buoys are maintained by Malama Kai Foundation and you can check the location and status here. If you’re going to use one you’ll need to know exactly where they are and have a crew member dive down and tie your boat up securely to the submerged buoy.
Waikiki Bight is the most popular boating destination for boaters on the south shore of Oahu. In regular trade wind conditions this anchorage is sheltered nicely from the trade winds and seas in the lee of the iconic Diamond Head crater. The anchorage is right off Waikiki and you can still feel the party vibe and hear the music (and fire truck sirens) on shore. The best way to find the anchorage is to line up with the twin towers of the Hyatt (only two big towers that look the same) on one side and the small green triangle roof chapel on the other side. If you look at the chart plotter as you make this approach you’ll see there’s a bight of a depth contour line and you can anchor in about 15 – 25 ft of water. You really should be a half mile off the beach but the building swell and surf break will suggest that you’re getting too close to shore. You don’t want to anchor on the Waikiki Bight when there is a south swell or Kona Winds. As with most anchorages in the state of Hawaii you can anchor for up to 72 hours in any location at a time without a permit.
Kewalo Basin is the next harbor Ewa side from Ala Wai and is a privately managed commercial/ recreational harbor. Kewalo was just renovated with all new docks and gates over the past few years and in 2020 they also just opened a fuel dock. Since the Ala Wai fuel dock has been closed for many years, now Kewalo and Keehi are the only places to get marine fuel on south shore Oahu. Kewalo Basin also has Oahu’s only functioning pump out station but only Kewalo Basin tenants can use it so all other boats have to go out “3 nautical miles” to empty holding tanks. Kewalo Basin is the home of most of the commercial tour boats: parasail, sailing cruise, charter fishing, etc. but there are a lot of recreational boats as well. Living aboard a boat is technically not permitted but at Kewalo some people legitimately live aboard by acting as the 24/7 security person aboard their boat. Aside from the generally better managed facility, the big complaint with Kewalo is the surge and the fact that the nice new docks are not floating docks, so boats get tossed around sometimes in their slips. Parking your car at Kewalo is more expensive ($100/ month) than at Ala Wai ($25/ month).
Keehi Lagoon is on the Ewa side of Sand Island under the flight path of HNL airport. While there is no recreational boating in Honolulu Harbor on the other side of Sand Island, the waterway is connected but separated by a bridge. Keehi Lagoon is actually three marina facilities: Keehi State Harbor, Keehi Marine Center, and La Mariana Sailing Club. Keehi State harbor is a DLNR-DOBOR facility which has the main administrative office on property. The docks are in the slow process of being renovated and many are condemned. Keehi State harbor has many buoy moorings as well and this is where a lot of boats go to die. There are some real legit pirates living aboard their boats on a mooring at Keehi. Keehi Marine Center is a privately managed marina that has nice well maintained slips and the state of Hawaii’s busiest boat yard/ haul out facility and fuel dock. La Mariana sailing club is mostly known for the iconic tiki bar restaurant of the same name that serves as the club house for the very small marina that only has slips for sailboats. The restaurant was a legendary hang out until it closed, seemingly for good during the Covid pandemic. As of this writing it seems that they are having a quiet re-opening. This is Oahu’s “dock and dine” spot and many great parties have been had here.
Pearl Harbor is generally restricted to use by the US military but there are two active yacht clubs, Pearl Harbor Yacht Club at Rainbow Bay and Pacific Yacht Club at Hickam Harbor. Both clubs have active sailing programs and host sailing races regularly. If you have base access you can possibly get a slip at Rainbow Bay Marina and rent boats at Hickam Harbor. Kapilina Marina at Iroquois Point is a small privately managed marina on the Ewa side of Pearl Harbor with slips and amenities for the Ewa community. There are designated areas for recreational boating with a pathway out to the ocean through the Pearl Harbor channel with permission from Pearl Harbor control. Use channel 69 to contact Pearl Harbor control and call JBPHH Pass and ID office at 808-449-0865/0867 to inquire about access to base facilities.
Maunalua Bay & Hawaii Kai / Koko Marina is on the leeward side of Koko Head crater and offers a small protected boating area however dotted with reefs. Hawaii Kai / Koko Marina was built for power boats and only small sailboats that can drop their mast as Kalaniana’ole highway blocks the marina in with a low bridge. Koko Marina Center is an active water sports center where power boats launch from to take people for water sports adventures in Maunalua Bay. Many of the houses in Hawaii Kai have their own private docks for small powerboats that can get under the bridge.
Kaneohe Bay & Sandbar is one of the most popular boating destinations on Oahu. Boaters usually access Kaneohe Bay from one of the marinas: Kaneohe Yacht Club, Makani Kai Marina, He’eia Kea Harbor or from MCCS Marine Corps Base Hawaii (MCBH). Boaters entering Kaneohe Bay from outside generally use the Sampan Channel if coming from the south shore of Oahu. The Sampan channel is narrow and shallow in some places so only boats with drafts of less than 8 feet can use the Sampan channel. The channel on the north side of Kaneohe Bay (not shown) is wider and is where bigger boats and those coming from the North Shore would enter Kaneohe Bay. Kaneohe Bay has numerous reefs that are unmarked and are a serious hazard for boaters. Be very careful when navigating around the bay and only maneuver during the day so you can see the reefs. Some reefs are marked with beacons and buoys but most are not marked.
The Kaneohe Bay Sandbar is popular with boaters because it is a perfect sand anchorage with a long sand bar on the windward barrier reef that you’ll easily find when you see all the boats anchored. Boats anchor on the sand with bow into the trade winds. It’s possible to safely jump off the bow of your boat into knee deep water with your anchor and set your anchor by hand. Watch out for reefs that dot around the Sandbar. On holidays you’ll always find a lot of boats anchored here close together but it’s become such a “party place” that DLNR prohibits alcohol on holiday weekends. As with most anchorages in the state of Hawaii, you can anchor for up to 72 hours in one location at a time. If you want to anchor for longer than 72 hours you should contact the He’eia Kea harbormaster, which overseas state jurisdiction of Kaneohe Bay.
The Sandbar is the main destination for pontoon boats rented from the US Marine Corps Base (MCBH) on Mokapu island on the south side of the bay. This is an active USMC air base and boaters must stay a quarter mile away from the base. Especially avoid the windward side of Mokapu island (outside the bay) if you hear gunfire, as there is a live fire gun range that is sometimes active.
Kaneohe Bay has an active sailing scene with races hosted by Kaneohe Yacht Club on Thursdays.
Ko Olina Marina is a well managed private marina next to Barber’s Point commercial harbor. Ko Olina has every amenity that you would expect at a nice marina, including a fuel dock and store. Ko Olina Marina is near all the resorts on that side of the island and is the marina you will want to keep your boat at if you want quick and easy and access to the west side and you have the money to spend on the best marina facility on Oahu. There is usually temporary guest spots available if you call the Ko Olina harbormaster ahead of time. Ko Olina is also next to the Phoenician boatyard, one of only three boat haul out facilities in Hawaii and the boatyard that can handle the largest boats.
Pokai Bay & Waianae Harbor is one of the most pleasant anchorages on Oahu. Pokai Bay consists of Waianae harbor on the north, Pokai Bay Beach Park to the south and the Pililaau US Army recreation center in the middle of the bay. While you might be able to get a temporary guest slip at Waianae harbor, anchoring in Pokai Bay is preferable. There is a breakwater that protects Pokai Bay Beach Park but you can also anchor safely outside the breakwater where there is a wide sandy bottom and about 15 ft of depth all around. Spinner dolphins often come to Pokai Bay to play and rest for the night.
Makua & Yokohama Beach, two of the most remote and scenic anchorages on Oahu are up the coast from Pokai Bay. Just off these two beaches is a sandy bottom of about 25 ft of depth and with the same leeward side wind protection as Pokai Bay. The majestic Makua Valley is often framed with a rainbow and the steep cliffs over Yokohama Beach make these two anchorages a nice alternative if Pokai Bay is too crowded.
Haleiwa Harbor is North Shore Oahu’s center of boating activity. The harbor is home to recreational fishing, diving and sailing vessels and this DLNR state harbor might have a temporary guest slip if you call the Harbormaster. If there is no slip available, it is possible to anchor safe and peacefully just outside of Haleiwa Harbor with a sandy bottom of 10-25 ft. Haleiwa Harbor is tucked away in a picturesque corner of historic Haleiwa town with Haleiwa Joe’s restaurant overlooking the harbor and is a great base for boating on the North Shore. Boats that are docked at Haleiwa Harbor have the shortest route to Waimea Bay, North Shore Oahu’s most popular and scenic anchorage. Anchoring in Waimea Bay has some important considerations though. This spot is the site of the Eddie Aikua Big Wave surfing tournament that happens here when there’s exceptionally big surf, so it’s wise to anchor here when the North Shore surf’s down in the summer months. This is also a popular swimming area and so operating your boat’s engine is prohibited within 200 feet of shore. Approach the anchorage under sail and make sure you dive down to check your anchor since the big surf shifts the sand and exposes a harder surface.
Specific Restrictions and Dangers for Boaters on Oahu
Humpback Whales migrate every year from Alaska to Hawaii from about October to April. These majestic creatures are amazing to watch… from a distance! It is against Federal law to deliberately approach whales within 100 yards. Although deliberately approaching whales is prohibited, humpback whales are curious and will approach boats on their own sometimes. These large animals can react unpredictably especially when a mother is protective of her calf. Boats have been damaged and people have been fined, please respect the whales.
Spinner Dolphins are a native species of dolphins that live in Hawaiian waters. Everyone loves to watch and see them play but unfortunately too many boaters were harassing them and not letting them sleep so as of September 2021, NOAA finalized a law that prohibits swimming with, approaching and remaining within 50 yards of spinner dolphins. Spinner dolphins especially like to rest in the sheltered waters of Pokai Bay and off Makua Beach but are seen all around the Hawaiian islands. If they happen to approach you nobody told the dolphins that it’s against the law to swim with people.
Thrill Craft, also known as Personal Watercraft or Jet skis are specifically regulated in Hawaii. In addition to the NASBLA approved Safe Boating course you must also take a Hawaii state approved Thrill Craft operators course, which informs about the designated areas where Thrill Craft are allowed to operate. Additionally if you want to use your jet ski for tow- in surfing there is an additional certification that you must obtain for that. to answers about all your questions about operating thrill craft in Hawaii, see this page.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of Oahu’s most popular snorkeling destinations by land and looks like it would be an amazing place to anchor your boat. But don’t even think about it, it’s prohibited to enter Hanauma Bay by boat.
Marine Corps Base Hawaii (MCBH) Weapons Firing Range is intermittently active from 0600 to 2300 everyday of the week. When weapons training is being conducted there will be two large red triangular warning pennants by day or flashing red warning beacons at night. Boaters are required to maintain a distance of 500 yards from Mokapu Peninsula (MCBH) at all times and especially when warning pennants or beacons are showing.
Additionally there is a restricted area that extends 1/4 mile around all of MCBH into Kaneohe Bay, however this mostly includes reef area that you wouldn’t navigate in anyway, except for the area by the MCBH recreational marina for authorized patrons.
Pearl Harbor Restricted Area extends for 3 nautical miles offshore of the entrance to Pearl Harbor. Active US Navy ships enter and exit the harbor daily and conduct exercises just outside of Pearl Harbor. All boaters must stay at least 100 yards away from US Navy ships and operate at a minimum speed if within 500 yards. If it is impossible to avoid approaching a US Navy ship, you should call them on VHF ch. 16 for guidance. If you must transit through the Pearl Harbor Restricted Area it is advisable to stay completely out of the 3 nautical mile restricted area unless you obtain permission from Pearl Harbor Control on VHF ch. 69 or you have authorization to enter Pearl Harbor going to or from Rainbow Bay Marina, Hickam Harbor or Kapilina Marina. Recreational vessels with authorization to operate in Pearl Harbor must avoid the US Navy base that is east of Ford Island.
Par Hawaii Restricted Area is an oil tanker mooring and transfer station located 3/4 nautical miles south offshore of Barbers Point and consists of a restricted area that is 1 x 2 nautical miles. There are two oil transfer station security zones inside the area and boaters must stay at least 1000 yards away. When transiting around Barber’s Point boaters should generally navigate offshore of this area or alternatively it is possible to carefully “thread the needle” and go between the restricted area and the surf zone off of Barber’s Point if your position is kept carefully.