• Otter Views: Rowing toward Poha

    At 10 a.m. Monday just seaward of Cannery Row, a cannon blast signaled the start of the 2014 Great Pacific Race. As landlubbers cheered from shore and sailboats formed a picturesque marine escort, several intrepid crews leaned into their oars of their high-tech rowboats.

    Their destination: Hawaii.

    Their ETA: several weeks from now.

    Having just returned from Hawaii, I was deeply impressed. I had a window seat going over, and I spent a good part of the flight gazing down at the Pacific. It was wind-whipped, foam-streaked and cobalt blue. It seemed to stretch on forever.

    “People are going to row across this?” I thought. “Seriously?”

    The boats had looked big and seaworthy on Memorial Day, when nine of them sat atop trailers parked along a Monterey Wharf fence line. Arrayed beside each boat were provisions for the voyage: cartons of freeze-dried spaghetti, macaroni, beef stew and chili con carne; packets of dried fruit, energy bars, and protein drinks; potable water in stackable jugs.

    The boats looked double-ended, as though they could be rowed in either direction. Amidships were benches and padded seats for the rowers. At bow and stern were watertight compartments where those not rowing could sleep, read, update trip logs and recharge. Communication and weather arrays poked up from the cabins, and some boats boasted solar panels and desalination units.

    Signage along the fence identified each boat, its country of origin, and the size of the crew planning to row it to Hawaii. The 2014 race offers trophies in three divisions: four-person; two-person and solo. As might be imagined, the four-person boats were biggest; the solo vessels smallest. Sitting up on chocks, the boats seemed as long as seagoing stretch limos.

    But Monday morning brought a change in perspective. The boats that had looked so sizeable along the fence now seemed toy-like against the vast backdrop of blue ocean, rolling swells and distant fog. After the gun sounded, two or three returned to Monterey for further fitting out. The rest rowed along Cannery Row for a few minutes, threaded carefully through the squid fleet, then turned seaward and vanished into the fog. Two miles down, 2400 to go.

    Opinion on shore was divided. “Rowing to Hawaii? They’re nuts,” was one refrain. Others spoke with more admiration. “What an amazing adventure! Think of the wonders they’ll see out there.”

    My own thoughts concerned poha jelly. I figured that if the boats reached Hawaii, the rowers could buy some poha jelly and ferry it back to the Mainland, something I was unable to do by air. I would pay the rowers handsomely to deliver a couple of jars on their return voyage.

    Like luscious lichee nuts and piquant pakalana leis, poha jelly is one of those Hawaiian cultural icons that rarely crosses the pond. Very little even reaches isle stores, because the golden poha berries grow only in the wilds of the Big Island’s loftiest volcanoes. Harvesting them involves more rigor than most jelly makers care to undertake.

    Thus I was happy to track down a jar of poha jelly in the Big Island town of Waimea, where I had traveled for a high school reunion. It was on a back shelf in what islanders call a “crack seed” store.

    “That’s the last jar I have” the proprietor said. “You’re in luck.”

    “Thanks!” I said, handing over $6. “I promised a friend in California I would bring some back.”

    I wrapped the jar in a t-shirt and nestled it tenderly into my roll-on travel case among the hula girl refrigerator magnets and teriyaki spice packets purchased for California friends. They were fine generic souvenirs, but the tart golden jelly was the handiwork of an actual “auntie.” I could hardly wait to present it.

    That happy fantasy lasted right up until the agricultural inspection at Kona airport. “I’m sorry,” the inspector said with what seemed like genuine sympathy. “This came from outside the security area, so you can’t take it on board.”

    In a funk of disappointment, I wandered into the little magazine and refreshment store that serviced the boarding area. And behold! There among the guava jellies and mango jellies approved for overseas flight stood a bottle of poha jelly. It was smaller, more expensive ($10) and more commercial than its predecessor, but it sailed through the Kona ag inspection with flying colors. My promise would be kept!

    This second happy fantasy sustained me until I reached my connecting flight at LAX. “Oh, your American Eagle flight to San Jose has been cancelled,” the attendant told me airily. “I’ve booked you on Delta. It’s only five hours later, but you’ll have to go back through security.”

    Unfamiliar with poha jelly, the LAX security man busted me immediately for trying to board an aircraft with more than four ounces of a gelled substance. Thank you, Osama bin Laden.

    “But it cleared TSA in Kona!” I protested. “It came from the airport store! It says right on the label!”

    The L.A. security man shook his head and dropped the jar into a bin. “Sorry,” he frowned. “That’s the rule.”

    Now it’s up to the Great Pacific Race rowers. To them I say, poha jelly or bust!

    posted to Cedar Street Times on June 13, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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