By the 1820s, inter-island trading schooners — called coasters after their practice of following island coastlines and stopping at ports along the way — had made their appearance in Hawaiian waters.
These coastal trading vessels would remain the mainstay of Hawaii’s inter-island transportation well into the latter part of the 19th century, although they would be complemented by steamers, beginning in 1853 with entry into the inter-island trade of the side-wheeler “Akamai,” which made its inaugural run between Honolulu and Kauai that year, with stops at Nawiliwili and Hanalei.
Typical accommodations aboard coasters consisted of deck space crowded with passengers and livestock. Straw mats provided cover from the weather and travelers brought their own food, with calabashes of fish and poi being the favorite among Native Hawaiians.
Passage between Honolulu and a Kauai port could take a day or several days, depending on the wind. When breezes calmed, coasters would pitch, twist and rock; seasickness was commonplace. Flies, cockroaches, mosquitoes and fleas compounded one’s misery.
Passenger fare between Honolulu and Koloa aboard the coaster “Pilot,” for example, at about mid-century, was $5, and scheduling for the Honolulu-Kauai route back then was even more irregular than those running to other islands.
“Excel,” a vessel of 81 tons burthen, with a fore-and-aft rig, under command of Captain Antonio, was considered to be one of the best inter-island coasters in the mid-1800s; very prompt in her trips, “Excel” rarely took more than 40 hours sailing from Nawiliwili to the port of Honolulu.
Another coasting schooner of the time, “John Young,” formerly “Eliza,” owned and commanded by Native Hawaiian Rikeke, ran from Honolulu to Hanalei, Nawiliwili, Koloa and Waimea, and was a fast sailer, hardly ever absent from Honolulu over one week.
Other vessels also made occasional roundtrips to Kauai from Honolulu.
It must also be mentioned that inter-island travel in the old days was not only uncomfortable, it was precarious — between 1778, the year of Captain Cook’s discovery, and 1905, 198 shipwrecks occurred in Hawaii, 48 of which took place off Kauai and Niihau.