The bell buoy that drifted from California to Kaua‘i

In Sept. 1925, The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper published an account of a bell buoy that had broken from its moorings off the California coast over 30 years earlier and had drifted more than 2,500 miles until it reached Kaua‘i.

The account was provided to the newspaper by veteran harbor pilot Capt. J. R. Macaulay of Honolulu.

“It was 30 years ago when I was the master of the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company steamer “James Makee,” Macaulay said.

“We had left Kapa‘a for Honolulu one night at about 9 o’clock, and when we were out in the channel I saw a black mass of flotsam loom up and pass under our lee boat clearing it by less than six inches.

“The next morning, upon our arrival in Honolulu, I reported passing the object, and the following day a report was received that a bell buoy had landed on the reef at Wailua, Kaua‘i, and had worked over the reef.

“I was then instructed to salvage the buoy, and on my next trip went inside the reef and found the buoy intact, except that the tongue on the bell was missing.

“I brought the buoy back to Honolulu, and the recovery of the buoy was reported to the lighthouse department, and it was learned that it came from the California coast.

“California did not care to go to the expense of having it returned, so it became the property of Inter-Island, which afterwards presented it to the Hawaiian government.

“It was then anchored off Honolulu Harbor without any bell, it being declared that the water was not rough enough off port to cause the buoy to sway enough to make it ring.

“A red light was fitted to it, however, and it was known as ‘the fairway buoy.’

“Afterwards, the bell was fitted on with a new tongue attached, and it did ring occasionally, especially in the winter when the weather became rough.”

In 1900 the bell buoy was sunk, likely by a passing vessel at night, and was replaced by a red can buoy.

Hank Soboleski has been a resident of Kauai since the 1960s. Hank’s love of the island and its history has inspired him, in conjunction with The Garden Island Newspaper, to share the island’s history weekly. The collection of these articles can be found here: and here Hank can be reached at


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