The following appears in the May issue of California Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii–As we spent a full day aboard a fishing boat off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii and got all of one bite, there was plenty of time for deep thoughts.
Sure, my friends and I talked a lot – whether it was sharing stories, making fun of each other or planning the rest of our getaway to Kailua-Kona. But there was also napping in the Ohana’s pretty comfortable cabin, checking smartphones and taking in some sun on the deck. I used much of my down time thinking about the conversation I had with our host earlier in the day and how much admiration I had for him.
In 2018, Dave Van De Car and his partner Valerie Nau took over Ohana Sportfishing Adventures (808-854-4500; ohanasportfishing.com), the kind of go-for-it career change that I’ve always thought about but ultimately seemed to have an excuse to back off of. I’m proud to be a journalist – a grinder who’s plugged away in the sports department at newspapers both small and big, and for almost seven years now as the editor of this magazine and another that covers the outdoors, Alaska Sporting Journal.
The bottom line is I went to college to be a reporter or editor, and that’s where I still am three decades after earning my degree. And I’m OK with that. But I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I’ve endured during my professional life pondering what else was out there.
I am a history buff and wondered if I could cut it as a curator at a museum or tour guide at a national historic site and tell its story to visitors. The dog lover in me thought more than once about creating a lakeside lodge somewhere that catered to canines first and their human travel companions second. Back in my sports reporter days on the minor-league and college baseball beats and interacting with scouts, I convinced myself that I’d make a good evaluator of young baseball talent.
Would I bomb in all three of these career switcheroos? Maybe. But that’s what makes the chance in taking chances so invigorating. We’re told as kids without a clue about what we’ll do with our lives that we can be anything we want to be. So it goes that Van De Car could transition from the insurance business to his office now being the Pacific Ocean.
Not a bad trade-off to me.
“The experience is a work in progress. Or we are,” Van De Car says of the new life he and Nau – they’ve been together for eight years – chose to pursue. “We don’t have any regrets at this point, but we know that we have to focus even harder on what our customers want on these charters to put our complete business plan in place.”
They’re off to a good start.
I’M REALLY LUCKY THAT my first trip to the Hawaiian Islands – this made it state No. 47 of the 50 that I’ve visited – included Robbie Ciriako. I befriended Robbie through a former coworker where we all live in Seattle, and Rob’s always fascinated me with his tales of growing up on Hawaii’s Big Island. I was all-in to have him guide our trip here.
From a roadside food stand that cooked up some of the best barbecue chicken I’ve ever tasted, to a secluded beach where we had almost the entire sand to ourselves, to visiting his parents’ remote house in the tiny hamlet known as Captain Cook, Robbie gave this vacation an authentic Hawaiian experience I knew I wouldn’t get at a chain hotel on Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, where presumably most first-timers experience the 50th state.
Therefore, it was easy to trust Robbie when, through mutual friends, he arranged the charter out of Honokohau Boat Harbor with Van De Car’s and Nau’s boat.
Armed with a cooler full of beer – New Zealand brand Steinlager was a popular choice for us when we weren’t visiting Big Island breweries – and snacks, we boarded and headed out into the open ocean.
Carry, our deckhand, coached us on how to strap into the fighting chair and handle the rod in the event we hooked up with one of the Kona coast’s iconic big game species, like a yellowfin tuna or marlin.
“You’ll probably forget everything I said,” Carry cracked. And I knew I’d panic when/if it was my turn on the throne. Robbie named our friend Sean Dunbar, who just celebrated his 50th birthday in November, as the designated leadoff hitter whenever we’d see the day’s first hookup.
We’d have a long wait to get someone in that seat.
HAWAII WAS HOME FOR Dave Van De Car growing up. His family lived on Oahu, the most populated island of the Hawaiian archipelago. And fishing was a defining part of Van De Car’s youth.
“I remember using a bamboo pole with a bit of line, a split shot lead and a hook and catching small reef fish using bread for bait,” he says. “I used to ditch school to go fishing because it was just more fun! And I was acting out a bit. I still have the same level of excitement when I hook into a fish today that I did way back then.”
Eventually, he found his way to the mainland and settled in Colorado. He would hit it big in the insurance business – first as a customer-service agent, then earning a promotion to senior property claims adjuster.
Van De Car uses the word “corny” to describe his love for helping people early on in his job. Customer service was a natural for him (the trait will serve him well in his current profession).
“It was gratifying,” he says of the comfort level that came with reassuring vulnerable clients that their repairs or medical bills would be taken care of.
“The insurance companies I worked for had to make business decisions to cut costs and unfortunately, most of those decisions were to the detriment of the customer and to the adjuster.”
“Also, the customers themselves became harder to please,” he adds.
Disillusioned enough to walk away from his successful progression, he spent three years as a construction supervisor for a restoration company, but that wasn’t the answer either.
“Valerie was also up for a new challenge and we had a few negative experiences with fishing charters here in Hawaii when we had come out to visit my dad (who had relocated to the Big Island). Those experiences had nothing to do with catching fish; it was more so that the captains did not communicate with us and did not really follow through on things promised on their websites,” he says.
“Valerie and I are both service- oriented people and after a particularly bad charter experience, we talked ourselves into moving out here and running a charter.”
And here’s where all those phone calls with distressed clients wondering about insurance claims are paying off now. The customer may not always be right in those scenarios, but on a fishing boat, they should be.
“We knew we would have a lot to learn about the fishing and boating part of a fishing charter boat, but we also knew that if we answered our phone, returned every email, created a professional and accessible website and set the proper expectations for our guests, we could be successful,” Van De Car says.
“We want the customer to be as involved as possible with these charters, so communicating with them is crucial.”
“COME ON, FISH. BITE,” my buddy Doug Kendziora said to no one in particular but the fishing gods as the day dragged on. I tried to change our lack of luck by swapping my Oakland A’s cap for the Greek fishing hat my sister brought back from a trip to Greece last year that I couldn’t make. Neither Doug’s pleas for a strike nor my “lucky” hat seemed to change our mojo. Time to open another beer.
Our pal Gary Volkman sampled some of the Hawaiian raw fish delicacy, poke, that we had picked up on the way to the marina. Doug’s friend Mark Bockenstette, who joined us from Boise, Idaho, snoozed on the couch. We kept waiting.
Still, there are worse places to have a bad day fishing than the azure-blue waters we trolled, cruising past buoys where the crew figured we’d entice schools of fish. I could look back at the shore a couple miles away and take in the back sides of the Big Island’s famed twin volcanoes – Mauna Kea to the left and Mauna Loa to the right. The Big Island is extraordinary to the eyes.
The sea was rougher than I expected – certainly more choppy than I remember back years earlier when I went deep-sea fishing with my dad out of Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point, south of San Francisco. The 42-foot Chris-Craft boat – because of an inside joke I was known as Chris Craft for the rest of the trip – bobbed up and down, making it tricky to walk without grabbing the ceiling or rails and risking a face-plant.
But I can tell we were all enjoying the experience, even if we weren’t catching fish. Robbie and I spent some time chatting with Van De Car on the stern of the boat as the day dragged on and the sun brightened. We reassured him that we were still having a great time.
“You never know what is going to happen on a charter. Some days are nonstop action; others are just non-action. Those days are tough,” Van De Car admitted during an interview a few weeks after I returned home.
Time was running out on us to score something for the grill back at our rental house near downtown Kona. Then, while we hunkered down in the cabin, we heard commotion for the first time at the stern. One of the rods got hit.
It was time for the birthday boy Sean to slip into the hot seat – sure to be mocked by the peanut gallery if there indeed was a big prize at the other end. Carry started to strap in Sean, but after a couple minutes it became clear that whatever bit our lure had moved on.
We settled for the Costco-bought carne asada for the grill that night.
Delicious, but I must admit Hawaiian-caught mahi-mahi would have been a more sentimental dinner option.
IN HAWAIIAN, THE TERM ohana is loosely translated as family, and it’s the kind of boat and company name Van De Car and Nau expect this still-new business venture will resemble as it continues to evolve.
Van De Car was once asked what he enjoyed most about moving back to Hawaii and taking over the boat. It’s the 10 minutes or so following a client bringing in his or her catch.
“When we hook into a large fish, when the line is screaming off the reel, it is the absolute best kind of chaos. Once the fish is secured it is almost like a party onboard,” he says. “We celebrate; dance a little; (share) high-fives all around; and we also take a bunch of pictures … A sense of serenity comes over me.”
Alas, we didn’t get to experience that serenity, but as we headed back to the bar at the marina for a last round of Steinlagers before returning to the house, Van De Car invited us back to fish with he and Nau, who has since obtained her captain’s license and can lead charters herself.
We left Hawaii just as the COVID-19 spread took a turn for the worse, leaving Ohana Sportfishing Adventures and the other charter boats in the Kona sport fishing fleet to go dark until further notice.
“Perhaps there will be some positive outcomes for the fishery with this shutdown,” Van De Car says. “We know that a lot of the captains in the harbor have more time doing this than we do. In some ways, that is a positive for us because we are a bit more flexible for trying new things.”
I can conclude without hesitation that they’re already champions of trying new things. CS
Editor’s note: Like Ohana Sport Fishing Adventures at facebook.com/OhanaSportfishing and follow them on Instagram (@ohanasportfishingadventures).