“Our job is to help people have fun.”
For Kona Style Snorkel and Sail Owner Alika McGuire, that’s really what the boat tour business boils down to.
“It’s what I continuously preach to my team,” he says, “because everyone works very hard behind the scenes. Our customers don’t see the background work. They just experience the boat ride. I remind my team members to look at their job through the lens of our guests. The guests are probably thinking, ’man, these people have great jobs.’ And you know what? They do.”
McGuire didn’t always have what he would call a “fun job”. He grew up on Oahu and after graduating college from the University of San Francisco, went into the family business as a corporate consultant, representing companies having to deal with difficult issues. “High pay, high stress,” he says.
But McGuire didn’t just learn the corporate consulting trade from his father Buddy, he also engendered in his son a love for the sea and sailing. “I grew up around the Hokule’a. My father was a member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society,” he says. “He was a crew member on the Hokule’a in 1978 attempting to sail to Tahiti using only traditional navigation. This was the voyage when the canoe capsized and they lost Eddie Aikau. I remember the morning when my dad showed up at home after being rescued.”
Editors note: If you’re not familiar with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the Hokule’a or Eddie Aikau, we provide an appendix at the end of this article. It is a fascinating and important cultural story unto itself.
After 20 plus years of working in a high stress environment, McGuire pulled up stakes and moved from Oahu to Hawai’i Island, with a new career path in mind- sharing his love of the ocean and sailing with island guests. “I started as a crew member and bookkeeper at Kona Style, which at the time was owned by several individual investors. The ownership group did not share a common vision for the company, so in November of 2017 we bought all the physical assets of the company.”
Other than his team members, the asset McGuire is most proud of is the “Noa Noa”, the company’s 50-foot signature double hull catamaran.
“I’m proud of our boat for two reasons. One, we bought it from the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Being able to support the organization I grew up with felt right. The boat had been donated to the Society from a boat tour business that closed its Hawai’i operations. The Polynesian Voyaging Society used it as one of their training vessels. When they no longer needed it, they put it up for sale and we were contacted by the boat broker, who thought it would be a great fit, which it was.
“Two, the boat was designed and built in 1985 by a local legend- Hisao Murakami- who designed the boat specifically for the waters off West Hawaii. The boat is literally custom built to the idiosyncrasies of the waters we sail each day. Murakami actually built a fleet of six catamarans for Henry Kaiser when the Kaiser Permanente Co-Founder founded ‘Hawaiian Village’ over 60 years ago. He was the best catamaran builder on the islands.”
Features that make the Noa Noa ideal for a day or evening on the water include a “grand staircase” that lowers from the front of the boat allowing guests to walk in/out of the water instead of climbing a ladder. The cabin is open-air and one third of the deck is covered. It has two trampoline nets on the front bow and has two separate restrooms.
Over the years, the Kona Style boat has been outfitted with a surround sound music system and and LED lighting system that gives the boat a “floating nightclub” feel. “When we were the new kids on the block, we focused a lot of our efforts on the private charter market,” says McGuire. “We’ve built that business up, and our regular guests now enjoy the benefits of the custom sound and lighting systems.”
Kona Style focuses on two main tours: their morning snorkel tours to Kealakekua Bay, home to the Captain Cook Monument and Marine Sanctuary, and their evening manta ray snorkel tours. “Our snorkel tours allow guests to experience the pristine waters of the Kona Coast as we make our way to Kealakekua Bay,” says McGuire. “In addition to the beautiful coral structures, the bay is filled with tropical i’a (fish). Our guests venture the netted trampolines suspended over the ocean or relax in the shaded open air cabin and enjoy the tropical breezes, while keeping watch for nai’a (dolphins), honu (turtles), hahalua (manta rays) and kohola (whales-seasonal).”
Kona Style also offers two manta ray excursions- a sunset tour and a late night snorkel. “Because manta rays are wild animals, we also offer one of the best manta guarantees in the industry. If you join us on this adventure and you do not see manta rays during your tour, you can re-book with us again – for free – on another night- subject to availability.”
This incredible adventure includes T-top wetsuits, snorkel equipment (with instruction), swim noodles, complimentary non-alcoholic beverages and post snorkeling cookies, hot cocoa and hot tea, with beer, wine and spirits available for purchase.
As for their private charters, I ask McGuire if Kona Style frequently entertains celebrities. “We do. In fact we built our private charter business in large part based on our celebrity clientele.”
When asked what celebrities have been on the Kona Style, McGuire is reticent. “One reason celebrities use our services is privacy. In fact, we require all our employees to sign non-disclosure agreements to ensure our clientele’s privacy. We also keep files on all our private charter guests because they tend to like the same things, and we want to ensure that we provide those exact specifications when we book a repeat private charter.
As to what he’s learned about his celebrity customer experiences in general, McGuire says, “As a group, they are very relaxed and unassuming. They are a pleasure to have on board. Some of our celebrity guests come back every year, and we look forward to the reunions.”
I ask McGuire if any ocean experiences stand out and he pivots back to his guests. “The stuff on the ocean is always going to be amazing. We’ve been blessed the last couple of years to see whale sharks on a regular basis. But the real magic is the people connections. I’ve met people on the boat who have become lifelong friends.”
Finally, I ask McGuire what makes him most proud as Kona Style owner. “Aside from my employees and how they represent us every day, I’m grateful that we have an ability to serve our local community. A portion of all our proceeds goes to the Nakoa Foundation, dedicated to promoting social tolerance and environmental responsibility through the perpetuation of cultural traditions and practices associated with the traditional Hawaiian canoe.”
“As a Native Hawaiian, I feel a responsibility to promote cultural values and education. For example, one program we sponsor is taking local kids out to sea to learn about the ahupua’a, the Hawaiian term for our islands’ large traditional socioeconomic, geologic, and climatic subdivision of land.”
“In my mind, I’ve tried to flip the idea of charity on its head; to think about how the business can support the community instead of vice versa.”
For information on Kona Style Snorkel and Sail, or to book your tour, go to www.konasnorkelandsail.com or call (808) 936-1323.
And make sure you introduce yourself to Alika McGuire when you get there. Who knows? Maybe you’ll make a lifetime friend.
Appendix: Polynesian Voyaging Society, Hokule’a and Eddie Aikau
The Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Hōkūleʻa, (Star of Gladness) began as a dream of reviving the legacy of exploration, courage, and ingenuity that brought the first Polynesians to the archipelago of Hawaiʻi. The canoes that brought the first Hawaiians to their island home had disappeared from earth. Cultural extinction felt dangerously close to many Hawaiians when artist Herb Kane dreamed of rebuilding a double-hulled sailing canoe similar to the ones that his ancestors sailed. Though more than 600 years had passed since the last of these canoes had been seen, this dream brought together people of diverse backgrounds and professions. Since first built and launched in the 1970s, Hōkūle’a continues to bring people together from all walks of life. She is more than a voyaging canoe—she represents the common desire shared by the people of Hawaii, the Pacific, and the World to protect our most cherished values and places from disappearing.
Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976 was a tremendous success. The Tahitians have great traditions and genealogies of ancestral canoes and navigators. What they didn’t have at the time was a voyaging canoe. When Hōkūle‘a arrived at the beach in Pape‘ete Harbor, over half the island’s people were there, more than 17,000 strong, and there was a spontaneous affirmation of a shared heritage and renewal of the spirit.
Tragedy: The Loss of a Legend- Eddie Aikau
In 1978 Hōkūle‘a set out for Tahiti again. The heavily loaded canoe capsized in stormy seas off Moloka‘i. The next day, crew member Eddie Aikau left on a surfboard to get help. Crew member Kiki Hugho remembers, “We were hours away from losing people. Hypothermia, exposure, exhaustion. When he paddled away, I really thought he was going to make it and we weren’t.” But the crew was rescued; Eddie was lost at sea. After the tragedy, Nainoa Thompson recalls, “we could have quit. But Eddie had this dream about finding islands the way our ancestors did and if we quit, he wouldn’t have his dream fulfilled. He was saying to me, ‘Raise Hawaiki from the sea.’”
Eddie Aikau was a Hawaiian lifeguard and professional surfer. As the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay on the island of Oahu, he saved over 500 people and became famous for surfing the big Hawaiian surf, winning several awards including the 1977 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship.
There is a 30 for 30 documentary about Aikau called Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. Produced by filmmaker Agi Orsi, the documentary premiered on ESPN on October 1, 2013. The documentary produced for television details Aikau’s life from childhood to his death and won an Emmy for Best Sports Documentary Series, making it one of the few surf-related films to ever receive such recognition.