Maui Anchorages: Cruising in the Hawaiian Islands

10 Mar
Making friends in Mala Wharf anchorage

As I am typing this blog post, we are securely tied to a mooring ball in Mala Anchorage on the West side of Maui belonging to a friend from Oahu. It’s blowing 35 knots and the white caps in the shallow anchorage are raining sea spray over the deck salon windows. Bella Marina is swinging somewhat comfortably against her mooring, with the occasional gust howling through the rigging and bucking against the heavy chain.

While somewhat extreme, this is an often enough occurrence while cruising in Hawaii. Two years ago in November we happily sailed to Maui to join dear friends for Thanksgiving festivities and encountered similar, un-forcested crazy weather and winds. That time, we weathered the gale force winds in the Kihei anchorage, and even left Bella Marina at anchor while joining our friends on shore for a couple of days to indulge in amazing foodz, drinking, merry-making, and Marco-Polo-ing in the pool. We ended up writing a little custom app to track her while we were on shore – but that’s a Quartermaster story for another blog!

So what more or less protected anchorages can one find on Maui or Lanai, the ‘little sister’ island?

Honolua Bay: 21 00.9366N 156 38.5139W

This is a fantastic anchorage, probably our favorite on Maui, but only suitable in typical summer conditions, with no Northern swell. It lies on the NNW tip of the island and it is open to any strong winds and swell from the North or NE trades, and a popular surfing spot. The Maui Women’s Pro takes place here so you get the idea. If there’s any kind of swell building up, get out. We once woke up with surfers on either side of Bella Marina – needless to say we pulled anchored and as soon as possible. As we were motoring away, the swell was already starting to break, so conditions can change quickly – just like all other anchorages in Hawaii.

The amazing thing about this anchorage is that in any kind of other conditions it is flat like a lagoon, with great wind protection from the surrounding cliffs and fantastic holding in deep sand. Make sure to drop your anchor on the sandy patch in the middle of the entrance in 35-40 feet of water – otherwise you can damage the coral which leads to both feeling bad and a very expensive fine. There are a couple of mooring balls deeper into the bay, over the coral, usually used by the snorkeling day trip charter boats. We never attempted to hook to one overnight – they looked too shallow to us, and we’re not that comfortable having the boat too close to the cliffs.

There is a river that empties into the bay, which provides a constant current keeping the boat pointed into one direction. The landing with a dingy at the mouth of the river is sketchy at best, over smooth slippery rocks and there is nothing to do on shore – except from picking up friends who want to watch the Maui Pro from your boat, of course.

The snorkeling is spectacular on clear days, and you can see plenty or turtles and colorful fish over a very healthy reef.

S/V Bella Marina in the background of the Maui Women’s Pro in December 2016. Needless to say, the surfing conditions were not great that day since we were able to anchor there. It was a fund day hanging out with friends, and Kelly Slater stopped by for a beer at the end of the day. Winning!


Mala Wharf Anchorage: 20 53.4631 N 156 41.2476 W

This is the most comfortable/safest all-weather anchorage in Maui, and that doesn’t say much. The holding is decent but not great in thin sand over rock and coral in 20-35 feet of water, with better holding in deeper water. It has an extensive mooring field and we like to anchor way outside all other boats, or borrow a mooring ball from a friend. As far as we can tell, all moorings are private or owned by charter yachts. It’s a rolly, bouncy anchorage in anything but super flat no-swell no-wind conditions but it’s the best you will get around here.

Breathtaking views of Lahaina and the West Maui mountain range from the Mala mooring

It has good access to shore through a ramp and fixed docks tall enough to launch a small powerboat. Most boaters in the anchorage leave their dingy tied on the outsides of the two docks, or pull it out of the water on wheels and tie it to one of the tall sign posts that proudly announce ‘No tie-ups allowed’. It doesn’t seem to be a problem though. There is a decent amount of surge with a rock wall close to the docks so we were nervous about how much slack we left in the painter, and mindful when untying other dingies to dig painters out. The landing has garbage drop-off and is perfectly positioned for provisioning runs with Safeway and Foodland within walking distance, about 10 mins in either direction. Lahaina downtown and its Main Street are also about a leisurely 15 mins walk. You can also take the dingy to the Lahaina harbor – it’s about 2 miles, a rather exciting range-anxiety adventure when you have a Torqueedo. Mind the reef on the way.

Too many dingies, not enough cleats

During calm days, the water is fantastically clear in this anchorage and you can see the bottom up to 80 feet. There is excellent snorkeling and diving by the old Mala Wharf pier, with friendly turtles and baby sharks sleeping hidden under the pier ruins. We just took the dingy over and tied it to one of the navigation posts. There are a couple of sunk buoys in the area that the charter boats use for their diving/snorkeling excursions.

Sleepy baby sharks under the old pier ruins

Frisky whales can be seen jumping, spraying, puffing and generally showing off during peak season from the anchorage. North Pacific Humpback Whales migrate from Alaska to Hawaii during fall and winter, where they mate, give birth, and nurture their calves in the warmer waters. January and February is peak season and we’re fortunate to be in Maui at this time, which is one of their favorite hangouts.

Lahaina Harbor and Mooring Field: 20 52.2081 N 156 40.8903 W

This is one of the two marinas (the other one being Maalaea) on the West side of Maui. It’s small, and full of local private and charter boats. We were never able to get a spot, but it has a decent dingy dock. The folks in the marina office are super friendly, and told us we can leave the dingy as long as needed, no need to register it with the harbor. Make sure to request traffic clearance into the channel when a cruise ship is in town.

Busy Lahaina Harbor

The harbor also administers 83 moorings outside the marina. We’ve grabbed one of the Lahaina Yacht Club balls (they are marked LYC) a couple of times – they were in good shape when we did it, but it’s always recommended to dive on the mooring and make sure it’s properly attached. You can fill out an application online, email it over, then pay at the Harbor office. Super friendly folks again, and their Happy Hour is fantastic (get the sliders!). Nothing like drinking a Mai Tai while looking at your sailboat swaying on a mooring.

Mai Tai with a view at Lahaina Yacht Club

The bottom here is coral, and anchoring is not recommended. There is a weird wind/current effect so most boats end up riding over their moorings most of the time. It’s a rolly spot, even more so than Mala.

Bella Marina on a LYC mooring in Lahaina

Maalaea Bay/Kihei Anchorage: 20 46.5652 N 156 28.0467 W

This might not be the prettiest anchorage in Maui, but it has excellent holding in mud/sand bottom and 35-40 feet of water. It is conveniently located near Kihei and Makena and we used it a couple of times as a ‘jump off’ point to see friends who were staying in Wailea and Kihei.

Maalaea has the dubious distinction of being the second windiest harbor in the world. Fortunately that does not translate to the anchorage, and we found our boat to be safe here during a gale that blew through the islands for 5 days. Lots of room to swing, and, you guessed it, it’s a rolly anchorage in anything but calm conditions.

The dingy ride to shore is long and some of the folks who hang out at the beach park are less than friendly. We left the dingy on shore once between the condo buildings and it was fine, but we wouldn’t do it again. No facilities or groceries.

A gorgeous sunset with flopper stopper – a must in the Hawaiian rolly anchorages

Makena Bay: 20 39.7035 N 156 26.5802W

This is a pretty anchorage in front of a large public beach, Po’olenalena Beach Park, and close to the Wailea resort area. Anchoring is in sand bottom, 25-40 feet, good only in light trade wind conditions or calm weather. The shore break makes for exciting dingy landings, or fun paddle adventures to shore. The wind and waves can pipe up in the afternoon.

We spent a couple of days here, including New Year’s night and enjoyed a perfect fireworks show curtesy of the Grand Wailea resort.

An active shore break makes for exciting dingy trips to shore

There are several similar anchorages up the coast towards downtown Kihei, with beach landing access to shore and within walking distance to groceries. During the summer months, there is an active surfing community here.

Coral Gardens: Day-only mooring: 20 46.374 N, 156 33.265 W

This is one of the best snorkeling spots in Maui. It’s also protected in the strongest trades due to the high cliffs surrounding it and word on the water is that the day charters bring their tourists here when the weather is too bad to go to Molokini or Honolua. The bottom is sand with coral patches. You can anchor in sand outside the snorkel area and swim in, or grab one of the sunk moorings – they are about 8-10 feet down, according to the Maui County Day-Use Mooring guide – and snorkel right off the swim step. We saw lots of turtles and colorful fish here. It is prohibited to stay on the moorings overnight.

Coral Gardens Mooring ball coordinates:

Coral Gardens 1
Latitude (GPS) – 20 46.374 N
Longitude GPS) – 156 33.265 W
Mooring depth – 30 feet
Ball depth – 8 feet
Coral Gardens 2
Latitude (GPS) – 20 47.288 N
Longitude GPS) – 156 33.670 W
Mooring depth – 25 feet
Ball depth – 10 feet
Coral Gardens 3
Latitude (GPS) – 20 47.335 N
Longitude GPS) – 156 33.705 W
Mooring depth – 12 feet
Ball depth – 10 feet
Coral Gardens 4
Latitude (GPS) – 20 47.295 N
Longitude (GPS) – 156 33.759 W
Mooring depth – 29 feet
Ball depth – 17 feet

Molokini Crater: Day-only mooring: 20 37.972 N, 156 29.787 W

This is hands down our favorite snorkeling and diving spot on Maui. Molokini is a small crescent shaped extinct volcano vent about 3 miles off Maui’s SW coast. It is a state marine park/conservation district and supports a very healthy reef system with over 300 species of reef fish and the occasional turtle, manta ray and shark too. The water quality here is fantastic and visibility in calm conditions exceeds 80 feet. The state provides day moorings, sunken to 10 feet, for visiting boats, first come first serve with a 2.5 hour limit if other boats are waiting. The best time to visit is technically early morning before the winds fill in however you will be fighting over a mooring with the plethora of charter boats carrying tourists from Lahaina and Maalaea. We’ve successfully hooked a mooring and snorkeled in solitude after 11 am on calm days.

Happy after a day of free diving at Molokini

You can get more information about the moorings locations and regulations here.

Manele Harbor on Lanai: 156 53.1169 W, 20 44.4764N

Lanai is a fun destination from Maui, and can be done as a day trip or overnight in Manele Bay. The Harbor is too shallow for us and full of local boats, so we never even tried to get a spot but the bay outside the breakwater provides good holding in 30-40 feet of water with sand/clay bottom. There is an extensive coral reef close to the rocks and breakwater so make sure you drop your anchor over the big patch of sand off the entrance channel.

The bay provides no protection from the wind despite its tall cliffs, but rather funnels and enhances the trades so pick your weather carefully. We found that southern swell will come straight into the bay and make this anchorage rather uncomfortable.

A stern anchor can help orienting your boat into the swell, as long as the winds don’t pipe up on the beam.

The snorkeling is spectacular, with great visibility and very friendly turtles and reef fish. We had a couple of magical quiet sunny days here before we got chased out by weather back to Maui, and a not-so-magical night swinging widely at anchor in 25+ knot winds.

You can take your dingy into the harbor and we were told we can park it on the back side of the Ferry dock, which also gets used by the day charter boats that bring tourists from Maui. A short walk will take you to one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, Hulopoe Beach.

Lanai has a very small population and only two high-end resorts, which makes for beautiful nature and not so many people. Perfection!


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