A unique boat provides a buoy of support to a father and his daughter as they navigate the struggles and the triumphs of their lives.
Ola loa: Long life, longevity
words by merreley donohue // photos by felicia williams and merreley donohue // valdez, alaska // experience the valdez mood board
My dad, Michael Eastman Donohue, was born January 9th, 1943. He was raised in Santa Monica Canyon, just a short jaunt from the Pacific Ocean. He had an older brother Corb, together they began surfing at very young ages.
They were deeply immersed in the Malibu surf culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s, pioneering man of the surf breaks in Malibu. There is a surf break in Malibu named “Mike’s” after my dad. Among my dad’s best friends to this day, are surf legends such as Lance Carson. He also began sailing with a friend in Marina Del Ray, competing in a few races.
My dad met my mom in the mid-sixties. She was living on the beach in Malibu. My mom was gorgeous, born and raised in Los Angeles, but had a big love for nature and especially the ocean. Soon after they met, my dad followed his passion for sailing and got a job as a crew member on a large schooner.
They started in Texas and sailed down to the Caribbean, after about 6 months, though my dad loved what he was doing, he knew he was madly in love with my mom and went back to Malibu to be with her. Together, they had lots of adventures along the coast from Baja, to San Francisco.
They eventually took a road trip in their VW Van to Florida and ended up buying a sailboat and living on it for a number of years. After awhile, they missed California and moved back home back to Malibu.
When my sister and I were born, they were living in a caretaker's house right on the ocean deep in the north end of Malibu.
My dad has always worked for himself. In Malibu he had a pool cleaning business. This provided him ample time to surf when he wanted.
A few years after my mom and dad split up, my dad moved to Hawaii. He wanted to surf the big waves on the North Shore of Oahu. There, he joined up with a friend and started his own business “Mobile Drapery Cleaners” and eventually moved to Maui.
He eventually remarried and continued to surf and run his business. He also began paddling and found a new passion for paddling 6 man outrigger canoes. I spent every weekend in the Summer at canoe regattas, cheering for his team. He also did quite a few long distance races and was always on the winning “master’s team”.
His passion for having a sailboat was rekindled. He wanted to continue with sailing and at was not able to afford an entire boat, so he decided to start building one, and so the adventure began.
He discovered a hull in Maalaea harbor that someone had started. I remember driving through the harbor and watching my dad walk around it, I could see him dreaming and planning. He moved the hull, a twin keel, and moved it to a storage yard, in the back of an old sugar cane mill that had been converted into a Windsurfing repair shop and a cabinet makers wood shop.
There was a time that I stayed with my dad for a few months after spending a year traveling around the world. I got a job working for the cabinet maker. I often just went out back and hung out with my dad as he was working on the boat. He spent most of his weekends and free time designing and working on his boat. As his marriage deteriorated, he spent most of his weekends at canoe regattas and working on his boat.
As a child, my fondest memories are of summers in Hawaii with my dad. It was always an adjustment slowing down from the fast pace of Southern California and school, to the mellow slow pace of the Hawaiian lifestyle. I will always remember my dad with a Ben and Jerry’s container full of varnish or epoxy, working on his boat.
He always called this “his laughing place”, and has said numerous times that “Ola” has saved his life.
He named her Ola which is a Hawaiian word meaning: Ola: Life, health, well-being, living, livelihood, means of support, salvation. Alive, living, curable, spared, recovered. healed. To live, to spare, save, heal, grant life, survive, thrive.
Ola loa: Long life, longevity.
He eventually finished the boat in Maui and soon before its completion he fell for a woman who lived on the East Coast. They compromised and settled in San Clemente, California.
He packed up his boat and had Ola shipped over on a barge. He found a slip in the Dana Point Harbor and continued working and caring for her there. He often went sailing by himself and with his brother Corb. When I would come visit, we always went sailing and would stay in the Harbor on Ola. I got very used to her smells and the interior of the boat. When my children were born and we would visit my dad, it was always a really fun experience for them to stay on the boat as well.
In 2009, he suddenly became really ill and came very close to death. They discovered that he has been infected with MRSA. He eventually recovered and continued surfing, paddling and sailing. This was another time that he equated “Ola” as saving his life.
During his recovery, he spend his days on the docks of Dana Point and caring and improving Ola.
About five years later he began training for a long distance paddle race with his outrigger canoe team. At nearly 70, he was training to race in the infamous “Molokai Ho”, a 38 plus mile canoe race that starts on the Island of Oahu and crosses the Ka’iwi channel and ends on the island of Molokai. Talking to him during this time, he said he felt great and equal to the best shape he had ever been in in his life. That was to quickly change.
He was stricken one night with sudden excruciating back pain, so bad that his girlfriend took him to the hospital. He was diagnosed again with MRSA, it was systemic and in his spine.
He had to have a major spinal surgery to attempt to cleanse the MRSA from his spinal cord. They had to open up his spine and flush his spinal cord with antibiotics. After his surgery he was taken to an extended care facility to recover. Despite the surgery he was expected to recover. Unfortunately, at this facility, he did not receive the care that he needed and was again infected with MRSA.
He had to go back into surgery.
This time the results were not so successful. There was damage to his spinal cord, and left his left foot dropped and unable to fully move it.
He began intense therapy to relearn how to walk, working out everyday and strengthening every part of his body that he could. After some time, though he could take small steps, he realized that he would be in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.
This [turn of events] hasn’t got my dad down. His enthusiasm for life, his humor and the frequent quote he uses, “it beats the alternative”, has been an inspiration to many people. Instead of letting life beat him down, and instead of feeling pity for himself that he was no longer able to continue participating in the very sports that sustained him, he adapted with grace and humor.
He eventually put Ola up for sale, no longer able to care for her. I was living in Alaska and after considerable thought and a lot of hearing from my dad, “You don’t want this boat,” and, “Babe, are you sure you want to do this? It is a lot of work,” I decided to buy Ola from him.
She had been for sale for a year or more with lots of interest, but no serious offers. I made my dad an offer of what I could afford, which was a fraction of what she was worth, and he agreed saying, “I don’t want any old “Garbonzo” ending up with her.”
I felt that Ola was my dad’s legacy, so full of him. I didn’t have the opportunity spend a lot of time with my dad growing up, though we have almost always been close. I felt that buying and caring for Ola was a way to continue his legacy and to care for Ola, the way that I wish I could have cared for my dad during his illnesses.
I also wanted to pass this legacy on to my children, thinking it would be an incredible experience to learn together. She was an almost perfect boat for the Prince William Sound. A twin keel that would do well with the fluctuations of tides, actually designed to sit on the sand as the tide went out. These boats are popular in New Zealand for this same purpose.
My (now ex husband) and I had Ola shipped up to Valdez, realizing with our young children, it was not the time to attempt an extended silting trip. She was brought to Valdez loaded with all my dad’s tools, extra sails, sailing and wood joinery books, and even a hand crafted surfboard for my son.
We began working on Ola right away, giving her a new bottom job, having her mast fixed, as we discovered a bug infestation had done considerable damage to the mast. Soon she was in the water. We began to learn about sailing, the engine and sailboat care.
The next year, my husband and I split up, he was going to keep the boat, as I thought that I could not afford to keep her.
I maintained a very small massage therapy practice during our marriage, but mostly stayed home to care for our children and our lives. He eventually put the boat up for sale. Our divorce was brutal to say the least. It was most definitely the most difficult thing I have gone through in life thus far. I would not wish divorce on my worst enemy.
I had a hard time seeing the For Sale signs on Ola and felt that I owed it to my father’s legacy to try my best to keep her in my family. I eventually struck a deal with my ex, buying back from him what we had put into it, and taking on the payments as my own. This was a very scary thing for me. Suddenly finding myself as a single mother of two, with very minimal income, living in a very small and very expensive Alaska town.
My mother, in her graciousness, helped my find and purchase a small home in a duplex, close to the my son’s school and I continued building my massage practice and caring for my daughter who was not yet in kindergarten.
I spent quite a few nights that first summer on the boat, just trying to help me understand what had happened with my marriage and my life. The boat always was very comforting to me. I called it “the womb of my dad”, it was so cozy and full of his energy.
My first Winter with Ola, was a big experience. I will never forget one particular that storm came through last February, with 90 mile an hour winds with gusts up to 120.
I was working most the day and was not able to go down to check on Ola before I picked up my kids. We drove down to the harbor and couldn’t even see with the blowing snow. Roofs were blowing off, boats were blowing over, random things were blowing around the parking lot. I couldn’t even open my car door for risk of it getting blown off.
I was terrified, and could see that Ola was practically tipping all the way over with the gusts. The tarp that was protecting her was blowing like crazy, the dinghy that was sitting on her bow, was not tied down well enough and was at risk of being blown off with every gust.
I quickly tried to find a friend who would watch my kids for a minute. I was very frightened of going down to tighten her lines and put an extra line on her just to be safe.
The docks were really icy and I practically had to crawl when the gusts hit to keep myself from getting blown into the harbor. I really felt like I was risking my life to go down there in those conditions. I attempted to tighten the lines, but the gusts were just too strong.
It was one of the most stressful nights I have ever had! Every gust of wind made me cringe with anxiety. I ended up just praying that she would make it through the night. In the end, she made it through with the help of my sailboat neighbor friends, who put an extra buoy on and tied down the sails a bit better. Whew.
I will never forget the day, my boyfriend Tommy and I took her out for the first time. Being a boat person, he was an amazing support, but did not lend a hand unless I asked for it.
For me, getting out of the harbor was one of my biggest obstacles, the first time I motored her out of the Harbor all on my own was an incredible accomplishment for me! I got over a lot of fears that day and I felt like it catapulted me into the world of “captain” of my own ship.
Through the early part of the summer, I continued exploring and learning about Ola and had the idea of listing her on Airbnb. I was a bit hesitant, because of the beautiful woodwork on the interior of the boat and the numerous hours my dad spent with each stroke of varnish perfecting the teak and koa wood on the inside.
Borrowing his words, “I didn’t want just any ‘Garbonzo’ staying on her. In the end, really as an experiment and to try and cover her dock fees and to pay off the loan I still had from when I purchased her.
I listed Ola on Airbnb. I supplied a simple continental breakfast, consisting of a pastry, oatmeal, granola, yogurt and fruit, as well as coffee and a variety of teas. It really took off and people were really having amazing experiences staying on Ola. I also picked up a couple of bikes and parked them on the docks for guests. Ola is docked at the end of the harbor, so there is quite a bit of privacy. It also has an amazing 360 view of the mountains and the harbor.
It is located by the boat launch, so during silver salmon season in August, it is try entertaining to watch the boats come in and out. It is also possible to fish for silver’s right there from the docked boat.
This became another activity that my children and I did together. We would go down together and clean the boat between guests. I continued learning about the internal and external workings of a sailboat.
Being the caretaker of Ola has been an incredible experience for me. During the hard time of my own divorce, she gave me a reason to keep my head up, an excitement and new adventure just waiting for me. The people that have come into my life because of Ola has also been such a blessing.
It was Tommy, who eventually became my boyfriend who was a huge inspiration in giving me the confidence to take on such a huge endeavor. I have many sailing friends, and am really looking forward to my adventures sailing in the Prince William Sound.
Spending so much time on the docks in Valdez has opened me up to a part of Valdez that I had previously known little about. With the money I made from renting out Ola on Airbnb, I was able to pay my loan for the summer and fall and most of my dock fees for all of 2016. A miracle for sure. I look forward to our adventures together.
When I look again at the definition of Ola, I am reminded and inspired by all that her name means. “Means of support” is one of them. Funny, I hadn’t seen that one before.
Even now I am realizing how much Ola has given me a new structure of living life. I feel like a took a very dire situation that was my life post divorce, and with some belief in myself and taking a risk by taking on the adventure and burden of Ola
She gave me a new perspective and really helped me not just recover, but she has really helped me thrive. Not just in my own confidence of proceeding into life on my own, but also has helped me thrive both financially and spiritually. Grant life…heal. Ola has helped me heal from a very dark place.
Ola: Life, health, well-being, living, livelihood, means of support, salvation. Alive, living, curable, spared, recovered. healed. To live, to spare, save, heal, grant life, survive, thrive.
Ola loa: Long life, longevity.