Kapolei Q&A: Jacob Kahiapo’s Journey From Teenage Kapolei Lifeguard to Ko Olina Cruise Entrepreneur

Jacob Kahiapo grew up in Kapolei — he can still remember the smell of the sugar cane fires — and swimming in the Ko Olina lagoons. His love of the water began here, and took him from a job as a lifeguard at the Villages of Kapolei pool to working on the TV show Survivor in Fiji.

In March of 2017, Kahiapo started Mana Cruises, a cruise/charter company operating out of Ko Olina Marina.

The company started with a single boat and one employee, doing around 25 trips per month. Mana now operates two boats, has eight employees, and does around about 50 trips per month.

I spoke to him one recent afternoon on board a boat at Ko Olina Marina.

Howzit Kapolei: Where did the idea for Mana Cruises come from?

Jacob Kahiapo: Mana Cruises was an idea that I’ve always carried with me. I always knew deep down that the tourism experience that was offered here — honestly, it was just some guy that wanted to make money. He or she just bought a boat and drove people around. I always knew there was more to it.

People come to Hawaiʻi saving money their whole lives, and they deserve something genuine, something proper for them to experience.

onboard a mana cruise Via Mana Cruises / Facebook

HK: Your main snorkel tour is called the Holo Holo Cruise. What does that concept mean to you?

JK: It’s basically to go out and enjoy — cruise. It’s not directly translatable into English, but holo holo in my experience was: To just go, let’s go do something.

In most cases, it entailed jumping in the car, the truck, driving to a beach, hanging out, grabbing some food, hanging out, going to the park … enjoying what we have.

It’s a Hawaiian term – if you don’t enact it and you don’t live as it or have done it with your family, it just doesn’t make sense.

HK: What other types of things do you guys do on your Holo Holo days?

JK: As a family, beach is a huge thing, going out to grab a bite, normally in Kapolei, and then spending time with any bit of our family and friends that we can.

If something doesn’t come up here at work and I don’t have to be out on the water. Sundays are our designated days, but when we can it’s little bit of water, little bit of sun, little bit of sleeping and a lot of eating.

HK: Do you guys have some favorite places that you go to grab food for the beach?

JK: Kapolei Korean is actually a big go to for us. En Fuego is a big go to for us as well – En Fuego is awesome. And then honestly I’d have to say Foodland — fresh poke, pack of sushi, some drinks and we’re all happy.

HK: Was your family interested in the water and boating when you were a kid?

JK: My dad was a paddler by heart, my whole family still paddles a lot out of the Kaneohe area. My uncles fished, surfed, all that kind of stuff, so it definitely was ingrained in me.

It’s kind of funny, I feel like my father tried to keep us in formal activities and sports when we were young.

But luckily, he always left that door open for us to enjoy the ocean. And what really kind of influenced me in the ocean as a kid was my closest family and friends.

It’s kind of a cool dynamic how it all worked out. My dad definitely was the paddler. My sister was the surfer. My Uncle — originally from Lanai — he was a fisherman. His whole life was fishing, he’s the one who actually brought the fishing and diving aspect to my life. And this is all before I was ten years old. Luckily I was influenced and taught by those who endeared our ocean.

HK: And then what about working on boats?

JK: I actually started as water safety instructor for kids. I started lifeguarding at Villages of Kapolei. I was fifteen or sixteen, and I ended up being a lifeguard there for some time, throughout high school.

My first opportunity to work on a boat was at the age of eighteen. My mother’s a teacher, and one of the parents in her class ran a boat here, so he invited the class to come out.

And as a legality, they needed somebody with a lifeguard license there. So it was kind of coincidental. My mom asked me to come out and help her out with the kids and I happily did.

That day I met one of the charter boat guys, “Hey, we’d love to have you out.” I think I started as soon as I graduated, like a month after that, I started working on the boats out here, snorkeling, fishing, and all that. This was when I really had my first taste for the commercial marine environment.

Jacob attended HPU, working on boats in Alaska. He also worked in the Philippines, as part of the marine team for two seasons of the TV show Survivor. Then, after graduating college in North Carolina, he came back to be part of the real world.

JK: Throughout college, I marketed and sold products for some distributors for water sporting goods and really enjoyed what I did, so I decided to stick with it for a while. After returning home to Hawaiʻi, I resumed my marketing path with a couple different organizations in Honolulu.

The funny thing is I never hated it. I loved what I did. I just … the lifestyle didn’t sit with me.

HK: How so?

JK: We lived in town at that time, with my fiancée (now wife). It was a straight nine to five, and at the end of the days, and we’d go home, eat dinner and resume the daily routine.

I felt like there was more and I had potential to do more but I kinda didn’t trust myself.

HK: How did you make the transition to working for yourself?

JK: The big opportunity honestly came when I got called back to go to Survivor again.

Without leaving Hawaiʻi once more, I think that I probably would still be in an office somewhere in Honolulu. During my time abroad, is when I realized that I wanted to pursue the option of not having to go back to the office and do the “rinse and repeat” routine. So I made the decision then to not return to a “job”.

JK: Do you see yourself staying here on the west side?

HK: It’s kind of weird, I almost envisioned coming back to Ko Olina when I was done with my major, whatever I was gonna do in life. It was kinda nice to come back at a time where Kapolei is growing strongly, Ko Olina is booming.

There was nothing but the JW (Marriott) for most of my life … and then in 2006-07 they built the beach villas and then Aulani. So it’s only really recently I feel like it’s starting to change and I’m quite happy being able to be here during this time for Kapolei and this corner of the west side.

This harbor’s my home. This marina. I know nearly everyone here. I live here. I’m on here. I take my dog for walks on the docks. I can’t see myself not being here.

I definitely know that I will be nomading around to other places. But I’ll always have a foot, a stamp, a boat or something in here. This will just always be home base essentially.

I plan on staying here for quite a long time.

HK: This is such an important place to you, and you’re such a big part of it, what do you envision for the west side in five years, ten years, 25 years?

JK: I think it’s integral to keep enjoying the ocean and enjoying the water, and make sure that our resources are responsibly maintained by each other. I feel like I see that already, though it can always be better.

mana cruises boat Via Mana Cruises / Facebook

I would love to see the ocean more accessible and mainstream as the community builds. One day maybe we’ll get there with more accessible areas for boating, cheaper boating. Hawaii’s an expensive place, and it includes boats. Boats are about 10% more expensive here than the rest of the country. Fuel’s that much more expensive, so developing a way to provide that access to our keiki is really important to me. I would have never gone on a boat if I’d never spent time with the right people.

The best way it’ll happen and which I know is the most important, would be for us as a generation to lead by example. Show our keiki the way to love, enjoy, and most importantly care for our oceans. Whether fishing, diving, sailing, or surfing, this our community’s resource.