When you ride the North Carolina state ferry system’s Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch ferry, you may notice an especially tall fellow in uniform.
The new crewmember is H. Michael Kalanikau Howlett, a native Pacific Islander from Oahu and a recent transplant to Carteret County.
“Bo” to his friends and family, Howlett moved to live with his girlfriend Amy Martin on her family farm in Newport and has made quite a nice home for himself.
“I grew up on the island of Oahu in a small town called Laie (pronounced “la-ē-ā”) on the North Shore, about 15 minutes away from all the famous surf breaks like Sunset Beach and Pipeline,” Howlett told Coastal Review.
He spent much of his time there in and on the water.
“I would say the majority of the fishing that I did growing up would be free diving, spearfishing and offshore fishing for pelagic species. I used to go diving for octopus and fish used for traditional dishes that you would typically find at a traditional Hawaiian luau,” he said.
Never far from the ocean, he was obsessed with it as a kid.
“I went after every kind of fish I could. When I was a boy, I loved to dive and spearfish. I would run home after school then walk across the street to the beach and fish.” It was in his blood, “There wasn’t anywhere on Earth I would have rather been.”
Howlett loves offshore fishing, especially offshore trolling for large pelagic species. “Mainly because I love sashimi and poke, my favorite fish to catch are the big yellowfins that average between 100 and 200 pounds.”
He credits his father, Hank Howlett with showing him the ins and outs, starting at a young age.
“My father had a 31-foot custom sampan, it’s a Japanese-style hull that rides well in rough water,” he said. “When the moon was right and the weather was favorable, my mom, Margo, would pick up me and my sister, Pohai, and meet my dad at the harbor before dark. We’d head out and down the coast a few miles and fish for mackerel with hand lines with six-hook rigs like Sabiki.”
He loved it even back then, fishing alongside his parents until he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
“They’d put me to bed alongside my sister and when I woke up we’d be back in the harbor in time to get ready for school.”
Hank Howlett, however, would keep fishing all day.
“My dad would head back out to the FADs (fish aggregating devices, or floating man-made objects used to attract ocean fish) and catch mahi and tuna with some of the live mackerel that we had saved from the night’s fishing. If I didn’t have school, or even sometimes if I did, I would stay with my dad and go with him to the FADs and I would work the deck.”
But of course, adult life would come along, accompanied by tough choices.
“I went to culinary school in Honolulu, and that was a great experience and I met wonderful people. I learned a lot and I was good at it, but the chef life wasn’t for me, so I got a part-time fishing job on a charter boat.”
From there, he worked his way up to becoming a captain of his own boat.
“I got my first captain’s job running a boat that was owned by a restaurant and bar on the water. I got to meet new people every day, and these people fished for the joy of it and hopefully provide them with the opportunity to catch the fish of a lifetime.”
Later, Howlett met a Carolina girl. That led to the change of venue.
“My boss at the time ran a perpetual job listing on Craigslist for a bikini fisher girl/boat washer/booth girl/photographer. Pretty much almost 100% of the time they never came back after the interview, but then there was Amy (Martin). She came back the next day at 5 a.m., ready to fish. And she kept coming back. She’s tough and she’s the reason why and how I ended up in Newport, North Carolina.”
Howlett moved to Carteret County in July 2021 and has been going strong ever since. He works the Martin family farm in Newport, and for a while you could find him at Rose Brothers Seafood in Beaufort a couple days a week.
Mostly, you’ll see him on the dock on the Minnesott-Cherry Branch ferry run, where he’s a crewmember.
He also took quickly to the local fishing — with success — and the way of life here.
“My first time fishing here, Amy’s dad, Kevin Martin, took me fishing for red drum. We caught our limit on Carolina rigs with finger mullet,” Howlett said.
Howlett was impressed by just how much water he saw around his new home.
“A thing that blew me away when I came here for the first time, was how nautical it is. I was not prepared for the amount of water and coastline in the Intracoastal Waterway, plus offshore and the sheer amount of boats,” he said, adding that things are a lot different in Oahu. “Hawaii has very little safe harbor and there aren’t many places where you can keep a boat in the water. The ones that do exist are full, so you have to be on a waiting list for years in order to get a slip. When your name comes up you have a month to put a boat in it or you go to the bottom of the list again.”
Avid North Carolina boaters would likely find that system painful.
For now, Howlett’s job on the ferry is guiding drivers on and off. He holds an Ordinary Seaman credential, very soon to be upgraded to Able Seaman, he said, and then he’ll be looking at the 200-ton Master.
When I say he’s tall, I’m not kidding, and if you’re on his boat you’ll definitely see him. His name tag says “Michael,” but just say, “Hi Bo.” And he should be around. He sees himself working for the Ferry Division for a long time.
“I hope someday to be at the helm of my own vessel,” he said.