From the moment you first set eyes on this narrow, windswept stretch of sand, it’s immediately clear why this spot is commonly known as “Shipwreck Beach.”
Stuck on the offshore, fringing reef that lines Lanai’s eastern coast, a massive, WWII Liberty ship protrudes from the water like a concrete fossil, seemingly frozen in time.
Despite its appearance as a wreck, however, the Liberty ship was purposely scuttled and driven up onto the reef. After dutifully serving in World War II as a refueling barge from Pearl Harbor, it was decommissioned in 1954 and abandoned where it now rests, instantly becoming a landmark for Lanai.
Though the Liberty ship was purposely scuttled, ships as early as 1824 were meeting their end on this reef, including the British ship, Alderman Wood, which crashed and sank offshore. More interesting is the story of the American ship, London, which hit the reef in 1826 and sunk immediately thereafter. Allegedly, the ship was sailing with treasure, including silver and gold, although there have been no reports of anyone finding valuables.
Aside from the rusting abandoned ships out on the reef, there’s a lot of history at Shipwreck Beach. Traditionally known as Kaiolohia, this area was known for exceptional fishing inside of the shallow lagoon, and also a place to gather limu, or seaweed that grew on the rocks.
When visiting Shipwreck Beach today, look for the concrete base of a lighthouse that once warned ships of the reef, and follow the rock cairns back toward the bush, which eventually leads to a trail. Hidden back in this grove of kiawe are traditional kii pohaku, or petroglyphs, that are etched in the rocks inside of a hidden ravine. Traditionally known as Poaiwa, this area was inhabited by Hawaiians before and after Western contact, and it’s believed the drawings were etched in the rocks over multiple generations.
Today the traditional village sites are gone, and while local people will occasionally camp or fish the windswept shore, it’s mainly visitors who leave their footprints in the golden, Kaiolohia sand—scouring for shells and photographing the wreck.