By Wendy Osher
***Memorial Services have since been set. More info at the following LINK.
For years, as the sun took its daily dip into the waters off of West Maui, a familiar face would emerge from the nearby shores.
Known affectionately as Kalanikai to some and Uncle Billy to others, William Gonzales, spent many a sunset leaping from the sacred Pu’u Keka’a (known by some as Black Rock) to the Pacific below.
The nightly cliff diving ritual at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa recalls the story of a Maui chief who proved his spiritual strength by engaging in the art of lele kawa or cliff diving at the location.
The spiritual essence of the place is also recalled in another tradition that speaks of the location as an ‘uhane lele. As cultural practitioners explain, it is where spirits of those who have passed on leap from this life into the ancestral realm.
Although he passed the torch to his son, Hoku (and other young divers) in recent years, the 60-year-old Gonzales remained an active ocean-goer and was never too far from the nearby shores.
On Thursday morning, just two miles south of the location, Gonzales was placing flags for paddlers in waters near Wahikuli Wayside Park, when authorities say he was struck by a privately-owned recreational ski-boat.
Family members say Gonzles was donating his time, like he always does, to prepare the race course for a weekend regatta. The boat, they say, came inside where swimmers are known to frequent.
Maui police say Gonzales was transported to the hospital in critical condition, and succumbed to his injuries.
“We lost one of our best water guys,” said Mahina Martin, Race Director for the Maui County Hawaiian Canoe Association and MIL Paddling, who described Gonzales as “a kind soul”.
For 20 years or more, Martin said, Gonzales served as a race official for Hawaii Canoe Racing Association, the Maui County Hawaiian Canoe Association and the Maui Interscholastic League.
When the paddling community received word of the accident, the sudden loss came as a shock; but Gonzales’ role on Thursday, assisting with the course preparation for high school paddlers, friends say, was fitting of his character.
“If you needed any kokua at a regatta or long distance race he would be there without hesitating,” said Martin.
Gonzales also paddled competitively in both one and six-man canoes; paddling formerly for Kahana, and more recently with the Napili Canoe Club, according to Martin.
“Not only was he a tough competitor as a paddler, he loved to see our young paddlers experience the sport he loved and stay connected to the ocean and culture,” she said.
Outside of the water, Gonzales could be caught on occasion blowing a conch shell for ceremonial events, lighting torches at local hotels, dancing hula, and being an ambassador of aloha to anyone he’d meet.
On one occasion, a friend recalls running into Gonzales beneath the shade of a tree above Oneloa Bay. He had just returned from a dive and stopped to see if there were any good kamani seeds to use in a lei. “It was a simple, but special encounter that showed his true appreciation for the culture and blessings of everyday life.”
In addition to his role as waterman and paddler, Gonzales was also a husband, father, grandfather and friend.
Those who knew him expressed sadness and grief, calling his passing a “devastating and unexpected loss”.
The incident comes on the heels of a fatal collision off of Lanai in July in which a diver was struck by a boat outside of Kamalapau Harbor. There was also a critical accident off of Lahaina in September in which a California man was struck by a boat in an area being used by swimmers.
The Lanai incident prompted a review of boating laws by the Maui Council’s Policy Committee. Committee leaders said the Lanai tragedy heightened the need for better safety practices in the ocean waters surrounding the island, which are frequented by boaters and divers alike.