Story by Adrienne LaFrance
Photo by Dana Edmunds
Nobody taught Bobby Puakea to make a paddle. Even though he spent much of his childhood of the 1940s in and around canoes, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that “Uncle Bobby”—then coaching girls at a canoe club—really began paying attention to how paddles are made. He visited a friend’s workshop and watched, then came home and set up his own shop. His first attempt, shaped with a handheld metal file, was “ugly,” he laughs, and it took him hours just to round a portion of the handle.
“I didn’t know wood,” Puakea recalls of the early days. “I didn’t know enough about the strength of wood, so the paddles would break.” But he was determined. Puakea first made paddles just for the girls he coached—“They were winners, my gang,” he says—as he taught himself the craft. “I had to ask. I found out the different types of wood and started learning about it.” Today Puakea can tell you all about wood. “Päpala and basswood is very light. Mimosa is light but soft. Koa is expensive. Some wood is not as strong but it looks beautiful.”
Puakea’s paddles are now renowned— so renowned that six years ago he began teaching workshops in paddle-making; he will teach another next spring. The makeshift studio where he spends most of his time is set up outside of his Kane‘ohe home; on a typical morning, students and friends, as well as Puakea’s old black dog, Nani, are gathered under its blue canopy.
Some of the paddles Puakea makes now are ten-degree double bends, a departure from the straight-shaft paddles he made in the early days. He still remembers the first time he laid eyes on a double-bend paddle: in a race in the Moloka‘i Channel in 1980. Intrigued, he experimented, making paddles with extreme eighteen-degree curves before settling on the ten-degree bend he uses today. “With a straight shaft, you got to bend farther down,” he explains. “We called it ‘armpits to the gunwales.’”
When he’s not making paddles, Puakea is restoring canoes. He speaks of his father, a canoe maker on the Big Island. “The canoe is my passion,” he says, “but you have to have the paddle to make it move.”