Story by Aaron Kandell
Photo by Jyoti Mau
Tucked deep in the labyrinth of Sand Island’s industrial back lots,Tay Perry’s canoe workshop appears at first like a post-apocalyptic nightmare straight out of Mad Max: Abandoned sailboats line the gravel drive; vagrant harbor kids play hide-and-seek among a graveyard of abandoned cement blocks. But then all at once you see the canoes, stacked against the sixty-foot-high sheet metal awnings. Rows of ancient wa‘a in varying states of repair hanging like a hunter’s trophies.
For the ancient Hawaiians canoe carving was both a necessary and a deeply spiritual practice. Each canoe was believed to house a spirit, and it was the sacred duty of the kalai wa‘a — master canoe builder — to bring that spirit to life. At 73 Tay Perry is one of only a handful of canoe builders left in Hawai‘i and, though he’d never say so himself, one of the best.
Perhaps it was inevitable. Tay’s father, George Perry, was a beach boy and canoe shaper who founded the Lanikai Canoe Club in 1953; Tay, only 16 at the time, was its first president. Where most boys learn to throw a baseball from their father, Tay learned to carve a hull. Together father and son built Ka Ehukai, Lanikai’s first racing canoe. Over the next fifty years Tay would build another four canoes from scratch and restore sixteen, eventually taking over his father’s workshop.
When it comes to canoe building, it seems there’s a distinct generational pattern. Tay gestures across the football fieldsize hangar to where his partner, master shaper Jay Dowsett, is restoring a racing canoe with his own 18-year-old son. “I learned to be a canoe builder through osmosis,” Jay laughs. “My grandfather and Tay’s father were friends. Instead of playing, we used to go over to Tay’s house and work. From the age of 7, I was sanding canoes. By 19 I swore I’d never touch a canoe again.”
Thirty years later Jay’s rebelliousness has not only shifted, he now runs his son through the same tedious routines his own father pressed on him: cutting, planing, framing and sanding. “I’m trying to give everything away, anything I know,” Jay says. “It’s gone from my grandfather to my father to me to my son. That’s four generations and I’m really proud of that.”
Canoe building is a patient man’s game. To restore a canoe, Tay goes to great lengths to gather the right wood, even if it means chopping down trees himself. Each stage, from logging to lacquering, requires specialized skills and can take months, even years to finish. Canoe builders therefore often juggle four active projects at once, a balancing act that demands an architect’s vision, a sculptor’s endurance and perhaps most of all, a spiritual connection to the wood itself.
Tay says that you don’t build a canoe; you let the canoe reveal itself to you. Intuition plays an indefinable, powerful role. Rather than force a design, Tay follows the feeling of “pono,” or what’s correct, for each particular canoe on which he works. “Some canoes are male, some female,” Tay chuckles. But whatever the gender, each canoe “has a soul,” he says, “and it wants to come out.”
With the constant drone of chainsaws and power sanders, you’d think any sense of the sacred would have been blasted to sawdust. But standing in Tay’s workshop beside the massive twin hulls of the Hawai‘iloa, a full-scale replica of a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe, or tracing the smooth gunwales of a recently polished outrigger, one can’t help but sense that each canoe has its own story— from the hundreds of hands that have touched it to the innumerable miles it will travel across the Pacific.