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Vol. 16, no. 1
February/March 2013


Riding the Lightning 

Story by Sonny Ganaden

Photos by Dana Edmunds 

The power’s out,
as it sometimes is, in the hale wa‘a, the canoe house. Pulling up to the carport of Sonny Bradley’s place in Kane‘ohe, I come upon an ancient Island scene: two men rhythmically scouring the interior of a koa canoe in wide circles using two-foot-long sanding blocks. “We usually do this with electricity,” Sonny laughs as he pats me on the shoulder with his strong carpenter’s hands. “It’ll come back on later, but for now we’re just putting the finishing touches on it.”


Sonny and his friends are smoothing out the patches on the ninety-eight-year-old Imihauilele, pride of the Kahana canoe club in Lahaina, Maui. “We’ve been working on it on and off for four years now,” says Sonny. You can easily see those years in the canoe’s elegant hull; its balanced, clean lines remind me of a sculpture by Brancusi. I can’t help but run my palm nearly the full length of the hull in one stroke, pausing every few steps to imagine the path water might take as it rushes by. “It takes a lot of work to get this finish, but I know it’s worth it,” he explains. “When we put this much work into it, we put our mana in it. It becomes something else.”


Something else indeed. I have experienced some of the most exhilarating moments of my life in Sonny’s canoes: catching a wave during the MacFarlane regatta in Waikïkï or battling exhaustion in the seemingly endless Ka‘iwi channel between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu. Sonny builds and repairs both types of Hawaiian outrigger canoes, the traditional koa boats like the Imihauilele and the now-ubiquitous fiberglass versions. Sonny’s one of the best in the business, an innovator whose brand has spread across the globe. Bradley canoes are the most popular in paddling’s pre-eminent annual contests: the Wahine o ke Kai and Moloka‘i Hoe races across the Ka‘iwi channel. Crews travel from around the world to compete in the forty-two-mile race, where you’ll see Canadian, Italian, Japanese and Brazilian flags flying from the sterns of Bradley canoes. And when Shell Va‘a from Tahiti, widely regarded as the world’s best paddling team, get in their boat, it’s one of Sonny’s.


Suddenly the power kicks in and the garage lights, a distant radio and an air compressor roar to life. “Hey, there we go,” Sonny says.