story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Brad Goda
Sam sands a new piece of plywood he's
installed on the Kula Kai's hull. He's been
maintaining the vessel for almost three
decades and is dedicated to keeping
this relic of a bygone era in the water
and fishing. "Me and this boat, we tied
up." he says.
She ain't pretty. Her aft's rotting, her keel's worm-eaten, and her paint's bleached and peeling. Sitting in drydock on the hot pavement of Sand Island's Ke‘ehi small boat harbor has been less than kind to the fifty-seven-year-old Kula Kai, a disheveled Miss Havisham of a boat waiting pitiably for the return of her bridegroom.
The Kula Kai is the last of her kind: an eighty-foot wooden vessel that began fishing local waters in 1949. Her design, known as the "Hawaiian sampan," is unique to Hawai‘i . . . the only boat other than the Hawaiian canoe that could arguably be called indigenous to the Islands. At one time, a fleet of large sampans based at Kewalo Basin in Honolulu plied the seas for ‘ahi (yellowfin) and aku (skipjack) tuna; they were an important part of the fishing industry and contributed substantially to the economy. The sampan came to represent a way of life, and a distinctive hybrid culture developed around them That culture, its ships and the shipwrights who built them are, but for the Kula Kai and one lone shipwright devoted to her restoration, all but extinct.
Sailed for centuries throughout East and Southeast Asia, sampans were originally a narrow-beamed variant of the Chinese junk—flat-bottomed, equipped with a broad, square rudder and the trademark sail reminiscent of a bat’s wing. Its name comes from the Chinese san (three) and pan (plank). Though the word “sampan” may inspire stereotypically Third-Worldish images of ungainly jalopies bobbing like flotsam off Hong Kong, the boat is in reality an impressive piece of nautical engineering; stable even in heavy seas, fast on a reach, easy to drive, cheap to repair, and comfortable for the crew who would sleep under an awning above deck. In 1899, a Japanese entrepreneur introduced the first sampan to Hawai‘i, a thirty-four-foot sailing vessel modeled after fishing boats common in Japan. The design caught on, and by 1916 five more sampans were built for use in tuna fishing. Gasoline engines replaced the sail, and by 1922, the sampans regularly outperformed other fishing boats to the extent that they came to dominate the growing deep-sea fishing industry. Because the fleet was skippered by Japanese captains and operated by Japanese crews (smuggled in from Japan), its success created racial tensions. The Exclusion Act of 1924 stopped the illegal immigration, and thereafter locals as well as immigrants manned the ships. Over the next two decades, local Japanese shipwrights adapted the design for Hawai‘i’s comparatively difficult conditions: the addition of a sponson (an overhang at the top of a bulkhead) gave added stability in heavy seas, a deckhouse provided protection from rough weather, diesel engines replaced gasoline, the bow was raised to keep the nose above the waves. These unique ships, the “Hawaiian sampans” that bore only a passing resemblance to their progenitors, were painted bright blue and launched at Kewalo Basin with the chanting of sutras and offerings of sake.
During the fleet’s heyday in the 1940s, when fishing was Hawai‘i’s third largest industry (after sugar and pineapple), approximately 400 sampans of various sizes operated off O‘ahu, Maui and the Big Island. The largest and most impressive were the aku boats, like the Kula Kai, which could spend up to a week at sea. A specialized bait well in amidships allowed them to carry live nehu (a small anchovy that aku find especially delicious), as well as provide ballast for stability. When the crew spotted a flock of seabirds—the telltale sign of a school of aku—they would chum the waters with nehu, causing a feeding frenzy. Standing barefoot on the deck of the heaving boat, with no safety harness or life vest to impede their movements, fisherman dipped lines with a single barbless (and baitless) hook into the water. Within seconds an aku would take the hook, and with a combination of physical strength and good timing, the fisherman would jerk it up, flick it over his shoulder and onto the deck, and drop his line back into the water. It was as dangerous as it was backbreaking; a forty-pound tuna could easily pull a man overboard. A skilled fisherman might catch three to five fish a minute.
On a good day, a single aku boat might haul in 40,000 pounds of fish, sometimes more.