Sam Whippy, a master shipwright from Fiji,
is descended from a long line of
boatbuilders; his great-great-grandfather,
Nantucket trader David Whippy, jumped
ship to settle in Fiji in the 1820s.
But it was not to last. Purse-seine fishing, while indiscriminate and environmentally destructive, was already in use in Mainland tuna fisheries and was twenty times more productive than pole-and-line. Worse yet was the outbreak of World War II. The Navy suspected the Japanese-operated vessels might be spying, performing recon for a much-feared invasion of Hawai‘i by sea. Even before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the Navy began confiscating sampans and repurposing the larger aku boats—painting them white, upgrading their engines and sending them out on patrol. On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, American planes strafed sampans off Barber’s Point, mistaking them for the vanguard of an invasion force. During the war, many Japanese-American shipwrights either left for Japan or suffered internment. Those sampans still allowed to fish were confined to near-shore waters and could operate only during hours that were in many cases not conducive to catching their target species. By 1942, the fleet’s catch had dropped by ninety-nine percent.
Though these restrictions ended with the war, the sampan fleet never recovered. The era of wooden ships was nearly over, and few shipwrights in the Islands had the skill to repair the sampans as they decayed or wrecked. By 1950, only forty-eight sampans remained, and though they had more longevity, new wooden boats had become more expensive to build than steel or fiberglass. The Kula Kai, built at Kewalo in 1949 by Seichi Funai, was among the last wooden aku boats built in Hawai‘i. Originally christened The Darling Dot, she was purchased from her first owner in the early 1960s by the state of Hawai‘i for use as a teaching vessel; hence the new name Kula Kai, or “school of the sea.” In 1965, fisherman Tom Fukunaga purchased her at auction in Hilo, and continued fishing for aku with her in the traditional way, even as less expensive and more efficient steel and fiberglass long-liners supplanted the old sampan fleet. Today, a few of the small sampans still operate as tourist charter boats out of Kewalo, but of the mighty aku boats, once the pride of the fleet and the backbone of Hawai‘i’s fishing industry, only the Kula Kai survives.
When I went down to Ke‘ehi to meet master shipwright Sam Whippy, the boat’s future was uncertain. Tom Fukunaga had become too ill to continue fishing, and his son Glen, who is not a fisherman, was in search of a buyer. But so far, no one had made an offer, and the Hawai‘i Maritime Museum, which couldn’t afford the upkeep, wouldn’t take it even as a donation. The Kula Kai was costing Glen Fukunaga $260 a day in drydock fees, and one morning last May, he decided to call it quits. He came down to the boatyard and told Sam to stop working; the money’d run out.