story by Stu Dawrs
photos by Monte Costa
Eight years ago, Wright Bowman Jr. came to a realization. Bowman and his father, Wright Sr., were both masters of kalai waa—of building canoes. In addition to their work on many smaller
Hawaiian outriggers, between 1973 and ’75 the two had participated in the construction of the double-hulled sailing canoe Hokulea, the vessel used by the Polynesian Voyaging Society to spark the ongoing, Pacific-wide revival of traditional long-distance voyaging. Two decades later, Wright Jr.—his friends and family usually prefer either "Wrighto" or "Bo"—led the construction of Hawaii’s second major voyaging canoe, Hawaiiloa.
By the time Hawaiiloa was completed in 1993, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was training its second generation of navigators, and other similar societies (and canoes) were emerging throughout Hawaii and across the Pacific. It was then that Wright Jr. saw something missing.
Wright Bowman Jr. At top,
Wright Jr. (center) works to
shape one of Hawaiiloa's
two massive hulls.
"Wrighto wanted to start an organization where all of the builders could go," says veteran Hokulea crewmember Billy Richards, recounting how the Friends of Hokulea and Hawaiiloa was formed in 1996. A separate entity from the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Bishop Museum—the owners of Hokulea and Hawaiiloa, respectively—the organization would serve as caretakers for both canoes. It would also ensure that the knowledge needed to build such boats was carried into the future.By then, Hawaiiloa had already been to Tahiti and the Marquesas, and was just coming off exhibit at the Bishop Museum. The Friends, with Billy as president and Wright Jr. as chairman of the board, took the lead in refurbishing the boat and then joined the crew on an inter-island sail. "And that’s when Wrighto passed away," says Billy quietly. Only fifty-three years old, he suffered a fatal heart attack in August of 1997, shortly after the boat made shore on the Big Island. "So he founded the organization, and I was left with all of his orphans."
From the outside, Pier 60 hardly looks like the realization of a dream. Wedged between a recycling plant and a cement crusher, down a gravel road in the heart of Sand Island’s industrial wasteland, it’s less a pier than a tin-roofed, open-front warehouse. Planes taking off from Honolulu International Airport’s reef runway roar across Keehi Lagoon and almost directly overhead. Most times it’s hot and dusty, but given a hard rain, the place has been known to flood.
But get past the chain-link gates and it’s quickly apparent that this unassuming building is in fact a cradle of the arts. There are master canoes makers throughout the Islands—more than could be named here—but there is no one spot in Hawaii that hosts such a diverse collection of artisans, working year-round on so many different projects.
Hoisted up on one long wall are a half-dozen or so battered opelu canoes—a rare collection of short, thick-hulled outrigger fishing boats (opelu being a type of mackerel) that were once an integral part of daily Hawaiian life. Hanging near them is a large, grey-white koa log, recently arrived from the Big Island and in the first rough-cut stages of what will eventually be a new outrigger canoe. In the middle of the warehouse stand Hawaiiloa’s giant steering paddles, evidence of the latest top-to-bottom renovation of the double-hulled voyager. Two well-known koa racing canoes—the Kai Elua and the Molokai—rest on sawhorses, undergoing upgrades meant to keep them competitive with the longer, sleeker designs popularized by visiting Tahitian paddlers in the 1970s.
Old and new, every one of these boats has its own history, which Billy Richards and Jay Dowsett took the time to explain one afternoon. It should be noted that Billy does not consider himself a canoe maker. An accomplished sailor, Vietnam veteran and practitioner of the traditional Hawaiian martial art known as lua, he has the soft-spoken, easy manner of a man who has nothing to prove. And while he doesn’t say so directly, one gets the sense that he is here to fulfill his kuleana—his responsibility—to both Wright Jr. and the voyaging canoes that have been a part of his life for nearly thirty years.
Billy Richards (left) and Jerry Ongies.