Issue 16.1: 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.

 


 

Like many craftsmen, Sonny lets his work—or his wife—do the talking. His career has followed the course of competitive paddling in the modern era. In 1975, during what’s now called the Hawaiian Renaissance, the first Tahitian crews came to Hawai‘i to compete in the Moloka‘i Hoe. “What place they get that year, Momi?” Sonny asks. Adjusting her glasses, Sonny’s historian, biographer, archivist and wife of thirty-three years replies, “They got second, fourth and eighth. The year after, they won.” The visiting Tahitians’ intense racing style took the Hawaiian crews by surprise. And so did their boats: While Hawaiian teams stuck with canoe and paddle designs that hadn’t changed since the 1950s, the Tahitians were more pragmatic. They did away with whatever didn’t comport with the goal of competition: winning. Then as now, Tahitian crews use a fast, aggressive stroke, treating the forty-two-mile channel race less like a grueling marathon and more like a series of intense, breathless sprints. Paddling (and winning) is so important in French Polynesia that the local petroleum refinery (Shell) and the electric utility (Electricité de Tahiti, or EDT) sponsor the country’s top two teams. Crews from Hawai‘i have been trying to catch up to the Tahitians ever since.

 

As a young canoe builder from Wai‘anae, Sonny was struck by the Tahitians’ skill and by their boats, which were longer, sleeker and faster. He went to French Polynesia and apprenticed himself to master canoe builder Pua‘aniho Taotaha, coach of the winning Tea Tea team. “Sonny was already building canoes, but down there he got a different sense of things,” Momi explains, turning the pages of an old photo album. She shows me a picture of a young, bearded and burly version of her husband shouldering a heavy bunch of bananas and racing down the streets of Papeete during Heiva, the summer cultural festival. “That was good fun,” Sonny says. “The first time they took me up to the forest with them, they had me do the banana man race, jump in sacred falls naked and everything.” Another photo shows the broad shoulders of Sonny and other paddlers among clouds of sawdust, dwarfed by a massive log lying on the forest floor.

 

Sonny had come to Tahiti looking for the secret to speed. He wanted to create the fastest wa‘a kialoa, or racing canoe, ever made. With Pua‘aniho and his team of paddlers and builders, Sonny learned the roles he has since mastered: a woodsman to find and fell trees, a carpenter to rough out logs, a team leader to manage a process that is measured in years and uses both modern and ancient skills. In Sonny’s old photos, large chainsaws lie beside steel adzes like the basalt tools the Polynesians used a millennium ago.

 

Sonny also learned to innovate—perpetually and competitively. Each canoe he creates is incrementally faster than the last, each built upon the lessons of its predecessors. And the innovations are not only in the canoe designs: When commercial tools are lacking, Sonny builds those, too. His hale wa‘a compound is replete with sanders, saws and rigs for specialized tasks. In the decades since his first trip to Tahiti, Sonny’s innovations have affected both ends of the outrigger design spectrum, from the modern fiberglass outrigger all the way to the Hawai‘iloa, the first double-hulled wooden voyaging canoe built since the reign of Kamehameha.

 


 

The importance of the canoe in the Polynesian seafaring tradition can’t be overstated. For that reason a talented kahuna kalai wa‘a, a master canoe builder, was a member of the elite. These days, though, canoe builders are a little less elite; even the kahuna kalai wa‘a has a day-job. “Between making canoes and being an excavation contractor, I’ve done pretty well for myself,” Sonny says, which is a good thing for Momi. “Sonny loves making canoes, so he would do this if it paid nothing,” she says.

 

Part of the reason Sonny is so revered is his skill with Acacia koa, the nuances of which take a lifetime to master. When repairing a canoe, for example, each patch must compensate for the swells and contractions of the entire boat while reinforcing any surrounding patches, which might be decades old. “Sometimes I put a patch in, and it looks good, it feels good, but I come back two weeks later and it’s cracked,” Sonny says. Because of their rarity and the painstaking effort required to maintain them, many seaworthy koa boats are essentially priceless. “He’s only built five from the tree,” Momi says, “but he’s repaired dozens now. I’d say at least twenty-eight.” In repairing canoes, he often completely rebuilds them, rendering their hulls unrecognizable from their origins as utilitarian fishing vessels.

 

In mastering the koa canoe, Sonny is linked to an ancient calling. In translating that mastery to fiberglass, he is a modern boat-builder par excellence. Over decades he’s refined subtle, organic curves that acquiesce to the water, and he’s updated his designs while complying with the four-hundred-pound weight minimum for competition. His first fiberglass boat, the “Racer,” was produced in 1987. With an expanded fiberglass shop in 2000, the “Striker” came next. In 2007, after decades of trial and error, Bradley rolled out his masterpiece: the “Lightning,” the fastest, most durable wa‘a kialoa ever to ply the seas. But having fulfilled his ambition of building the fastest outrigger canoe in the world, Sonny doesn’t want to stop. “One day I’ll try my hand at carbon fiber, but not for a few years,” he says of the material du jour for outriggers. “But no rush. The Lightnings are beating those boats anyway.”

 


 

 

The 2012 Wahine o ke Kai and Moloka‘i Hoe contests illustrated how unpredictable the Ka‘iwi channel can be. For the Wahine o ke Kai, an early northwest swell crashed double overhead peaks across the mouth of Hale o Lono, the harbor from which boats have launched to begin the race since the 1970s. You might have seen the harrowing YouTube videos of the crews who mistimed the sets and got caught in the impact zone like those unfortunate fisherman in Hokusai’s “Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” No major injuries were reported, though the hull of a canoe in the koa division was damaged, its crew having to ride an escort boat back to O‘ahu. “I’ve never heard of one of my fiberglass boats breaking in the water,” Sonny remarks, “but they’re no match for trucks in reverse or falling on the freeway. I still don’t know how that happens.” The winner was Team Bradley, a Hawaiian team named after the boat builder.

 

For the Moloka‘i Hoe a week later, a break in the tradewinds had the channel doing its best impersonation of the still, hot waters of the South Pacific. Competing in conditions similar to their home lagoons, Shell Va‘a traded the lead with fellow countrymen EDT, both teams in Bradley Lightnings. Crossing the finish line at just over five and a half hours, Shell Va‘a retained the title, with the closest Hawai‘i team appearing seventeen minutes later.

 

Over the years, Sonny has maintained relationships with Tahitian crews, assisting the ascendancy of the reigning champions Shell Va‘a in the Moloka‘i Hoe. “Some of these young guys I meet, they tell me I paddled with their grandfathers,” he says. “I’ve known Sonny and Momi for over thirty years now,” says John Tuthill, who acts as a spotter for incoming Tahitian crews during the Moloka‘i Hoe. “He doesn’t speak like someone with a degree in hydrodynamics, but he knows exactly how a boat behaves in the water. I’ve heard people call him a kahuna kalai wa‘a. If he isn’t one, I don’t know who is.” Of being referred to as a kahuna, Sonny humbly deflects, pointing instead to the skill of those who paddle his wa‘a kialoa.

 


 

Back in the shop, Sonny points to an old wooden boat caked in dust, suspended above the expansive workspace like a taxidermic bird. A large crack runs along the port side. “That was one of my first canoes,” he says. “It was sold to a surf shop in Waikïkï in the ’80s. One day I drove by and the place had closed down, and I wondered where the boat went. A few years ago a friend said he found it in a shipping container. When I got there it was on its side and covered in boxes, all messed up.”

 

Taking a few steps toward the cracked hull, he reaches out to the old boat. “I want to get back to her one day. I’ll add a little more rocker there and give it a few more feet. Every time you build a boat, you learn something new. You can always go faster.”