Native Intelligence: Kaua`i

Kani Ka Pila on the River

Story by Liza Simon. Photos by Paul Myers.

In 1946 a tidal wave hit Kaua‘i; the wrecked fishing boats it left behind gave a local pineapple factory superintendent named Walter J. Smith an idea: He would salvage the vessels, fill them with visitors and run them up the Wailuä river. Many thought Walter’s plan to take 150-seat passenger barges up the twenty-mile-long river—the longest navigable stretch of river in the state—wouldn’t stay afloat. But today, as Smith’s Motor Boat Service prepares to celebrate its seventieth anniversary, Walter J.’s son Walter “Freckles” Smith chuckles about how his father proved the skeptics wrong. “My father put microphones on the boats,” Freckles recalls. “He invited a few people to sing, play and dance hula. Everybody had a blast!” In those pioneering days Walter J. invented a steering mechanism that allowed a guide to simultaneously navigate the river and narrate the ride, and he hired musicians to perform in the nahenahe, or gentle, style of Hawaiian music he favored.

“It helped people to relax,” explains Freckles, who reserves his greatest pride for the fact that Kauaians have come to think of Smith’s as a launching pad for Hawaiian music careers. Today’s generation of boat tour entertainers, for example, includes the 20-something-year-old Kaleo Cummings, a descendant of Andy Cummings, who was a popular musician aboard Smith’s boats in the early days of the business and went on to be elected to the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. Kaleo grew up on Kaua‘i dreaming of following in the footsteps of Wailuā river music makers.

Smith’s has faced its challenges. Over the years two hurricanes and a serious tropical storm cut visitor arrivals on Kaua‘i, and boat excursions had to be curtailed. Occasional rough weather days can still make an indoor showroom look appealing. Still, many who go away find a way to return. Franklin Mano Contrades, who sixty years ago married Freckles’ cousin Patricia Smith, played a piano on the boat deck during the 1960s. He lived on the Mainland and performed Hawaiian music in Japan, but today he’s back at Smith’s, captaining excursions and mentoring many of the newbie music makers. “Out there on the river,” he says, “is a good place to go for broke.”

Show Boat: Smith’s Boats have been plying Hawai‘i’s longest navigable river since 1946, offering music, hula and a cruise along the Wailuā. “I love working here,”says Kilohana Woodward (at right with her ‘ukulele), who has played and danced on the Smith’s Boats for over thirty years.

Story by Liza Simon. Photos by Paul Myers