School of the Sea

Why build an eighteenth-century pinnace down to its smallest detail?
Story by Paul Wood. Photo by Andrew Richard Hara.

The boat I’m looking at is a pinnace, a vessel not seen in Island waters for two hundred years. She’s the reincarnation of a craft that played a critical role in the drama of Hawai‘i’s first contact with Europeans, now once again plying the seas off Hawai‘i Island and serving as both historic artifact and nautical classroom.

Her name is Imi Loa (“explorer”), and she’s the fulfillment of a dream of a man named Woodson K. Woods III, who lives in the foothill town of Waimea on the northern-most tip of Hawai‘i Island.

The heyday of pinnaces was during the Age of Sail, when they were carried on deck as light tenders. While Imi Loa was built at the Rockfort Marine shipyard in Maine in 2007, every detail, from the mast tips to the centerboard, adheres to the hand-tool technology of the eighteenth century. Even her few bits of metal were forged by a blacksmith. Upon completion, Woods had her trucked across North America and then barged to Kawaihae Harbor and hauled up to his Waimea property, where he had a custom-built boathouse waiting for her. There she remained for a decade while Woods searched for an organization that would put her into the service for which she was intended. Now Waimea’s Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy has accepted the gift of Imi Loa and, beginning in 2019, the school will offer its students for-credit courses in seamanship and small-boat handling. With the launch of the school’s Ka Makani Ho‘okele program, Imi Loa’s mission will commence.

Imi Loa, is an exact replica of a pinnace, a small craft that once accompanied larger ships in Island waters. The craft, whose name means explorer in Hawaiian, will soon be used for courses at Waimea’s Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy.

Woods, who is 87 now, has lived a life of high adventure and risk-taking. As a sailor, he has navigated, raced and built sloops, yawls and rigged craft of many types. A pilot with a taste for vintage air-craft, he started Hawai‘i’s first scheduled air-taxi operation—Royal Hawaiian Air Service—in 1964, engaging a fleet of Cessnas to reach the state’s tiniest airstrips. Later, he and his son Chris went into business rebuilding historic aircraft such as the World War II Spitfire. Woods also has a long history of competing on the national sailplane racing circuit, soaring in unpowered gliders made of carbon fiberglass. In 1968 he set an altitude record by catching lift over Mauna Kea and vaulting to 25,500 feet. His soaring career ended abruptly in 2012 when he “landed out” on the lava fields of Kohala, wrecking his sailplane as well as parts of his anatomy. These days he paints, tends to his prodigious library of nautical books and works on his memoirs.

Imi Loa reflects two convictions in Woods’ life: that real-world challenges are the most vivid form of education and that all of us have an urgent need to remember history. “As much as possible, I’m interested in getting teenagers—and anyone who’s interested, really—out into the world, where they can learn by experiencing life through their five senses,” he says. The Imi Loa mission came to him in 1996 or ’97: “I woke up one morning and had this wild feeling.

“I knew I was going to build a ship. It was an epiphany of some sort.” The ship would be historically authentic yet adapted to serve as a seagoing school. To build the pinnace, Woods turned to shipbuilder Melbourne Smith, who had produced some of the most sensational ship re-creations of the late twentieth century—the Pride of Baltimore, for example, which his crew constructed on the shoreline, in public view, using nothing but hand tools and a forge. Smith also re-created the topsail schooner Californian, the brig Niagara and other projects that spurred an international interest in heritage shipbuilding.

Woods and Smith had earlier worked together on a re-creation of the Lynx, a War of 1812 privateer that’s now plying the US eastern seaboard as a saltwater Outward Bound. Imi Loa, also modeled on the Lynx, is the next product of the Woods/Smith collaboration, and she will likely live out her days on the northwest coast of Hawai‘i Island.

On the highway, getting hauled from Waimea to Kawaihae, Imi Loa is long (thirty-two feet) and sleek as a roller skate with a breadth of less than eight feet. She slips into the water like a paddleboard, drawing just two feet. As she shoots out of the harbor behind a stiff wind, anyone who happens to be watching from the shore will be astonished. Onlookers were no doubt equally astonished at the first sighting of a pinnace in Hawai‘i in 1779, when Imi Loa’s forbear played a part in the fatal first encounter of two cultures.

Last October, as Imi Loa sped under sail along the Kohala shoreline, skipper David Giff gestured widely with his arm and said, “Right in here the Endeavour was standing way offshore, and Bligh came in looking for fresh water.” Giff meant William Bligh, who became infamous a decade later as captain of the HMS Bounty. Resolution and Discovery were the large sailing ships on Cook’s third voyage of exploration, designed for years of blue-water voyaging but not for approaching an unknown anchorage. They had just left Kealakekua bay, some fifty miles south, where they had basically worn out their welcome and sailed north to Kawaihae.

Shipbuilder Melbourne Smith has produced some of the most sensational ship recreations of the late twentieth century. Imi Loa is the fulfillment of Waimea resident Woodson K. Woods III’s dream of building a historically authentic ship to serve as a seagoing school.

Big, sunburnt and white-haired, Giff, who is also HPA’s middle-school librarian, continued with his tale: “The big ships couldn’t come close to shore, so Bligh came in here on a pinnace. No outsider had seen this bay before. Then a storm blew in. As the crew rowed back to the ship, they found an overturned canoe and a young man and two elderly women struggling in the water. Bligh rescued them and two other canoes.” But as the storm pounded down, it cracked the Endeavour’s mainmast. Cook had to sail his crippled ship back to Kealakekua, where he died in a shoreline standoff. As he fell, that same pinnace was waiting for him just three strides away.

As he told this story, Giff was with a crew of about a dozen, most of them sea-weathered and stoked to be aboard this elegant, antique vessel made of nothing but fabric, natural fiber, metal and wood. The crew grinned and joked. They knew that Imi Loa had been in the water fewer than two dozen times before, and they were honored to be part of a shakedown cruise to prepare it as a sailing classroom. Also aboard were Robert and Fiona McKendry and their teenage children Malia and Caleb. Robert is head of Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy, the school adopting Imi Loa for its curriculum. Malia, a tenth-grader, handled the tiller for most of the run.

Robert McKendry, the head of HPA, wears red school gear aboard Imi Loa. His son Caleb hangs off the side of the craft scanning the horizon. When you get out on the ocean and sail, McKendry says, “You find out things about yourself.”

What is to be learned from a pinnace? You learn to tie knots (bowline, clove hitch, reef) and to coil and belay lines. The lines are natural fiber, so when you cut them you can’t use a lighter to melt the ends; you have to sew the strands tight with a needle. You watch the winds, sea and clouds, not a digital screen. You gain a physical experience of mathematics and physics. As Fiona McKendry says, “You get to a different place in yourself. Peace. You experience closeness with water, then you reconnect with land from a whole new perspective.” Robert adds, “You find out things about yourself.

“Experiential learning means that you put all your knowledge together and create something. When you’re part of a team, you have a knowledge of your own limitations. Your well-being depends on other people. You’re part of a big family. You know you can’t do it alone.” Woods puts it more simply: “Sailing,” he says, “is an important thing to have in the quiver of your life.” HH