Built to Last
story by John Romain
art by Alex Preiss
IT IS MY GOOD FORTUNE to live on land that has a rich history. I make my home in a small cottage on the southern end of Waikaloa Beach, just at the shore of Maui’s Hana Bay. Kamehameha I used to surf here and it’s believed that he first saw Captain Cook’s ships from this beach. It was also here, in a cave just back from the shore, that Queen Ka‘ahumanu was born.
Out front, to the north of my cottage, is a fishing heiau that once housed three stones used to call fish to the area. On my office wall I keep a photograph, taken in 1883, that shows the heiau and a thatched hale just behind it; another photograph, also from 1883, shows a man on Waikaloa Beach, sitting next to a pair of outrigger canoes. Many nights I’ve sat in my cottage looking at the photos and imagining life when Hawaii was sovereign and traditional cultural protocol prevailed. From time to time, master hale builder Francis Sinenci and I talked about building a hale on or near the spot of the one in the photo, to pay homage to that time in the Islands’ history. Our plans hung in the air for years, though, and didn’t find a reason to materializeuntil one recent afternoon, when I wandered down to Hana Bay and met up with a team of Hana Canoe Club paddlers. Robert Malaiakini, friend and senior paddler, greeted me and in the course of a short conversation, invited me to attend a presentation of mango wood canoes just completed by Fafa, an expert canoe builder who was visiting from Tahiti.
I arrived at the site of the ceremonies just as the other guests were gathering in a circle around Fafa’s three masterful canoes. Regally draped with ti leaves and floral lei, the canoes were displayed on a bluff above the sea. Even more beautiful than I’d imagined, each canoe carried the markings and colors of the tree from which it came; yet all shared the distinctive burled, golden tone of mango wood. One canoe in particular caught my attentionmade from a female tree, I was later to learn.
Fafa, a slight man with radiant eyes and a gentle voice, stepped forward and addressed the gathering in Tahitian. He spoke long phrases, then paused while his grandson translated. He first reminded us that Sundays here, and in Tahiti, are meant for families and friends to gather in gratitude for the many gifts that we receive, none more important than the gift of love. He thanked his hosts for their hospitality and for the gift of the trees that had become the canoes. Fafa explained that the mango trees, born on land, would now begin new lives as sea dwellers. He closed by adding that even though his work was done, the real work lay aheadeach canoe needed a hale and a kahu, someone to care for it. I was captured in the moment, and one of the canoes had found a home.
The next day I returned to meet with Fafa to formalize the terms of adoption. I was accompanied by Francis, who measured the canoe and went to work on plans for the hale. The canoe was delivered a few days later, and she rested under a tent on the lawn while the hale took form.
On a sunny Sunday morning, the canoe was taken to the beach and placed in front of her new home. Kahu Kaniela Akaka, visiting with his family from the Big Island, first blessed the hale using water from the sea. The canoe was then bathed and blessed with coconut water, lifted from the ground and carried into the surf. Three of us jumped on board and paddled her far out into the bay before returning to shore. Together with family and friends, we carried the canoe across the beach and gently placed her in the hale where she now resides, ever more known as Wahine o ke Kahakai, Lady of the Seashore.