Issue 8.1: February/March 2005

Shaping History

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.

 
Wright Bowman Jr. At top,
Wright Jr. (center) works to
shape one of Hawaiiloa's
two massive hulls
.

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.

"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.

 
Billy Richards (left) and Jerry Ongies.

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.

"I’m the president of the organization, but the people who actually do the work are the people like this guy," he says, nodding toward Jay, before ticking off a membership list that also includes legendary outrigger canoe builders Wally Froiseth and Tay Perry; voyaging canoe designer and master woodworker Jerry Ongies; and a host of others.

Jay, meanwhile, has boat-building in his blood: His grandfather was a canoe builder and collector; during the 1960s, his father owned The Anchorage, a Käneohe marina and boatyard that has since become a townhouse development; his younger brother Allan, also a member of the Friends, specializes in finding and restoring historic Hawaiian canoes. A big, gregarious man with the handshake of someone who’s spent a lot of time around power tools, Jay got his start as a backyard surfboard shaper, before progressing to commercial fishing boats and mega-horsepower "go fast" racing boats. He’s equally at home working with wood or fiberglass—an important skill set, given the scarcity of Hawaii’s famed native hardwood.

"Koa boats are getting tougher and tougher to build, because the trees just don’t exist," says Jay. "You’re looking at trees that are probably 100 years old, and the fact of the matter is that when you do find them, the people who are harvesting them look at their net worth: They can get $15 to $18 a board foot, sell the whole tree for furniture and get a lot of money." At these prices, a canoe-sized log can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000; a completed forty-five-foot outrigger, between $80,000 and $120,000. (By contrast, fiberglass outriggers run in the $8,000 range.) As such, canoe builders often depend on community connections to secure their wood: For instance, the rough-hewn koa log that currently hangs at Pier 60 was donated by a Big Island foundation headed by canoe maker John Kekua, an old friend to many of the Friends and, as Jay puts it, a man "very much into the preservation of the art of building canoes."

 
Jay Dowsett shaping a
new fiberglass outrigger.

While no comprehensive survey exists, current best-guess estimates place the total number of wooden canoes still in existence throughout Hawaii at somewhere between 900 and 1,000. No small number, but it pales considering the fact that, when Captain James Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay in 1779, HMS Resolution officer John Ledyard noted in his journal that—in one encounter, in one bay on the Big Island—between 2,500 and 3,000 canoes came out to greet them.

So the act of reviving and maintaining existing koa boats becomes all the more important. Pointing to the warehouse wall, Billy recounts the origins of the opelu canoes, which were first gathered together in the early 1960s. "A gentleman named George Steppe collected those canoes from along the Big Island’s South Kona coast, dragging them out from under houses and places where they were just rotting away. His intent was to fix them up, but he passed away before he could do that. They were willed to a group called Na Kokua Kaloko-Honokohau, who in turn came to Wrighto and asked if we would refurbish them ... he said yes, and we’re keeping his promise."

As each canoe is finished, it’s sent back to the Big Island for display. The first, completed four years ago, was given Wright Jr.’s middle name: Elemakule now resides at the Hotel King Kamehameha in Kailua-Kona. At the time of my visit, the second, Alapii (Hawaiian for "Step") had just been completed, and was still at Pier 60 awaiting shipment home. It’s a labor-intensive process, with any one boat taking eight months or more to complete; some are so deteriorated that it is ultimately more an exercise in recreating than restoring, shaping wholly new sections and inserting them at points where the original wood is too far gone to save.

"There’s a stand-up comedian," says Jay with a chuckle. "He comes out holding a brand new axe and says, This is George Washington’s famous axe ... well, except that two years ago I had to replace the handle because the termites ate it out; and last year I had to replace the blade because it rusted away. But it occupies the same space.’ That’s kind of what’s happening here," he nods toward the Alapii. "That boat is at least eighty years old. All those years ago, someone put their heart and soul into it, and now it’s up to us to make sure we don’t destroy that emotion."

Part of the Friends’ mission is to foster the next generation of builders. To this end, the group maintains an informal working relationship with Honolulu Community College’s Marine Education Training Center. Located a mile or so up the road from Pier 60, the METC is a state-of-the-art dry dock facility designed to give students all the hands-on experience necessary to find work in the boat construction and maintenance industry.

 
A voyaging canoe's manu hope
(stern piece) as seen from above.

Like Pier 60, on first glance the METC’s machine shop interior seems oceans away from a traditional canoe building halau. But modernity is part of the reason for the current collaboration. Of the seven long-range voyaging canoes scattered throughout the Islands (three more are currently under construction), the majority have fiberglass hulls. Of those that use wood throughout, only two have hulls carved in the traditional fashion, from whole logs. The sixty-two-foot Hokulea, for instance, has hulls fashioned from molded plywood strips and framing, covered with resin and fiberglass. The fifty-seven-foot Iosepa, built in 2001 and owned by Brigham Young University-Hawaii, was carved using the wood of seven Fijian dakua trees. Only Hawaiiloa, also fifty-seven feet long, used solely traditional Hawaiian materials in its construction. Its hulls were carved from two massive spruce logs donated by Alaska’s Tlingit tribe. (Before you ask, spruce isn’t necessarily untraditional: In his 2003 book, Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors, anthropologist Ben Finney recounts how, when George Vancouver visited Hawaii in the 1790s, he noted a sixty-one-foot long, sixteen-person outrigger canoe made of non-native pine. It had been carved from a giant driftwood log that washed ashore on Kauai.)

In other words, keeping the current fleet of traditional voyagers afloat will require knowledge of modern boat fabrication. "Tradition is extremely important, and I don’t want anybody to lose sight of that," says METC director Bob Perkins. "But if we can put aside traditional materials for a moment, I strongly believe that if Hawaiians were still in commerce with Tahiti using voyaging canoes, they’d be built out of carbon fiber; they’d have wing masts and fully battened mainsails and they’d be doing thirty knots. Nobody likes to be on the water any longer than they have to be, and that’s what I tell my students."

The METC/Friends collaboration is bearing all sorts of fruit for the voyaging community. Students in the program are currently working to dry and patch Hawaiiloa’s spruce hulls as part of their coursework in woodworking and joinery. Bob is himself constructing a new boom for the Hokulea, retaining the steep upward curve that gives traditional Hawaiian sails their distinctive "crab claw" shape, but using hollow box construction and a coating of fiberglass and epoxy to make the wooden boom significantly lighter and easier to handle at sea.

And last October, the brand new, fifty-eight-foot double-hulled canoe Hokualakai sailed into Hilo’s Radio Bay, where it was formally delivered to the Big Island’s Aha Punana Leo Hawaiian language immersion program. A floating classroom for students seeking to reconnect with traditional ways, the boat was designed by Friends member Jerry Ongies, with the input of veteran Hokulea navigator Chad Baybayan and a computer-assisted design program run by Bob Perkins. Bob and his students also built the mold that Jay Dowsett used to fabricate the boat’s twin fiberglass hulls.

Bob hopes to see a vacant lot next door to the METC facilities turned into a place where canoes from throughout the Pacific can be brought for maintenance. "Then maybe we can get back to sharing the traditional ways of building boats," he muses. "You know, the Marshallese sew their planks together because they don’t have any big trees—that kind of knowledge shouldn’t be lost; it should be shared."

While we discussed these various works, Bob leaned on yet another student project: an eighteen-foot wooden hybrid that combines aspects of a Hawaiian surfing canoe and a Micronesian sailing canoe. Standing with us was Dallas Dunn, one of the students working on the boat. Thirty-four years old, Dallas has spent his life on, around and under various types of boats. And while he doesn’t think too many of his classmates will keep working on canoes once they graduate—it’s not exactly a stable career move, after all—he sees no other path for himself.

"Look around you," he says, pointing to the Hokulea and Hokualakai, both moored at the METC dock in preparation for the new canoe’s maiden voyage to the Big Island. "We’re standing at the nexus of the next twenty-five years of Hawaiian voyaging: We’ve got Friends down the road, we’ve got one of the best shops in the state, and everywhere you turn down here there are people working for free on these incredible projects. You not only get the joy of making something with your hands, but you’re helping maintain the tradition."

 
Tay Perry prepares traditional
coconut-fiber aha—lashing cordage—to
be used on a museum-bound outrigger canoe.

A few days after my first visit, I returned to Pier 60 to meet up with Tay Perry and Allan Dowsett. At sixty-seven, Tay’s not the eldest of the group—Wally Froiseth is eighty-four and Jerry Ongies is seventy-seven—but he’s one of the most experienced, having begun his career as a twelve-year-old apprentice to his father George, himself a famed builder who began making canoes in the 1920s.

A soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humor, Tay’s done it all where canoes are concerned, from fabricating fiberglass racers to hollowing out koa logs, modifying koa racers and restoring historic canoes. He’s one of the best around, but like most of his peers, he’s not quitting his day job—in his case, working in the insurance industry.

"I would charge about twelve grand to fix that canoe," says Tay, pointing to yet another of the Friends’ opelu canoes. "But at that price you could just call this a hobby for me: I don’t charge money to get rich, just to pay for the tools—right now I’ve got something like ten chainsaws that run and another four that don’t."

Allan, on the other hand, is a specialist. "I don’t build new canoes, I don’t modify racing canoes," he says. "All I do is collect and restore old canoes." A partial résumé of the boats he’s worked on includes the A, a canoe once owned by Prince Kuhio and now on display at the Bishop Museum; an outrigger canoe from the Big Island’s Waipio district, dating from the 1860s and believed to be the only one in Hawaii carved from the trunk of a single ulu (breadfruit) tree; and his current project, an outrigger recently acquired from the Brooklyn Museum of Arts and Sciences, which was given to the museum in the 1890s, and was carved somewhere between 1840 and 1870.

"My wife always says, Why couldn’t you have been a collector of stamps?’" he laughs, gesturing toward the same canoe Tay was just speaking of. "But this is what I love. Other people would look at that canoe as a throwaway, but it will be a museum piece when we’re done with it."

 
Allan Dowsett works to
restore a historic opelu canoe.

One of the Friends’ other collaborations, an eighteen-foot koa fishing canoe, recently made a historic voyage of its own, when it was shipped to Washington, D.C., to go on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Begun as part of a 1989 folk arts festival at the Smithsonian, the unfinished log was shipped back to Hawaii and put in storage when its initial carver—Wright Bowman Jr.—began work on the Hawaiiloa.

It was only when the Smithsonian requested a boat for its new museum—and after the koa log furnished by John Kekua couldn’t be brought over from the Big Island in time—that the Friends approached Wright Jr.’s widow, Sharon, about donating the unfinished canoe. She readily agreed, and the boat was ultimately finished by Wright Jr.’s former apprentice, Jason Tabata, and Jason’s apprentice, Dennis Lai Hipp. In doing so, they not only finished what their teacher had started, but took part in a symbolic uniki—a graduation from his instruction.

I called Sharon one afternoon to talk about her decision to part with the canoe. "For me, it was a gift—it was what my husband would have done," she says, "I believe he would be very proud to see that Jason, Dennis and the rest of the people at the project are carrying on his work. The proof is at the Smithsonian now—the beautiful work everyone has done to complete this project."

Before hanging up, Sharon went on to explain the meaning of the new canoe’s name. On the one hand, it is meant to honor Clarence Au, another of Wright Jr.’s apprentices, who passed away in 2003. But the boat’s complete name is Au Hou—literally, "new beginning."

 


Hawaii's eldest voyaging canoe,
Hokulea (foreground) leads it
youngest (Hokualakai) into Hilo Bay
in October 2004, when the
three-month-old canoe was officially
welcomed to its new home.