Saving Kula Kai
story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Brad Goda
Sam sands a new piece of plywood he's
installed on the Kula Kai's hull. He's been
maintaining the vessel for almost three
decades and is dedicated to keeping
this relic of a bygone era in the water
and fishing. "Me and this boat, we tied
up." he says.
She ain't pretty. Her aft's rotting, her keel's worm-eaten, and her paint's bleached and peeling. Sitting in drydock on the hot pavement of Sand Island's Ke‘ehi small boat harbor has been less than kind to the fifty-seven-year-old Kula Kai, a disheveled Miss Havisham of a boat waiting pitiably for the return of her bridegroom.
The Kula Kai is the last of her kind: an eighty-foot wooden vessel that began fishing local waters in 1949. Her design, known as the "Hawaiian sampan," is unique to Hawai‘i . . . the only boat other than the Hawaiian canoe that could arguably be called indigenous to the Islands. At one time, a fleet of large sampans based at Kewalo Basin in Honolulu plied the seas for ‘ahi (yellowfin) and aku (skipjack) tuna; they were an important part of the fishing industry and contributed substantially to the economy. The sampan came to represent a way of life, and a distinctive hybrid culture developed around them That culture, its ships and the shipwrights who built them are, but for the Kula Kai and one lone shipwright devoted to her restoration, all but extinct.
Sailed for centuries throughout East and Southeast Asia, sampans were originally a narrow-beamed variant of the Chinese junkflat-bottomed, equipped with a broad, square rudder and the trademark sail reminiscent of a bat’s wing. Its name comes from the Chinese san (three) and pan (plank). Though the word “sampan” may inspire stereotypically Third-Worldish images of ungainly jalopies bobbing like flotsam off Hong Kong, the boat is in reality an impressive piece of nautical engineering; stable even in heavy seas, fast on a reach, easy to drive, cheap to repair, and comfortable for the crew who would sleep under an awning above deck. In 1899, a Japanese entrepreneur introduced the first sampan to Hawai‘i, a thirty-four-foot sailing vessel modeled after fishing boats common in Japan. The design caught on, and by 1916 five more sampans were built for use in tuna fishing. Gasoline engines replaced the sail, and by 1922, the sampans regularly outperformed other fishing boats to the extent that they came to dominate the growing deep-sea fishing industry. Because the fleet was skippered by Japanese captains and operated by Japanese crews (smuggled in from Japan), its success created racial tensions. The Exclusion Act of 1924 stopped the illegal immigration, and thereafter locals as well as immigrants manned the ships. Over the next two decades, local Japanese shipwrights adapted the design for Hawai‘i’s comparatively difficult conditions: the addition of a sponson (an overhang at the top of a bulkhead) gave added stability in heavy seas, a deckhouse provided protection from rough weather, diesel engines replaced gasoline, the bow was raised to keep the nose above the waves. These unique ships, the “Hawaiian sampans” that bore only a passing resemblance to their progenitors, were painted bright blue and launched at Kewalo Basin with the chanting of sutras and offerings of sake.
During the fleet’s heyday in the 1940s, when fishing was Hawai‘i’s third largest industry (after sugar and pineapple), approximately 400 sampans of various sizes operated off O‘ahu, Maui and the Big Island. The largest and most impressive were the aku boats, like the Kula Kai, which could spend up to a week at sea. A specialized bait well in amidships allowed them to carry live nehu (a small anchovy that aku find especially delicious), as well as provide ballast for stability. When the crew spotted a flock of seabirdsthe telltale sign of a school of akuthey would chum the waters with nehu, causing a feeding frenzy. Standing barefoot on the deck of the heaving boat, with no safety harness or life vest to impede their movements, fisherman dipped lines with a single barbless (and baitless) hook into the water. Within seconds an aku would take the hook, and with a combination of physical strength and good timing, the fisherman would jerk it up, flick it over his shoulder and onto the deck, and drop his line back into the water. It was as dangerous as it was backbreaking; a forty-pound tuna could easily pull a man overboard. A skilled fisherman might catch three to five fish a minute.
On a good day, a single aku boat might haul in 40,000 pounds of fish, sometimes more.
Sam Whippy, a master shipwright from Fiji,
is descended from a long line of
boatbuilders; his great-great-grandfather,
Nantucket trader David Whippy, jumped
ship to settle in Fiji in the 1820s.
But it was not to last. Purse-seine fishing, while indiscriminate and environmentally destructive, was already in use in Mainland tuna fisheries and was twenty times more productive than pole-and-line. Worse yet was the outbreak of World War II. The Navy suspected the Japanese-operated vessels might be spying, performing recon for a much-feared invasion of Hawai‘i by sea. Even before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the Navy began confiscating sampans and repurposing the larger aku boatspainting them white, upgrading their engines and sending them out on patrol. On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, American planes strafed sampans off Barber’s Point, mistaking them for the vanguard of an invasion force. During the war, many Japanese-American shipwrights either left for Japan or suffered internment. Those sampans still allowed to fish were confined to near-shore waters and could operate only during hours that were in many cases not conducive to catching their target species. By 1942, the fleet’s catch had dropped by ninety-nine percent.
Though these restrictions ended with the war, the sampan fleet never recovered. The era of wooden ships was nearly over, and few shipwrights in the Islands had the skill to repair the sampans as they decayed or wrecked. By 1950, only forty-eight sampans remained, and though they had more longevity, new wooden boats had become more expensive to build than steel or fiberglass. The Kula Kai, built at Kewalo in 1949 by Seichi Funai, was among the last wooden aku boats built in Hawai‘i. Originally christened The Darling Dot, she was purchased from her first owner in the early 1960s by the state of Hawai‘i for use as a teaching vessel; hence the new name Kula Kai, or “school of the sea.” In 1965, fisherman Tom Fukunaga purchased her at auction in Hilo, and continued fishing for aku with her in the traditional way, even as less expensive and more efficient steel and fiberglass long-liners supplanted the old sampan fleet. Today, a few of the small sampans still operate as tourist charter boats out of Kewalo, but of the mighty aku boats, once the pride of the fleet and the backbone of Hawai‘i’s fishing industry, only the Kula Kai survives.
When I went down to Ke‘ehi to meet master shipwright Sam Whippy, the boat’s future was uncertain. Tom Fukunaga had become too ill to continue fishing, and his son Glen, who is not a fisherman, was in search of a buyer. But so far, no one had made an offer, and the Hawai‘i Maritime Museum, which couldn’t afford the upkeep, wouldn’t take it even as a donation. The Kula Kai was costing Glen Fukunaga $260 a day in drydock fees, and one morning last May, he decided to call it quits. He came down to the boatyard and told Sam to stop working; the money’d run out.
The Kula Kai ("school of the sea") awaits
repairs in the dry dock at the Ke‘ehi small
boat harbor in Honolulu.
Sam’s a shipwright who, like the vessel he has lovingly maintained for the Fukunagas over the past thirty years, is also a vanishing breed. He’s one of the few left in Hawai‘i with the expertise to restore the Kula Kai, and perhaps the only one still working on large wooden boats. Descended from a long line of master shipwrights famous in his home country, Fiji, Sam traces his ancestry directly to one David Whippy, a Nantucket trader who jumped ship on the island of Levuka in the 1820s to become the first white man to live permanently in Fiji. A village chief spared his life in exchange for his services as a shipwright.
Sam’s own story seems oddly similar to that of his great-great-grandfather, only in reverse: In 1972, a Taiwanese fishing boat, the Wan Fu, struggled into the Fijian port of Suva so badly in need of repair its crew had deserted her. “Somebody told them, ‘Go see Whippy, he one of the best around!’ We made an exchange: I fix the boat, free, if they let me sail with them to America. Good deal!” he tells me in a lilting pidgin-English inflected with a distinctively Fijian roll of the r’s. With his wife and eigh-month-old son, he sailed for Honolulu where he “jumped ship,” looking for work. But without a passport or a visa, no one would hire him. He continued repairs on the Wan Fu at Ala Wai boat harbor, hoping to find work before the ship sailed a week later. If not, he’d have to fly back to Fiji. While repairing the bow one morning, his work caught the attention of “one local Japanee guy.” Without so much as an introduction, the man invited Sam out for a sail around Diamond Head on his yacht. The man turned out to be U.S. Attorney in Hawai‘i Robert Fukuda, who pulled more than a few strings on Sam’s behalf. “So the guy says, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow morning.’ I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me. ‘Get your toolbox ready!’” Like his ancestor, Sam’s life in America was “spared” by a local chief in exchange for his shipbuilding expertise.
His is a way of working that’s all but gone these days. “In Fiji, we don’t buy our wood. We go up the mountain and drop big trees. All the boats we build are done by hand: no machines. Ribbed by hand, planed by hand, everything by hand. No metal. You hold the ribs together with dowels,” he says with growing excitement. “It works if you know what you’re doing. Nobody does that anymore. That way is dying. My family is the only one doing it in Fiji I’m almost the last one working on wooden boats here. The last one working on big ones.” Not only that, but Sam doesn’t use computer modeling or lasers; he measures everything by eye. He even fashions wooden bearings for the propeller shaft by hand, correcting in advance for how much they’ll swell when wet. “You got a bad eye, no can build it,” he says.
Sam quickly found work with Hawaiian Tuna Packers, repairing ships. Word of his skill spread fast, and now at the age of sixty-five, he never lacks for work. “It’s not that anybody else can’t do it, but they like me because my boat’s 100-percent guaranteed. If you put the boat in the water and there’s something wrong with it, bring it back, I fix it for free. But they never come back. I fix it right, and I fix it good,” he says with a warm and affecting mix of self-deprecation and immodesty. “I’m here now, and I’m helping people in Hawai‘i. I can repair boats that fall apart, and I can put them together in ways other people don’t know how. I love to bring back my history of building boats. It’s in my blood.”
Using a more discriminating pole-and-line
fishing technique harking back to earlier
days, the Kula Kai can not only hold
her own against modern steel and
fiberglass longliners but can also reduce
harm to Hawai‘i's fisheries by catching
only what's wanted.
The wooden sampan’s worth saving, he says, not just for its value as a relic of a bygone era; Sam believes the Kula Kai can hold her own against any steel and fiberglass ship out there. “It’s a fast boat, it doesn’t need too much power to move it. It rides the water good, the waves good. It’s made for speed and comfort. Fast turning. That’s what you need when you chase the aku.” And, he says, once properly repaired, she’ll outlast the newer boats.
“Fiberglass!” he scoffs. “They only warranty for ten to fifteen years. It might be strong for ten years, but the glass is brittle. After ten years, the glass starts peeling off.” He pats a patch of new plywood he’s installed on the hull of the Kula Kai. “This one’s almost sixty years old and still running!” And the pole-and-line technique is gentler on the fishery. Sam’s aware that all of Hawai‘i’s fisheries have suffered significant declines over the past decades, “but don’t blame this small boat,” he says. “Without the seine-netters, there would still be a lot of fish in Hawai‘i.” Though seine-net fishing has been banned here, “it’s too late,” he says. “Like in Guam. They kill everything.” Long-liners are not as bad, he admits, but they still snag unwanted catch, including the occasional turtle, shark or dolphin. Pole-and-line fishing, while less efficient, is more discriminating. The Kula Kai could, he hopes, help revive the traditional fishing method, which is more environmentally responsible and yet still economically viable.
Which is why, when Glen Fukunaga told him to quit, he begged for more time. “I said, ‘Nodda week! ‘Nodda week, I’ll finish it.’ Still, he said ‘stop.’” But Sam didn’t stop. He continued his repairs, found a couple of partners, pulled together a willing crew, and made an offer of his own. When he took me around the ship to show me the considerable work he’d already put into herplywood hull, new frames, refitting the keelhe was waiting to hear whether his offer of half the asking price would be enough to save her from the scrap yard. “I feel bad,” he says with the kind of understatement characteristic of watermen, “because I’ve been working on this boat here for over thirty years. This the last sampan, And I’m the last one that can do it. Me and this boat, we tied up.”
Sam has no plans to fish himself; he’d rather spend his time fixing boats than sailing them. The Kula Kai is already seaworthy, he says, but he’d like to plywood the entire hull, replace the cabin house and spruce her up. Maybe even paint her blue. If he’s allowed to do it right, he says, the boat won’t need him again for another twenty years. And though he hopes to make some money from fishing with his partners, it’s not his primary motivation. “This is not like anything, any kind of boat in the world,” he tells me in the wheelhouse. “It’s all connected together: Hawaiian history, Japanese history. That’s why I want to save the boat
for Hawaiians. The story will keep going. People say this the last dead boat. It’s not dead yet. I’d be really proud to save it.”
Next day, I called Sam to get the update: his offer was accepted, and by the time you read this, the tattered old Kula Kai may well be out to sea again, plucking fish from a churning school of aku and writing the coda to, if not the beginning of, another chapter of the cultural history of Hawai‘i’s unique sampan. HH