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Canoe logs history


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POSTED: Sunday, April 19, 2009

In the flush of collective excitement following the creation of Bishop Museum, the Damon Estate donated a pair of koa logs. Even at the turn of the century, koa was rare and valuable, but these logs had a rendezvous with destiny in the form of chisels and hasps. Master canoe builder Samuel Kipi and a man identified as Mr. Nahi labored for nearly four years, shaping the rough koa logs into the elegant, double-hulled creation called a voyaging canoe, the wa'a a kaulua.

For half a century, the canoe hung in Hawaiian Hall, pride of place in the world's greatest repository of Hawaiian culture. But it was removed sometime in the 1960s and placed in storage, parked over rows of ocean specimens. Its return to Hawaiian Hall is a long-delayed homecoming.

Mary Ann Kanoelani of Waimanalo, 70, is Sam Kipi's granddaughter and had never visited Bishop Museum. But when she heard that the canoe was being spiffed up and rehung, she went there for the first time and witnessed it being raised toward the glowing ceiling.

"My auntie told me about it for years, she was so proud," said Kanoelani.

"Grandpa was a policeman for Damon at Moanalua Gardens, and it took years of hard work to carve the canoe. He was making another one for Mr. Damon, but he died halfway through.

"When I saw it up there, I cried. Mama had 18 children, and we all knew of Grandpa's canoe. It is his legacy."

THE CANOE needed repair, and master woodworker Sol Apio patched a hull crack and other details, examining other historical canoes to make sure the repairs were done in the traditional manner. The hulls were then cleaned and waxed by a crew of eager Kamehameha Schools seniors.

Then it all had to be tied together. As Hawaiian artist and canoe historian Herb Kane says, "No nails! It's knots and lashings that hold everything together."

Kane said the task was so critical that Hawaiian knotting artisans insisted on working in strict solitude, going into a Zen-like trance as they created the intricate web of knotting that holds the bucking pieces of canoe together at sea. "Some styles of knotting were even family secrets," said Kane.

The Bishop Museum canoe was re-lashed by Milton "Junior" Coleman, who teaches canoe building and navigation at a Hawaiian charter school. ("From small-kid time it was always a dream of mine to sail to work—eventually it became a reality!")

He learned traditional knotting techniques from Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug, the living fount of all things related to Pacific voyaging.

"The lashing is considered sacred—as it well should be—since the safety and lives of everyone on board depended on the lashings to hold the canoe together. There's no space for error.

"All koa canoes are special, but this canoe being a double hull or wa'a a kaulua gives it its uniqueness and extreme rarity," said Coleman. "I don't know of any institution or individual in possession of a double-hull canoe from that time period.

"The canoe in general is regarded by many Hawaiian historians and people as one of the most important cultural symbols or objects in Polynesia. All aspects of Hawaiian culture are connected by the wa'a. Our ancestors for over a thousand years were able to arrive, thrive and survive on these islands, and this could not have been achieved without the canoe and values. The canoe represents sustainability in that we must respect, utilize and manage our resources wisely as our ancestors did to ensure a safe future."

The traditional lashing material is woven coconut fiber, which in normal seagoing conditions might give a year or two of service before giving out and needing replacement. So the lashings and knottings were part of a regular maintenance cycle for these vessels.

The Bishop Museum canoe, needing only lashings for the crossbeams and no sail rigging, took Coleman three days to complete. Hokule'a, by comparison, has something like five miles of line invested in her lashings, knots and rigging.

"Because this canoe is not exposed to the elements, the lashings will last much, much longer," Coleman said.