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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 30, 2006

Iconic sampan's final voyage uncertain

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Sampan photo gallery
 •  Kula Kai vessel last of its rugged kind

Demolition set unless some buyer or historian claims it

The salty saga of the Hawai'i wooden sampan, an icon of our Islands, will come to an end soon with the demolition of the Kula Kai, the last of its breed ... unless somebody saves it. If it is destroyed, one of the most colorful chapters of Hawai'i's history will come to a close.

Eighty feet long, built by Seichi Funai in his boat yard at Kewalo, the Kula Kai has brought thousands of tons of fish to market in Honolulu under the command of Tom Fukunaga, one of the most successful skippers in the history of local tuna fishing.

In 1965, Tom Fukunaga and his crew caught more than 70,000 pounds of tuna in a month, more than 1,000 tons of tuna in 10 months.

But Fukunaga retired from active fishing more than a decade ago because of age. He continued to send out the Kula Kai under other captains as other sampans were wrecked on reefs, burned or grew too old to sail in competition with modern longliners constructed of steel. One by one, the wooden Hawai'i sampans that once filled Kewalo Basin disappeared. Only the Kula Kai remained.

"My dad wanted to keep sampan fishing alive," said Tom's son Glen. The Kula Kai went out from its berth at Kewalo Basin for the last time in November 2005, when the U.S. Coast Guard warned Tom Fukunaga that the vessel must be dry-docked for safety reasons.

Then Fukunaga suffered a mild heart attack. The bills at the dry dock kept piling up. "Me and my brother, Barry, don't want to put our dad under the stress of another fishing season," said Glen Fukunaga.

He said they don't know the business because their father didn't want them to be fishermen. He told them the work is too hard. Last week, the brothers decided to stop work at the dry dock.

They will demolish the boat for salvage unless a buyer can be found or the Kula Kai is saved as a historic ship.

Ironically, repairs to the sampan are almost complete. Glen Fukunaga said he was told by the shipwright that only a small amount of work needs to be done. The captain and crew of the boat are eager to go fishing. Glen Fukunaga added, "We are at the start of the fishing season and my dad feels the Kula Kai can easily pay for herself for another season or two."

He said the family would donate the boat in honor of their father if the Kula Kai would be preserved for historic reasons. They would sell the boat for a reasonable sum for use in fishing.

"This is very difficult for us, but it's a choice between our father's health and the boat."

He remembers going as a boy to Kewalo Basin, where the sampans were lined up. The deck of his father's boat was scrubbed so clean you could eat off it. He said his father was seldom home during fishing season. He would come to port for a weekend and go out again on Monday.

Fukunaga said he realizes that the method of fishing from a Hawai'i sampan is not as efficient as that of longliners, but neither is it as environmentally destructive. Longliners string out miles of hooks that catch whatever bites. Sampan fishermen stand on the stern of the boat and catch only tuna with barbless hooks from schools attracted by bait thrown into the water.

Taruo Funai, son of sampan builder Seichi Funai, remembers when his father built and launched the Kula Kai at his boat yard in 1949. The vessel was then named Darling Dot. Launching a big, new sampan involved many banzais and much sake drinking. The new owner threw money into the street and people scrambled to pick up the coins.

According to Fukunaga, the Darling Dot was purchased from its original owner by the state of Hawai'i in the early 1960s for use as a classroom to teach the techniques of tuna fishing. At that time, the name of the sampan became Kula Kai, meaning "School of the Sea."

Tom Fukunaga, aspiring to become owner of a sampan as well as a captain, purchased the vessel at auction in Hilo in 1965. He retained the name, although his wife liked Darling Dot because her name is Dorothy.

The Kula Kai has a captain, an engineer for its new diesel engine, and a crew of four, all of whom are ready to continue fishing, Fukunaga said. They share profits with the boat owner when the catch of fish is sold. This method of paying the crew is the same as that used on whale ships 150 years ago.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.