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

Kula Kai vessel last of its rugged kind

Sampan photo gallery
 •  Iconic sampan's final voyage uncertain

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Staff Writer

Glen Fukunaga is dwarfed by Kula Kai, his family's 80-foot sampan, which is dry-docked at the Ke'ehi Marine Center. The family is willing to donate the boat if it were going to be preserved for historic purposes. But the family also is willing to sell it for fishing.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Glen Fukunaga says his family's 1949-vintage sampan, the Kula Kai, has a new diesel engine and a crew eager to go fishing but needs a new owner. It's too difficult for the family to keep the boat.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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What makes the Hawai'i sampan Kula Kai significant is that there is no other remaining boat like it in the world. Its wooden construction; sharp, high prow; long and narrow hull; low stern; and high house amidships mark it as distinctively as a flattop marks an aircraft carrier.

Only two vessels are unique to Hawai'i: the Hawaiian canoe that was adapted by ancient Hawaiians to local waters, and the Hawai'i wooden sampan that was adapted by local boat builders to rough local seas. While the number of Hawaiian canoes has grown over the years, the number of Hawai'i wooden sampans has diminished until only the Kula Kai remains.

The Kula Kai represents a robust portion of Hawai'i's maritime history, and a unique method of fishing that began in 1899 when Gorokichi Nakasugi brought the first sampan, and the fishing gear that went with it, from Japan. Local fishermen immediately saw the vessel's value because it could be built locally and was not expensive.

The first sampans had no motors. They were small, powered by sail or a scull. The mast could be lowered to provide a ridge pole for a tent by spreading a tarp over the mast. The crew could sleep under the tarp at sea.

The sampan sailors were fearless, sailing out of sight of land in their tiny boats. In 1903, Awoki Kamijiro set out on a Saturday. On Monday, his sampan capsized in a squall eight miles off shore. He clung to his overturned sampan for three days and nights before drifting ashore at Pearl Harbor. Hawaiians fed him. He bailed out his sampan and sailed it back to Honolulu.

Families noted for sampan building located mostly in the Kewalo area. Within 15 years, sampan builders began putting primitive one-lung and two-lung diesel engines on the boats and the boats became larger.

Sampan building spawned colorful traditions and unique techniques. The launching of a new sampan was a gala occasion involving the flying of flags, the shouting of "banzai" and the drinking of sake. Sampan fishermen became a distinct breed, and the builders, owners and captains were highly respected.

Sampans powered the fishing industry in Hawai'i, a significant segment of the state's economy, providing tuna for canneries and fresh fish for Honolulu markets.

By the 1930s, local sampan builders had designed a vessel to cope with long voyages in boisterous Hawaiian waters. The prow became sharp and high. The boats grew to 80 feet long, capable of voyages of 1,500 miles. The house amidships rose high for spotting fish. This became the classic Hawai'i sampan.

World War II dealt a severe blow to sampan fishing because many of the fishermen and boat owners were aliens, citizens of an enemy nation. Boats were confiscated and used for other purposes. Competition from modern fishing vessels and the closing of local canneries further depleted the fleet.

By the 1990s, only a handful of Hawai'i sampans remained. The Hawai'i Maritime Center has tried twice to save one but failed due to lack of money and space. The Kula Kai is the last Hawai'i wooden sampan.

Reach Bob Krauss at bkrauss@honoluluadvertiser.com.