Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 16, 2006

New crew, new life for historic Kula Kai

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

The Kula Kai's new crew — shipwright Sam Whippy, mate Nick Ahrens and captain Fukuo Kinjo — plan to refurbish the vessel and take it out fishing for the season. The profits will go toward renovating the boat, which was built nearly 60 years ago.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

spacer spacer


The Hawai'i wooden sampan and the Hawaiian canoe that was adapted by ancient Hawaiians to local waters are the only vessels unique to Hawai'i.

In 1899, Gorokichi Nakasugi brought the first sampan, and the fishing gear that went with it, from Japan.

The first sampans were small vessels 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.

By the 1930s, local sampan builders had designed a vessel to cope with long voyages in 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.

spacer spacer

Fukuo Kinjo, who has fished for tuna in Hawaiian waters for 35 years, is captain of the Kula Kai, which was close to being destroyed.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

spacer spacer

Sam Whippy has worked on the Kula Kai since 1972. He says the hull is in great shape and "should last 40 more years."

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

spacer spacer

Kula Kai, the last Hawaiian wooden sampan, will sail again. The historic vessel, the only one of its kind in the world, has been saved from destruction in a storybook, last-minute rescue by an unlikely trio of seagoing good samaritans.

Not only have the three partners saved the vessel, they will perpetuate Hawai'i's unique style of tuna fishing that has become all but extinct.

There's Fukuo Kinjo, 63, one of the last of the Hawaiian sampan skippers, a short, powerful man from Okinawa who has been fishing for tuna in Hawaiian waters for 35 years. Few sampan fishermen still have his skills. He got involved because the Kula Kai is a lucky boat.

There's Sam Whippy from Fiji, the best wooden boat shipwright in Hawai'i, who had worked on the Kula Kai for her previous owner since 1972. He ripped out 50 bad planks in the hull, replaced 20 frames under the engine block and molded the hull in plywood. He's a partner because his heart is in the boat.

"That hull is bone-dry. It should last 40 more years," he said.

Then there's 26-year-old Nick Ahrens, mate of the Clean Island, an oil spill response vessel in Honolulu Harbor, who doesn't know much about fishing or boat building but who loves the sea and who brought the three of them together after an article appeared in The Advertiser announcing the demise of the Kula Kai.

He said their plan is to refurbish the sampan to the point when it will pass Coast Guard inspection, then take her fishing for the season. With the profits, they will completely renovate the Kula Kai. Each of them plays an essential part in making the plan work: the expert fisherman, the expert boat builder and the organizer of the project.

"That's what makes what they are doing so unusual," said Glen Fukunaga, whose father had to give up the boat because of ill health. "None of them could do it without the others."


Like the Hawaiian outrigger canoe, the Hawaiian sampan is found only in Hawai'i. Both evolved through adaptation to Hawaiian waters. The Kula Kai represents an entire culture that grew up in Hawai'i around the Hawaiian sampan or "aku boat." The culture includes boat builders, skippers and crews of the boats, tuna canners and sport fishermen.

Peter Wilson of Maui, sampan historian and former fisheries executive for Hawaiian Tuna Packers here and in Micronesia, and for the United Nations in New Guinea, explained why the rescue of the Kula Kai is historically and culturally significant.

He said the Hawaiian sampan evolved from a Japanese and Okinawan design called "gomai" or "five planks" that made up the hull; one plank on each side, two on the bottom and one for a keel. The Hawaiian adaptation is distinguished by a high, sharp prow that cuts through rough Hawaiian waters.

"I learned about the stability of aku boats when I was on a round-bottom research vessel off Diamond Head," Wilson said. "We were rolling our lee rail under water and had to hang on. Along came an aku boat inside us (closer to Diamond Head). One of the crew was sitting on deck mending a net.

"The Kula Kai is the last gomai. The design was perfect for Hawaiian waters. One of the boat builders was Kiyoshi Matsumoto, whose shipyard was near where CompUSA is now on Ala Moana. He laid out a 75-foot aku boat for me ... without using plans."

Wilson said the technique of fishing from a Hawaiian sampan is also unique in Hawai'i. While other commercial fishing vessels use enormous nets that vacuum-clean the ocean or miles-long lines of hooks, the aku boat fishermen stand on the stern and catch individual fish by hook and line. Wilson said he has seen this only in the Indian Ocean.

Pole and line fishermen have to use bait that require boat wells in the aku boats and the catching of bait before going out for tuna. There are holes in the bottom of the vessel to circulate fresh sea water to keep the bait fish alive. Another unique feature of aku boats, Wilson said, is a spray that dimples the sea in the back of the boat to resemble jumping bait.

Wilson said Hawaiian Tuna Packers got its start because the aku boats brought in so much fish for the local market that the cannery began exporting it. He said the Caucasian sampan evolved from the aku boat and is the vessel that launched sport fishing in Hawai'i.

The Kula Kai was built in 1947 as the Darling Dot by Seichi Funai on the Kewalo waterfront. Funai's son, Teruo, has photos of the launching. The vessel's last owner was Tom Fukunaga, one of the most successful tuna fishermen in Hawai'i. He once caught 70,000 pounds of tuna within a month, all of which had to be unloaded by hand at Kewalo Basin.

However, Fukunaga didn't want his sons to become fishermen because it's a hard life. When he became ill, the Kula Kai deteriorated. His sons found that no one wanted to buy the vessel. The expense of fixing it up, without prospect of a return, became too much.

Glen Fukunaga, one of the sons, said they didn't want their father to continue fishing and they couldn't afford to keep the boat. It would have to be disposed of.

The Hawai'i Maritime Center has tried twice to save a Hawaiian sampan before the vessels become extinct because they are an important part of Hawai'i's seafaring history. But there is no room in Honolulu Harbor to dock the boat as a historic vessel and the cost of preserving a wooden boat was considered too high.

"Dad is really happy," Fukunaga said of the new ownership. "This is what he wanted all along, for the Kula Kai to keep fishing."

Thanks to three individuals, the world's last Hawaiian wooden sampan  9 and a unique fishing style  9 no longer face extinction

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.

Correction: The names of Fukuo Kinjo, Glen Fukunaga and Teruo Funai were misspelled in a earlier verison of this story.