Hawaiiloa Returns to the Sea

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Hawaiiloa Returns to the Sea

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Mar 27, 2014

hawaiiloa on trailerThe Sand Island boatyard was hot and dusty this past Monday, the day, once and for all, Hawai`iloa made it into the water.

There’s an old saying that goes, “Many hands make light work.” And while it may be true, there always seem to be one or two individuals whose hands appear more often, do more work. Such was the case with the restoration of Hawai`iloa.

The voyaging canoe Hawai`iloa was built in the early 1990s and launched in 1993. She is made of many kinds of Hawaiian wood, including koa, hau and ohia. Plus, African mahogany and monkeypod. Her two Sitka spruce hulls were the gift of two logs from SeAlaska Corporation, owned by the Tlingit, Haida, and Tshimshian tribes of Southeast Alaska.

On her maiden voyage, Hawai`iloa sailed over 6,000 miles to Tahiti and throughout French Polynesia to the Marquesas and back. She made a trip to the Pacific Northwest and traveled as far north as Juneau, Alaska. But wooden boats are notorious for their laborious upkeep and Hawai`iloa, as loved as she was, proved no different. More than 10 years ago, Hawai`iloa was pulled from the water, taken apart, and stored in pieces.

hawaiiloa billy richards and jerry ongies“It was a puzzle,” master boat builder Jerry Ongies told me, “We had to unscramble the puzzle and put it all back together. Some of the pieces were grossly broken apart—termite damage, cracks and rot. We had to reconstruct those pieces.”

One pair of hands that turned up nearly every day over the past four years to reconstruct Hawai`iloa belonged to Jerry. At 86, his hands are bumpy with age--but willing. He put in more than 85 patches on the wooden hulls alone. 

Jerry was wearing his standard boatyard attire on Monday: jeans with tape measure clipped to the waistband, and blue cap embroidered with the logo of the Wooden Boat community. By the end of the day, he would be festooned with lei. When I draped one over his neck, he said to me, “Oh, Kim I tell you it’s been so nice seeing you again.”

Jerry will always reside in a soft spot in my heart. His work ethic, attention to detail, and appreciation for the beauty of wood remind me of my own grandfather.

The canoe was already loaded on a trailer when I arrived. Specialists skilled in moving houses drove the canoe a half-mile down a gravel road, past La Mariana Sailing Club, and to Sand Island Access Road, where police stopped traffic, so the truck could make the wide turn into Keehi Marine Center. 

It’s not easy moving a seven-ton, 57-foot canoe from boatyard to water. But a group from Friends of Hokulea and Hawai`iloa, a non-profit organization dedicated to the perpetuation of Hawaiian canoe building, followed behind, including Jerry and his grandson Timmy, and Billy Richards, one of the original sailors to voyage to Tahiti in 1976 and prove that ocean navigation could be accomplished without the aid of GPS, compass or sextant—they used the stars to guide them. Two young men played their ukulele as we walked at a very slow pace.

hawaiiloa is lowered into the waterAt the harbor, a marine crane picked up Hawai`iloa and, while she hovered in the air, a Hawaiian blessing was performed by cultural practitioner Keone Nunes. When Hawai`iloa finally settled into the sea again—her seams caulked and her wood polished shiny--she’d been dry for over 10 years. A crowd had gathered, many chanting in Hawaiian, others blowing their pu, conch shell. Some, like Jerry, with tears in their eyes.

Now, as the Polynesian Voyaging Society readies to depart on a four-year, around-the-world voyage, that leaves Hawai`iloa with two missions while her sister canoes Hokulea and Hikianalia are gone: 1) Educational outreach; and 2) Crew training.

But Jerry informed me of a third mission. “There’s another cultural mission,” he said. “And that’s to take my ashes out when the time comes.”

Jerry may be a bit hard of hearing at 86, but the way I see it, Hawai`iloa won’t have to fulfill this particular mission for a good 20 years.

hawaiiloa in the water

bitsy kelley, jerry ongies, luana maitland, billy richards on hawaiiloa


Mary | Mar 28, 2014 09:56 AM

Oh my….that gives me chicken skin.

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