The Inspiration of a Master Canoe Shaper

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The Inspiration of a Master Canoe Shaper

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Mar 27, 2013

I spent an afternoon last week in an industrial area a few miles from Honolulu International Airport, past a sand and gravel supplier, a drywall contractor and a cabinet re-facing company, in a setting that made me wonder whether Hawaii Five-0 had filmed here.

The place was hot, reeked of migraine-inducing paint fumes, and everything was coated in layers of dust that you could measure in quarter inches, and for Tay Perry, this is his office away from the office. Amidst the sounds of power sanders and paint guns, this is where a lifetime of passion and sweat go into creating Tay’s work—shaping canoes.

“This is what I do in my full spare time,” he said.

Right now, he’s restructuring a canoe that someone else started and never finished. There’s another waiting for him that’s basically a squared-off log with a little bit hollowed out of the center. 

You could call him the plastic surgeon of canoes, and while there is some fiberglass work going on in the airplane-hanger-sized workshop that is lined with canoes of varying states, Tay specializes in wooden canoes, be it bringing a neglected 100-year-old fishing canoe back to life, re-modeling a present-day racing canoe or selecting a tree and creating a new canoe out of a full log. Tay learned his craft from his father, a well-known beach boy and canoe shaper who founded the Lanikai Canoe Club in 1953.

When I arrived, Tay was wearing his day uniform of muted Aloha shirt tucked into belted khaki pants and brown, leather loafers over dark socks. When I left, he had changed into his canoe paddling gear, a tight-fitting polyester red jersey and surf trunks—and yet still the brown, leather loafers over dark socks. And I wanted to join him, to slip my hips inside the gunnels of an outrigger canoe and paddle out into the Waikiki sunset. It’s been years. Too long. I miss the movement of the ocean and my body’s response. I miss the salt water mixed with sweat on my skin. 

Tay has crossed the Ka’iwi Channel racing in the famed men’s outrigger canoe race Molokahi Ho’e some 30 times.

Tay and I parted ways—he to paddle and me to attend a farm-to-table dinner at Hula Grill in Waikiki, where I looked up between my pupu of smoked tomato and crispy tofu and, there, hanging from the ceiling was a beautiful outrigger canoe. 

And, now, I am seeing canoes everywhere, including the lobby of Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, the Kaukahi, refurbished by none other than Tay Perry himself. 

The 100-year-old Kaukahi, rescued from Hawaii, the Big Island, where it was forgotten, ravaged by termites and mistaken for firewood, shines today, showing off the beauty of Hawaii’s native koa and wiliwili woods.

When I return home to Kauai, I see my own OC-1 canoe hanging from the rafters of my lanai, in need of a good cleaning and waxing. And I run into old paddling teammates. Is this how it works? Is this the seed being planted that will burst its little head through fertile soil? Will the canoe call to me, as it has called Tay for his entire life? Will I find myself on the open ocean this summer, the salt gumming my hair, a smile plastered on my face, as I ply the waters of the Pacific off my home island of Kauai?

I hope so.

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