The Kula Kai ("school of the sea") awaits
repairs in the dry dock at the Ke‘ehi small
boat harbor in Honolulu.
Sam’s a shipwright who, like the vessel he has lovingly maintained for the Fukunagas over the past thirty years, is also a vanishing breed. He’s one of the few left in Hawai‘i with the expertise to restore the Kula Kai, and perhaps the only one still working on large wooden boats. Descended from a long line of master shipwrights famous in his home country, Fiji, Sam traces his ancestry directly to one David Whippy, a Nantucket trader who jumped ship on the island of Levuka in the 1820s to become the first white man to live permanently in Fiji. A village chief spared his life in exchange for his services as a shipwright.
Sam’s own story seems oddly similar to that of his great-great-grandfather, only in reverse: In 1972, a Taiwanese fishing boat, the Wan Fu, struggled into the Fijian port of Suva so badly in need of repair its crew had deserted her. “Somebody told them, ‘Go see Whippy, he one of the best around!’ We made an exchange: I fix the boat, free, if they let me sail with them to America. Good deal!” he tells me in a lilting pidgin-English inflected with a distinctively Fijian roll of the r’s. With his wife and eigh-month-old son, he sailed for Honolulu where he “jumped ship,” looking for work. But without a passport or a visa, no one would hire him. He continued repairs on the Wan Fu at Ala Wai boat harbor, hoping to find work before the ship sailed a week later. If not, he’d have to fly back to Fiji. While repairing the bow one morning, his work caught the attention of “one local Japanee guy.” Without so much as an introduction, the man invited Sam out for a sail around Diamond Head on his yacht. The man turned out to be U.S. Attorney in Hawai‘i Robert Fukuda, who pulled more than a few strings on Sam’s behalf. “So the guy says, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow morning.’ I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me. ‘Get your toolbox ready!’” Like his ancestor, Sam’s life in America was “spared” by a local chief in exchange for his shipbuilding expertise.
His is a way of working that’s all but gone these days. “In Fiji, we don’t buy our wood. We go up the mountain and drop big trees. All the boats we build are done by hand: no machines. Ribbed by hand, planed by hand, everything by hand. No metal. You hold the ribs together with dowels,” he says with growing excitement. “It works if you know what you’re doing. Nobody does that anymore. That way is dying. My family is the only one doing it in Fiji … I’m almost the last one working on wooden boats here. The last one working on big ones.” Not only that, but Sam doesn’t use computer modeling or lasers; he measures everything by eye. He even fashions wooden bearings for the propeller shaft by hand, correcting in advance for how much they’ll swell when wet. “You got a bad eye, no can build it,” he says.
Sam quickly found work with Hawaiian Tuna Packers, repairing ships. Word of his skill spread fast, and now at the age of sixty-five, he never lacks for work. “It’s not that anybody else can’t do it, but they like me because my boat’s 100-percent guaranteed. If you put the boat in the water and there’s something wrong with it, bring it back, I fix it for free. But they never come back. I fix it right, and I fix it good,” he says with a warm and affecting mix of self-deprecation and immodesty. “I’m here now, and I’m helping people in Hawai‘i. I can repair boats that fall apart, and I can put them together in ways other people don’t know how. I love to bring back my history of building boats. It’s in my blood.”