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PICA

Pacific Islanders' Cultural Association

Koa Canoe Project


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PICA and the Avilla `ohana purchased two old koa canoes in an estate sale on the Big Island. They were fumigated, and arrived in San Francisco via freighter from Hawai`i in December 1997. These are considered antiques, and their history is somewhat sketchy -- but there are enough clues to provide some valuable information:

Canoe #1 is 22' 6" long and made of yellow koa harvested from either the McCandless or Greenwell Ranch. It was built in the early 1930's at Honaunau, possibly by a team of builders from that area. The design indicates it was built primarily for surfing, due to its large okole and "V" shape cross section. The canoe was purchased by George Austin in 1948 and moved to O`ahu where it was used and surfed at the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki.

Canoe #2 is 16' long and made of koa harvested from the Hamakua Coast, possibly from koa stands in upper Kaiwiki Valley. It was built in 1951-52 in Honoli`i by Ken Griffin. It's design indicates that it was probably used for fishing and recreation, and it was built specifically for Hilo Bay waters.

Before
Before
Bow and stern covers (manu ihu & manu hope), before and after restoration
After
After

Both canoes were eventually purchased by Big Island entrepeneur Roy Oness, who intended to restore them. He was a student of master canoe builder James Pau`aka Ka`o`ilihala Jr. of Hilo. However, due to poor health, Roy reluctantly had to offer the canoes for sale.

Knowing that these canoes were coming, and knowing full well that much labor would be required to make them seaworthy, Julian Avilla and PICA canoe builder John Scotland spent 10 days in October 1997 as students at Hawai`i Community College's Hana Pukahi canoe restoration class. The class was taught by Bobby Pukea, coach of Lanikai Outrigger Canoe Club on O`ahu, and John Kekua, coach and founder of Kamehameha Outrigger Canoe Club in Hilo. Bobby's father used to go into the Kulani area with Edith Kanaka`ole to find trees in the 1970's.

Some small hull repairs and restoring of the gunnels

Julian and John quickly learned what they had already suspected -- repairing is difficult and much more delicate than building and shaping!

It takes 100 years for koa trees to grow to 40 feet or more. Reforestation allows increased growth without effecting grain, strength, color, etc. The Campbell & Burns logging operation, along with Akana Petroleum, left the land raped. John Kekua came back through the Umikoa area with bulldozers, turned the soil, and koa seedlings sprang forth. The canoe masters believed that each log has a feeling, or spirit (mana). And each log, even as it is cut, is not dead. As one works on a canoe, the life of the log comes into the canoe as the spirit of the builder goes into the canoe. Each canoe speaks of something different as it goes through the stages of creation. Some people name a canoe as the log is felled. Some people name a canoe before it is finished, some wait until it is completed. Keep in mind that as the process evolves, so does the feeling that ultimately effects the final naming.

Some not so small hull repairs 

Julian Avilla was so moved by his experience with these canoes, he has submitted the following:

Our two koa canoes are now resting and acclimating to their next life here in the San Francisco Bay area. It is important that the right time be established as to how and when the restoration project shall proceed. The beginning of the new year -- makahiki -- should be considered. There is a lot of mana in these two ancient wooden vessels, and PICA is now empowered with giving life back to them. There have been signs of spirit within the canoes' storage area, and respect for and permission from those present is important. They are present to oversee the project, and with their guidance we can succeed with the restoration.

EDITOR'S NOTE: When Macy's in San Francisco asked PICA for assistance in organizing and selecting performers and exhibits for their 52nd Annual Flower Show, "The Spirit of Hawai`i", they asked PICA to display one of the koa canoes. Julian and John worked long hours to attempt to accomplish their goal of displaying a fully restored canoe.

The result shows the manus loosely attached; the outer hull near completion; two iako and an ama finished from hau wood. 300 hours of labor have thus far been applied to the Avilla `ohana canoe. The inside spreaders (wae) and seats must still be completed and permanently attached. PICA's own koa canoe will begin restoration as soon as donations and grant funding are made available. Anyone interested in this project may contact Julian Avilla at info@pica-org.org.

The finished result was hung from the ceiling of the Macys Men's Store in San Francisco, April 1998. 

We are the children of the Pacific islands...

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