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Out into the bright blue sea: 16-foot canoe transports Kohala students to new opportunities

Updated: 
September 26, 2017 - 1:00am

KAWAIHAE — The ocean was calm Saturday morning, as Master Navigator Chadd Paishon led nearly 70 Kohala residents in a private blessing ceremony before the community’s new six-man canoe launched out into Pelekane Bay for its first voyage.

Hokani Maria, a sophomore at Kohala High School, came up with the idea to build the canoe last year.

“This is really significant with a young man who had a dream of building a canoe for his community. It says a lot about where we’re at as a community,” Paishon said.

“I’ve only heard about young ones building canoes in our old stories but to have it actually happen again in our day and age says a lot to me, more than words can describe,” he continued. “It’s a tradition that’s part of our lifestyle, our community, our families — everything we do.”

Dozens of supporters took turns riding in the canoe out in the ocean following the ceremony, including the keiki who built it, while Billy Mills, co-founder of Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit that funded the project, watched from the shore.

“I’ve always said that when passion and talent come together magic happens,” Mills said, who won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympic Games and remains the only American to ever win a gold medal in the 10k race.

“I saw the wisdom of an elder in Hokani when we first met,” he continued. “It overpowered me. I saw the sacredness of a young person and I found hope. As I stood in front of him I felt blessed to be in the presence of young people, the dreams they have in their minds and the power of how their dreams will make the world a better place.”

Maria’s parents, Rita and Michael, were overcome with gratitude at the ceremony for all their son had accomplished.

“It is heartwarming to see how his dream became reality. I feel blessed and honored that he wanted to perpetuate the culture and give back to the community, as well as to the children,” Rita said.

The traditional Hawaiian Opelu style canoe stretches 16 feet in length. It was built under the direction of master builder and navigator Hualalai Keohuloa.

“Uncle Hualalai is very ma’a (accustomed) to the shores, reefs and waters at Pelekane Bay and that’s why we chose that area for the launch,” Maria said. “We wanted to make sure it would be safe for all of us who would want to sail.”

Keohuloa found the project rewarding in many ways.

“After becoming a dad and husband I realized the values and why my uncles and mother got into this,” Keohuloa said at the ceremony. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have my mom, Linda Bertelmann, and her brother, Shorty Bertelmann, and to be a part of a time when we’ve had Hokule’a.”

Maria came up with the idea to build the canoe last October in an after-school project supported by North Kohala Community Resource Center. Run by Amoo Ching Kainoa, with the help of Hinano Solomon, Maria was one of the first students when it started in 2012.

“Aunty Amoo and I sat down and talked about what we wanted to do to see our program accomplish and it was to have our keiki have the opportunity to build a canoe for Kohala,” he said.

Megan Solis, NKCRC’s associate director, helped write the grant.

“The Resource Center sponsors so many great projects that fulfill important needs in our community, but this is one of those special opportunities that really touches our hearts,” she said. “This canoe is Hokani’s dream, but it is gratifying to know that the Center has played an important role in bringing it to life.”

Once a longtime tradition, Kohala residents stopped building canoes in the 1970s.

“I believe they started buying zodiacs and kayaks to replace the canoe. It was easier and faster for them than building a canoe themselves,” Maria said.

Dozens of students and community members banded together to build the new canoe.

“The need spread fast when we put the news up on Facebook, flyers around town and through word of mouth,” Maria said. “Then we started building it June 5 at my Uncle Wally Ching’s warehouse down at Halaula Mill Road.”

The decision to use Marine plywood to make the canoe came from Keohuloa.

“Uncle Hualalai, who has built seven canoes so far, suggested we build her this way. The traditional way of cutting a koa log would be impossible for us to do,” Maria said.

The new canoe was aptly named Nahiku, after Solomon had a vision.

“One night I looked up and saw bright stars in the sky,” she shared at Saturday’s ceremony. “I asked my cousin but she couldn’t see them brightly like me. They were part of a Hawaiian constellation named Nahiku, which shares the same stars as the Big Dipper. They voyagers still use this today. I knew we had the name.”

Once finished on July 14, Maria and his team shared their masterpiece with the community at an event at Kohala Village Hub the following week.

“We had over 200 people attend. Our students shared their reflections and presented oli and songs for the crowd,” he said.

The outrigger was first put in the water July 15.

“Since our canoe was built in Kohala, Aunty Hinano Solomon gave strict orders that she should be put in Kohala waters for her first time. Uncle Bert Kanoa drove Uncle Rocky Perez’s trailer with our canoe on it to Keokea and so we put her in there,” Maria said. “But we were told by our kupuna to not sail her until she has here birthing ceremony and blessing.”

In several weeks, Nahiku will be used in a sister project, Na Kilo Aina, in partnership with Pelika Andrade from University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant.

“She teaches the kids how to be watchers, observers of the land, and we will use the canoe to do surveys of water quality, pick up trash and share with our aina closer to Kohala,” Kainoa said.

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