This post is in two parts. Please read through the entire article to learn about the history of the Hawaiian canoe and to read the Puakea Foundation statement on strip canoes.

The Kalai Wa‘a

kā.lai : vt. To carve, cut, hew, engrave, hoe; to divide, as land; to shape a canoe kā.lai ki‘i : n.v. Sculptor, wood carver; to make statues.
kā.lai lā.‘au : n.v. Woodcutter; to cut wood.
Kalai na : n. A carving, hewing. Kalaina wāwae, carved footprints, as in a rock. kā.lai pōhaku : n.v. Stone cutter; to carve or hew stone.
kā.lai wa‘a : n.v. Canoe carver.

From: Hawaiian Dictionary, Pukui & Elbert. 1986

The word, “kalai”, means to carve. Kalai wa‘a: canoe carver. Kahuna Kalai Waa: Master canoe carver.

These words are the culmination of centuries of Hawaiian traditional culture. Hawaiians carved canoes, and honored the masters by elevating their status to “kahuna”.

MOKU states: It is our intent to honor and preserve the Hawaiian Koa Canoe. Whenever the inevitable conflicts come up between tradition and speed, it is our intent that tradition be more important than speed. Therefore, when some rule concerning the Koa canoe isn’t specifically clear, it is agreed that the traditional method will be the one followed when interpreting the rule. The traditional method is to be defined as what the MAJORITY OF THE CANOE BUILDERS HAVE DONE IN THE PAST.

Rex & Thea Rienits(1968) “Hawaiians carved many thousands of dugout canoes” Peter Buck (Canoes, published 1957)

Canoes of Oceania, Haddon & Hornell (1936). “dugout hewn from a single tree”

David Malo (~1890) “hewing out the canoe, … a solid log without pith”

Kamakau (1870) “made from single logs”

Ellis (1826) “a canoe is always made of a single tree”

These references emphasize that all canoes observed were carved of single trees, and there is no mention of canoes made completely of planks or strips. Hawaiian did sew on planks to increase the freeboard of canoes, and sewed moo and manu to complete a canoe.

So, there is no need to change MOKU race rules pertaining to allow different methods of building canoes. There is only one method that is traditional and used by the majority of ancestral canoe builders, which is a CARVED CANOE.
So far, remnants of only two sailing canoes have survived from the Polynesian sailing heyday, Sinoto 1983 and Johns 2014. Both of these sailing canoe hulls were constructed of single logs.

Gary Puniwai
For MOKU meeting Oct 24, 2014

The following pictures are images show the difference between carving a canoe and building a strip boat

Carving a Canoe

Carving a Canoe

Building a canoe

Buiding a canoe

Carving a Canoe

Carving a Canoe

Carving a Canoe

Carving a Canoe

Boat building - Miami

Boat building – Miami

Plank Boat - Greece

Plank Boat – Greece

Kurragh, Ireland

Kurragh, Ireland


Tax ID#20-5395153
December 4, 2014

DOWNLOAD Puakea Statement on Traditional Canoe (PDF)

The Puakea Foundation’s mission statement is “Perpetuating Pacific Islands canoe culture:

In perpetuating Hawaii’s canoe culture Uncle Bobby Puakea works repairing Koa canoes and keeping them in use. Not only does Bobby repair these canoes, he effectively teaches anyone interested what the process is. By generously teaching the process, he works to keep the knowledge of his art alive and sustaining.

Also involved in the cultural perpetuation are the reforestation projects the foundation is performing. Planting koa in it’s natural habitat in formations that promote the straight and upright growth of the trees allows for the future generations to keep on with the tradition of Koa canoe building.
In keeping with our mission statement, the Puakea foundation feels strongly that the Koa canoe is a canoe carved from a Koa log. The tradition of the Hawaiian canoe is to carved it from a koa log. The resulting canoe is of such value that when it is damaged or broken in any way, it is repaired. This keeps the canoe alive and able to function as the canoe it was designed to be. The damage and its repair becomes a part of its genealogy.

The process of building a canoe with strip planks is a novel and efficient way of making a canoe but in the Hawaiian tradition of canoe building, it involved a single tree being transformed into a canoe thru knowledge of the Kalai Wa’a (canoe carver) thru the process of carving. The design was mandated by its’ effectiveness in the ocean.

The racing canoes were honed to provide speed and ease of handling in the realm of the races. Surfing and wave catching became important and design addressed that. Better understanding of hydrodynamics thru technology led to further design changes but through out the process the koa canoe was always carved from a single log.

The scarcity of Koa is not a traditional situation. The modern economy has pushed its value to unknown heights. There has not been the resource management of the culture of the past. This in turn has depleted the oldest straight logs. Luckly the DLNR values these old trees living in the environments that they (the trees) have helped keep in balance.

Thru education and reforestation the value of these new trees are matched by the value of the traditions and soon Koa logs tall enough of ample girth will be available to continue the tradition of carving Koa Canoe.

We feel if the tradition of carving a canoe from a log is a part of the Hawaiian culture. Introducing a new way that is “more efficient” and cheaper is another sad way of condoning change that man’s reckless resource management has created. The tradition of the Hawaiian culture can maintain and resume soon. Many of the reforestation projects using Koa have been started in the 60’s and 70’s. This means there are trees that will soon be ready to harvest and continue Hawaii’s canoe culture.

DOWNLOAD Puakea Statement on Traditional Canoe (PDF)