The story of the Leilani and Kakina and their sister canoe, the Malie (now known as the Malia), starts in February 1936. This is the story told by Outrigger’s famous coach and Club Captain, the late Dad Center. Center worked for Theo H. Davies & Company Ltd. They had a big establishment on the Kona Coast where they produced oil, fuel and lumber. In the late 1920s, private land acquisition on the Big Island started to make it difficult for people to get logs for canoes.
In the early 1930s, a company named Takemoto Hardwoods was taken over by Davies for indebtedness. The company’s primary work was cutting koa for sale and making furniture. The company hired all canoe builders because they knew where the best koa was and they were willing to stay in the mountains to cut it. They also had the strength to bring the koa logs (that weighed many tons) from the mountains to sea level.
Every time they saw a good log, they wouldn’t cut it for lumber they’d save it for a canoe. Because of the scarcity of koa, logs for canoes were not readily available for sale. The canoe builders at Takemoto were among the few who continued to have access to the logs and to build canoes. At the time of the takeover by Davies, they had quite a few canoes in various stages of completion.
The canoes were built under the direction of L. C. Childs, and were considered, according to the Honolulu Advertiser, to be “the finest racers built in the Islands.”
Dad hired Jim Yamasaki of Kailua, Kona to finish the canoes. Yamasaki was a craftsman finisher and all-around carpenter who prepared canoes to be raced in Kona. When Dad bought the canoes, they were roughed out but weren’t sanded and didn’t have any seats in them. Yamasaki used wood sculpturing tools to finish the canoes.
When the canoes arrived in Waikiki, Outrigger gave them a water test. Of the three, the Kakina, which had a shallow draft and didn’t hold much weight because it was only 38-feet long, was the fastest. The Leilani, which was a little longer (39-40 feet) and one-inch fatter in back, floated a lot better, was next, and the Malie, slightly longer and the heaviest, was slowest.
Outrigger purchased the Kakina and Leilani and Dad Center kept the Malie. The Club held a contest. Whoever put up the most money to help purchase the canoes got to name them. Bob Topping, owner of the New York Yankees, donated the most money and he named one canoe after his girlfriend, Leilani. The second canoe was named Kakina by OCC past-president Lorin Thurston. Kakina was a family name. The third canoe, still unnamed, was taken home by Dad. He built a shed over it and it was watered every time he watered his plants in his yard.
Outrigger first raced the canoes on June 11, 1936 in Honolulu Harbor.
When Waikiki Surf Club was looking for a koa racing canoe in 1947, they asked Ah Kong Pang who handled OCC canoes, where they might find one. Kong told them to see Dad Center because he had a canoe in his yard. WSC paid Dad $3,000 for the canoe “on the payment plan,” according to George Downing. “It took us eight years or so to pay for it, but he was very gracious about it.” After listening to Dad talk about how well the canoe ran in calm water, the canoe was named Malie. Sometime over the years, it was renamed Malia.
Outrigger was quite chauvinistic at the time. Women were not allowed to race in the Kakina. The men were afraid they might break “their” canoe. The women had to use the Leilani, then considered the second best canoe.
In the 1950s, the OCC Beach Services had numerous koa canoes—the Ka Mo`i, Moi Li`i, old Kakina, Eleu, and the Honaunau among others. Every three months they had to be drydocked for caulking. Jimmy Kaya was the head carpenter. Each of the beach boys had their own favorite canoe.
“When we purchased the Malie, we had no concept of weight, we just used it,” Downing said. “About a year later it was on the beach next to the Kakina. When we lifted the Kakina it was so light. When we weighed them, the Malie weighed 545 pounds, the Leilani 480 pounds, and the Kakina was 401 pounds.
Downing went to John D. Kaupiko and asked him if there was a weight limit for racing canoes. He told him no. “We told him we wanted to make the Malie lighter. He said to be careful and not make it too light. Some canoes used to be made out of cottonwood and they were too light. We assembled all the tools to make the Malie lighter, and were ready to begin cutting her. But when it came down to making the first cut, we just didn’t have the heart.”
However, Downing said, he was convinced that weight made a difference and thus acquired a semi-racing canoe called the Lanakila from the Honolulu Fire Department in 1949. It was 35 feet long, which was short for racing, and weighed only 265 pounds. “I’ll never forget when we went down to put it in the water it only took two people. We won every race beginning in 1949. This was when we finally established that light canoes could win.”
The late Bill Capp was OCC Canoe Racing Chairman in 1950, and one of the founders of the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association. “It was apparent,” Capp said, “that it would be necessary to establish some kind of rules if canoe paddling was to be perpetuated in the islands. This included such things as eligibility of paddlers, race distances and canoe construction.
“One day at the Club I heard several paddlers discussing canoes and one of them said, ‘I wonder who the crazy guy was that set 400 pounds for the minimum weight for koa canoes.’ I explained that I was the one and that we weighed all of the racing canoes and the lightest at the time was 401 pounds. Consequently, 400 pounds was adopted.”
The Star Bulletin noted in a story in 1969 that the weight was agreed upon to discriminate against Surf Club’s 268 pound canoe.
The experts agreed that 400 pounds was probably a good choice, although a few argue that 450 pounds might have been better because the added thickness would have eliminated a lot of the hull damage which occurs in rough seas.
“The Hawaiian people knew the native koa wood. They knew that koa wood was a high density material and prone to cracking if made too thin,” Downing said. “Canoes were designed thick on the bottom and tapered thinner on the sides. This allowed the canoe to absorb pounding when going through and/or over waves. The tapered thickness would allow the energy to be distributed up to the gunnels of the canoe. This kept the hull from cracking.
“It takes time for a canoe to be understood. Each canoe has its own personality. You have to learn how to rig and balance each canoe to take advantage of this personality. You must rig it differently for each occasion. You have to remember that the canoe hull stays the same; it’s the rigging you have to adjust to meet the occasion.”
With the weight set at a 400 pound minimum, canoe owners began working on their canoes. Up until now, Outrigger and most canoe builders, used brass bolts and butterflies to fix cracks in the koa canoes. The butterflies would stop the crack from spreading. You had to keep caulking these cracks until they leaked again and you’d have to go through the whole process again.
But by 1955, the system was changing. “We started installing wooden wedges which we called a window patch. These glued-in patches replaced the cracked sections of the hull with a new solid piece of wood. In the 30s, they used pitch to seal the cracks. In the 40s, it was caulking. Nobody believed that glue would hold two pieces of wood together under strain,” Downing said. “But it did.”
Downing said he learned about this new patching concept from Alfred Kumalae. “Not everyone knew how to deal with a cracked canoe. Kumalae was a master craftsman who shared his knowledge with his friends, Wally Froiseth, Rudy Choy, Woody Brown and me.”
In 1956, Outrigger decided to renovate the Leilani. It was bigger than the Kakina and floated a lot better because it had a bigger belly. And it was still the women’s canoe so if anything happened in the renovation, the men’s Kakina was still safe.
The first thing they did was remove 60 pounds of metal (bands, screws and bolts) and 40 pounds of other junk, including oak ribbings, from the canoe. “We raised the Leilani in mid-section to increase her depth, but didn’t change the bottom shape,” Downing said. Because it was now 100 pounds lighter and quite thin, plywood was laminated on the inside circumference of the hull, under each seat, for reinforcement. When this was finished, the canoe weighed 407 pounds.
Downing insisted that the Leilani was a good racing canoe and could beat the Kakina. “Leilani has her own personality. There was just something about her. I thought she worked best in the open ocean as compared to the Kakina.”
Downing coached the Club to its first victory in the newly renovated Leilani in the 5th annual Molokai to Oahu Canoe Race in 1956 setting a record of 7:54 (which remains today due to a race course change). OCC raced the Leilani in the Molokai race in 1959 (no entry in 1957-58, and 1964), 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1965. (Outrigger raced in fiberglass in 1963).
In the 1966 Molokai race, held in 15 foot swells, midway through the Molokai Channel, the Leilani was hit by a rapid series of 20-foot swells with such velocity that she could not shake them off. Before the crew could bail or jump out, and with a ripped cover, the Leilani was swamped. For two hours they tried in vain to refloat the canoe. Only after the crew had succumbed to exhaustion and the continuing effort in the still rising seas became too dangerous, did the crew put the Leilani under tow.
Sherry Dowsett and his crew on the escort boat the Hula Kai, did everything possible to bring the Leilani in under tow. But with the high seas, it was impossible and the canoe was starting to break up. Finally the Leilani was brought aboard the escort boat. The boat was severely damaged and many thought it couldn’t be put back together again. However, master canoe craftsman George Perry completely reconstructed the Leilani and had it ready for racing in the 1967 season.
Right after the Leilani was rebuilt, Perry turned his attention to the Kakina.