Carving the Way

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A Story Within Every Canoe

WHILE OTHERS GO ABOUT THEIR LIVES TETHERED TO IPHONES or dashing from one appointment to the next, Sonny Kaukini Bradley searches for solitude. All the better to heed the sounds and language of nature, he shares.

Just as there is a story to the direction of the winds or the curl of a wave, the curves of a tree trunk speak directly to Bradley, which he then translates into crafting a more nimble and elegant canoe.

Having founded Bradley Canoes more than 30 years ago with the construction of a koa vessel outrigger, Bradley already embraced his affinity to the water. Although he grew up in the mountains of Wai’anae, he made his way to the ocean to dive, swim and fish daily. He added paddling at 14 years old, however, not for the competitive sport or camaraderie that captivated his peers; Bradley was moved by the spirit of the vessels-and what it took to bring them to victory.

He instinctively knew how an adjustment in construction here or there would ease the canoe through the ocean, and used his knowledge of currents, reef and waves to set the right course for his racing team.

“I could feel the currents, the waves, the movements and feel better ways we could go, where we could be the fastest,” he says. “My team always won.”

But his suggestions were not welcome to builders who didn’t appreciate or take seriously the advice of a kid with no canoebuilding experience.

“I knew there was a need for change,” Bradley says. “I knew I could build a faster canoe. That’s how I got started. I just had confidence in myself. I only took woodshop in high school, which was not even close to canoe making. We made paddles, small cabinets.”

Serendipity struck, and he made the acquaintance of canoe makers from Tahiti. Immediately he began soaking up all the knowledge they were eager to impart.

Currently, he restores and builds canoes of both fiberglass and wood, with clientele including the Outrigger Canoe Club, Hui Nalu Canoe Club and Lahaina Canoe Club. Team Bradley, a women’s paddling team that bears his name, boasts the achievement of five-time champions in the Na Wahine O Kekai international competition, from 2005 to 2010-each of which was won on a Bradley canoe.

Because of deforestation, only 5 percent of canoes are made of koa today. With permission of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, he is occasionally allowed to go into Big Island forests to bring out a fallen koa. At every step of the journey, there is a blessing in deference to Hawaiian gods, requesting respectful entry into the forest and permission to remove a log. No live trees may be taken. There is another blessing at his work site before construction begins.

In the beginning, he was so overcome with listening to all the trees had to say, Bradley often worked until he fell asleep next to the log. “It was a way of bonding with the log. I could feel its spirit and I’d think about the people who would use it. I love the va’a (canoe) so much and it’s important to me that people enjoy looking at it and using it, and feel its mana.”

It’s not unusual to find him working 12 hours at a time on a koa vessel, using traditional dugout methods, starting with a log of about 45 feet that weighs six to eight tons. A canoe made in this method takes about a year to a year-and-a-half to complete, due to waiting periods while the wood is curing.

“If you build too fast, if you rush it, the canoe can split or crack when a team’s using it. I’ve seen it happen,” Bradley says. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I love it. It’s my passion so I just make it happen.”

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