Chuck Shipman Interview

spring 2000
click any picture to see a big hi-rez version

Chuck Shipman lives on the north shore of Oahu across the road from Sunset Beach lifeguard tower three. He can see the big waves from his living room. There's a yellow outrigger canoe in his front yard. He's got more canoes behind the house along with a garage full of related toys. There's a broken surfboard in the garbage can. "My son's in that phase." he says. "still breaking surfboards."

"Hawaii's got fewer boats per capita than any other state. You'd think everyone would have boats, but the water's rough and there aren't a lot of bays. [Captain]Cook went all around looking for a safe anchorage and didn't find one. The traditional Hawaiian canoe is the answer to that. It's the greatest rough water amphibious landing craft ever designed. On a pali [cliff] they'd surf right up a canoe ladder." [A wooden ramp with crossbars like a giant ladder.]

"In the 60's I was director of recreation here. I tried to get the kids into boatbuilding, but it didn't work. They hadn't grown up with boats. But they idolized the famous surfers, so we built surfboards. And from that we got into the surfing canoes. I helped design this one. It's based on an an old surfing canoe shape from right here. It's got that abrupt stern because that's the shape of the wave. It's to stick to that wave and stay on it. Those big canoes in the back are from [name of place] in Maui. A 22' Sandy Stein canoe. The shape is different because the waves are different. Just like surfboards."

"One year my wife gave me a 16 ft Marshall Islands sailing canoe for my birthday, a proa. A friend had brought it here on the deck of a ship and then didn't know what to do with it. My wife saw it and bought it on impulse. We made a lauhala [pandanus leaf] mat sail on bamboo spars. We tried to sail but we didn't really know what we were doing. It was sitting in the yard and a Caroline Islander named Mau Pialug saw it. His son-in-law Mike McCoy, a Peace Corps volunteer on Satawal, had come to Hawaii and brought him along. They got on the bus to ride around the island, got off at Sunset, and that's how we met."

It was a big day at Sunset. "There was a film crew set up on the beach. Phil Edwards and Mickey Munoz were famous surfers and catamaran sailors at the time. They had made a promotional film for Hobie Cats riding waves in Dana Point, California. On a big drop, Mickey bailed out, causing the cat to flip over in the surf. He vowed not to be the first to jump off during their filming in Hawaii. On their famous last ride at Sunset Beach, Mickey as crew was hiked out on the monster wave, when he looked back and saw Phil the helmsman was missing in action. Moments later the helmless catamaran was demolished by the thundering crest."

"It looks windy, but there's a dead spot in the middle. I told them about it, but you can't see it, so they went ahead. They were screaming along on the face of the wave and everything was perfect, then they hit that dead spot and couldn't outrun the wave any more. Pieces of that cat washed in all over the beach. Mau and Mike helped Mickey and Phil pick up the pieces. It was Mickey that later told me about them and where they were staying in town."

"Nobody here knew he was a master navigator. This was Mau's first time out of the Carolines, he was a lot younger, didn't speak much English, and he was really glad to see that proa in the yard. They didn't have any money or plans and ended up staying here and teaching us to sail. I learned more in twenty minutes sailing with him than those (two years?) of library research and experimenting. He was kind of a superman. His family had no social rank, his mother couldn't make him a chief, but he could do everything. Navigate, build canoes, learn English, go to another country and get along and not go crazy from homesickness. Which would be like you or me going to another planet, things are so different."

"He said he'd make me a model canoe and started walking around looking at the trees. He took a little pruning saw, went over to that Christmasberry bush in the neighbor's yard and started cutting a branch off it, like he was on his wife's land at home. I said "Hey, what are you doing!" and ran over there. When I told the neighbors what we were up to they said "sure, go right ahead." He made this adze from the branch. The blade is from a 1.5" chisel. It's his main tool. He used it for everything. On the Hokulea documentary you can see him using it to fix the broken mast. Ben Finney was putting together the Hokulea project and needed a navigator. Here was a master navigator right under his nose. He sort of stole Mau from me." he laughs. Since then Mau has become famous for navigating the big Hawaiian double canoes on long voyages and teaching Hawaiians to navigate by the stars as their ancestors did.

"So that's the model he made to teach me to sail. [indicates a large model of a Caroline Islands sailing canoe] I thought he was going to make a toy, and here's what he did. Collectors are always trying to buy it. Models like that are worth a lot more than real canoes. You can't give away a real canoe. Museums don't have room for them. Here's all that's left of my 26 ft. Kapingamarangi canoe. I couldn't find a museum to take it and it rotted away in the back yard."

Paddles, bailer, breasthook and mast step. 8.5"x11" page and ruler included in frame for scale.

"When the Kapinga canoe was still in good shape we made a mold and made fiberglass copies. That's what those two yellow canoes by the garage are. To make the sail spars we got bamboo trolling outriggers from a fishing supplier. It's dendrocalamus strictus from Bangladesh, almost solid with just a tiny hole down the middle. They wrap them with thread and then varnish them. Very strong and light. About $30 for 24ft, we cut them down to about 16' long. Hawaii has lots of wind. You want 1/3 the sail area you'd have in the Carolines or Marshalls."

"Here's the junior woodchuck manual of how to live on a pacific atoll." he said, handing me a copy of "Material Culture of Kapingamarangi" by Peter S. Buck. "It's all in there. Start with a coconut, make string, and tie your canoe together. Lashings are stronger than other fasteners. It puts the wood in compression. If you can't get coconut fibers, use cotton string, like on the canoe in front. It shrinks when it gets wet and holds really well, a lot like coconut cord. Lashings are in the language. They'll [Hawaiians] call you a "loose lashing" or wimp, especially if the canoe breaks up because your lashings weren't tight."

"With those Kapinga canoes we tried all different shunting techniques. In light wind and heavy seas it helps to rig fore and aft stays. The mast step slides fore and aft on the gunwales to rake the mast. It depends on the wind. Adjust the windward mast stay or move the mast step to get weather helm. Then steer the canoe with the sheet. Use the steering paddle to go downwind. We tried a crabclaw sail with curved spars and a more triangular one with straight spars. The straight spars bent too much. The more crabclaw looking one was better. These traditional sails are best for reaching. They [the islanders]sail no closer than 60 degrees off the wind."

010.jpg 011.jpg 008.jpg 009.jpg

The folding ruler in the pictures is 6 ft. long and has a dozen segments that pivot at 6" intervals.

"The original breadfruit wood ama [outrigger] was heavy, these fiberglass amas are light. That's okay. It's a really good shape, a good ama. I wouldn't change it at all. The hull can be light too, it's okay. I've been thinking of carving one out of styrofoam. Paint it with latex housepaint to keep the resin from dissolving it, then fiberglass it with polyester resin. 16'x2'x4' blocks of styrofoam are $150 each from Pacific Foam Co. in Campbell industrial park."

"The Hawaiian canoe is made for running and surfing. People [modern anglos] didn't think they could sail upwind because of the round bottom, but it's not a problem. When sailing the wavespeed sideways limits leeway. A water surface gravity wave effect. Hull shape is less important than waterline width for this effect. Round-bottomed hulls resist leeway fine. The Sandy Stein canoe goes 6-8 knots with a little sail."

"For 'iako [crossbeams] on the surf canoes we use hau [hibiscus]. It's light like balsawood, grows in river valleys and is traditional for 'iako here. I cut it in the Kahana valley and air dry it indoors. Wiliwili wood is traditional for the ama. Also called "Hawaii balsa.""

"These proas are made for lagoon sailing. Not as good for waves as Hawaiian canoes. Kaneohe bay would be a good place to sail a proa. Leave it in Kuhuloa park. These are big canoes. Just the hull weighs 200lbs. My dream Kapinga canoe would be 16-18ft long and weigh 125lbs with ama and 'iako. Then you could sail by yourself or with other people any time. You're welcome to measure those canoes, or even sail them if you want."

Wow. So I put tape on the hulls and took a bunch of pictures. When I'm super caffeinated and it's raining hard I'll make a cad model.
Hull: 26' even overall, 24' between stem knuckles. 18.5" max beam. 26" depth amidships including raised deck box. Raised deck box is 48" long, 10" wide at ends, 10.5" wide in the middle, 6.5" high at ends, 6" high in the middle from sheer. There's some asymmetry visible at the bows. The spacing of the tape lines from the front is: 6" 12" 24" 36" 5' 7' 9' 11'.


Buck, Peter (Te Rangi Hiroa). 1950. Material culture of Kapingamarangi. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 200. Honolulu: Bernice Bishop Museum Press. Apparently out of print, here's a (rough) pdf of the canoe section and table of contents.

Emory, Kenneth P. 1965. Kapingamarangi: Social and Religious Life of a Polynesian Atoll. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 228. Honolulu: Bernice Bishop Museum Press.

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Copyright Tim Anderson 2003