Preparing for launch

LAHAINA Capt. Timi Gilliom was teary-eyed as he spoke about Mo’okiha o Pi’ilani – Maui’s first traditional, ocean-going canoe – on Sunday at Kamehameha Iki Park in Lahaina.

The 62-foot, double-hulled canoe has been 18 years in the making by Hui O Wa’a Kaulua and, despite logistic and construction delays, it is expected to be launched for the first time Friday.

“It’s like my daughter is going to college,” said Gilliom, who has been working on the canoe since the beginning. “I’m going to come out here tomorrow and be like, ‘It’s gone, where did it go?’ “

Late Sunday, the canoe was transported down Front Street to Mala Wharf Boat Ramp, where it will remain until its launch, said Katherine Kama’ema’e Smith, Hui o Wa’a Kaulua’s spokeswoman. She added that crew members will live and sleep on the canoe until the launch date, as well.

The canoe plans to launch at 3:53 p.m. Friday, which falls on the akua moon of the Hawaiian moon calendar – the highest tide of the month. The canoe will sail, if wind conditions allow, or be towed back toward the park, where it will be moored offshore.

“Everyone in this town wants to see this thing float,” Gilliom said. “I’m curious to see how many people are going to show up, and I bet it’s going to be a lot more than people think.”

Born and raised on Maui, Gilliom has been dedicated to launching the canoe since its care was handed to him nearly two decades ago. He recalled driving from Kihei and then later Kahului every day in the earlier years to work on the Lahaina canoe housed at the nonprofit.

“I went through three or four cars driving down here (Lahaina),” he said. “When my car broke I used to ride the bus over here every day.”

Gilliom, who has since moved to West Maui, recalls being “scared to touch (the canoe) because it was so big.”

“Slowly we took it apart and basically tried to do it like all the other ones I know and keep it as close to Hokule’a’s design as possible,” he said.

Gilliom and others have made several vital improvements to the 11-ton canoe such as adding bulkheads, which helps prevent swamping, raising the gunwales to keep water out and installing a system to pump water out of each hull.

“We basically had to redo the whole thing,” he said.

Master carvers from across the state and world have helped with the building the canoe, including Jerry Ongies of Oahu, Gilliom said. Ongies built a number of components, including the two masts, two spars, all the cleats and the steering blades. The pieces were shipped by Gilliom on Hokule’a to Maui.

Some of the special pieces made for the canoe include feather lei by Hale O Ka Moa’e, Maui Feather Leis and Auntie Jo-Ann Kahanamoku Sterling. The lei are for the two masts and act as telltales for the wind, Gilliom said.

While the canoe prepares for its launch, there is still about three weeks’ worth of work to be completed in about five days, Gilliom said. He added that the group is still waiting for the canoe’s traditional Hawaiian crab claw sail, which is being shipped from Oahu.

“We’re short on time, but we’ll make it,” he said.

Many of Mo’okiha o Pi’ilani’s 21 crew members were busily preparing Sunday afternoon for the transport and launch, including Shona Lohman of Kahana.

Lohman has been working on the canoe about three days a week for the past three years, overseeing the sanding of the entire vessel.

“It’s been an amazing experience, and whether or not I get to sail or get seasick and never want to sail, my commitment was to see it get to the water and that’s happening,” she said.

Donna Sterling, a board member of the hui, also volunteered her time Sunday. She said that many people have died since the project began, including her husband, Leon A. Paoa Sterling, who died in 2010.

“A lot of people have put their hands on this canoe,” she said. “We’ve never had this on Maui before. Finally she’s going in the water and it’s not like any other canoe, this is a very, very spiritual canoe.”

With Hokule’a currently on it’s worldwide journey, Gilliom hopes the Maui canoe will serve as a living classroom for the community. Gilliom, who will serve as the canoe’s captain, said that Kala Baybayan, an apprentice navigator on Hokule’a, will serve as the navigator.

The canoe, however, still needs to get a license and registration from the U.S. Coast Guard that will allow it to sail throughout the state and internationally.

“As soon as that’s done, we’re going to be out there and ready to go,” Gilliom said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at