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ISLAND HISTORY: Master koa canoe builder Tatsuo Sato of Kauai

Born at Kilauea, Kaua‘i, Tetsuo Sato (1909-1979) was a cabinetmaker, finish carpenter and master Hawaiian koa canoe builder noted for the restoration of the prize koa canoes “Kaulupeelani’” and “Princess,” and the building of the “Niumalu” for the Kaua‘i Canoe and Racing Association (KCARA) during the 1950s.

His partnership with the KCARA began in 1950, when the KCARA, in need of a skilled craftsman to work on its four-man koa racing canoe, requested his assistance and he obliged.

The first of his canoe restorations was the “Kaulupeelani,” built by the Puaoi family of Lawai from a single koa log around 1850.

But by 1955, when John Nishi donated it to Ray Mant, the coach of the KCARA, it was badly in need of repair.

Tetsuo Sato restored it by 1956 as a training canoe, but it eventually deteriorated and is no more.

Another of Sato’s achievements was the restoration of the koa canoe “Princess.”

Built sometime between circa 1876 and 1886 for Kauai-born Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole from a giant koa tree cut at Kona, Hawai‘i, “Princess” was acquired by the KCARA from the Outrigger Canoe Club of Honolulu in 1956.

Used as a training canoe, “Princess” broke down over time following Sato’s restoration, was then wrecked by Hurricane Iwa in 1982, and was finally restored once again at Kamehameha Schools by Wright Bowman with funding obtained by Kauai State Senator Lehua Fernandes Salling.

“Princess” is now on display in the lobby of the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort.

Back in 1958, Sato also transformed a koa log cut on the Big Island into an authentic koa canoe at Nuimalu with 400 hours of labor in 8 months time.

The KCARA had purchased the log from Kauai Territorial Representative Manuel Henriques for $800.

However, prior to commencing his work, Sato first spent some time on the Big Island working with another master canoe builder in order to obtain the skills necessary to create a canoe out of an unfinished koa log.

Sato’s masterpiece, christened “Niumalu,” was completed that same year and was blessed by the Rev. Abraham Akaka of Honolulu’s Kawaiahao Church.
Source: The Garden Island

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