Sonny Kaukini Bradley Master Canoe Builder
Aloha Magazine 1995
By Rick Carroll
I met this burly, blue-eyed Hawaiian who made canoes using no blueprints . . . only a vision . . . to shape koa logs into fast boats.
This latter day kahuna, it was said, had single-handedly revived the ancient art of Hawaiian canoe making.
On a sawhorse cradled in Bradley’s workshop . . . a sleek and straight canoe glowed with a deep rich red patina and appeared almost to be alive, like a Brancusi sculpture. It looked fast just sitting there, a Ferrari at the curb, the Concorde on the tarmac.
That something so fine could come from a man so big and rough-hewn was a surprise. Bradley seemed to be a cross between a mountain man and a sea captain. He had a thick beard, big broad shoulders and a thick upper body attached to sturdy sailor’s legs. His hands were as big as bear paws and as rough as tree bark. I half expected him to growl, but he spoke softly with an economy of words.
A local boy, born and raised on O’ahu’s Wai’anae coast, Bradley was a strong paddler in his youth but after mending old wooden canoes, he discovered he possessed what can only be explained as a rare ancestral talent, what Hawaiians who make canoes call ‘a sense of the log.”
Inside the Outrigger Canoe!
Waikiki Visitor April 1983
This is a love story; the story of one man’s love for the sea and the thrilling ancient sport of outrigger canoe racing.
Sonny Bradley combines a lifelong knowledge of paddling with vast talent as an artist to create what every visitor to Hawaii must not miss: The Koa Canoe. Even the word ‘Koa’ evokes strength and beauty and this sleek ocean vessel of ancient Hawaiian times deserves a title of such power. The glass (fiberglass) canoe has a hard time stealing your breath (unless you go for a ride!), but the Koa will take it away before you even leave the shore.
Fred Hemmings of NBC Sports fame, and a premier canoe steersman, has dubbed Sonny Bradley, ‘The Rennaissance Man’.
“Sonny Bradley should be a Hawaiian treasure”, Fred Hemmings says. “He has singlehandedly revived the ancient art of Hawaiian canoe making.” Sonny has a unique gift, the ability to duplicate the ways of old, the ability to travel through a koa forest as the ancient Hawaiians did on our Big Island and find the Koa canoe within a raw tree.
Finding the right log for a canoe is a challenge for Sonny. With each expedition to the Big Island, he faces incredible odds, and yet with patience he tackles each problem in its turn until the log is at last, settled in his Oahu workshop for the months of labor to follow. His trips last nearly two months: First he must search the forest to find the ideal tree (always a felled tree, almost always in a ravine, always on private property, and always at elevations of over 4,000 feet!) Then negotiations begin with the property owner; a price must be settled on the purchase of the tree and plans made for its extraction.
Extracting the tree is a major task, occupying the most time on each trip. Sonny and his small crew of helpers create the path of exit all by themselves, and not by using a bulldozer as you might imagine. Bulldozers have a way of sinking into the earth on the Big Island. Its called a lava tube and the loss of a ‘dozer adds greatly to the cost of a canoe!
Instead the men patiently carve a path from the forest entrance, hewing tangled branches that may be as thick as 30” in diameter. As they go, Sonny keeps his eyes open for Ohia wood which he will whittle to smooth slender lengths and use as rollers for the heavy koa stump.
When they reach the tree, Sonny begins to rough cut and hew his canoe according to the design he carries within. He does this as a necessity to ease some of the weight from the log --- 16 tons must be brought down to a more manageable 4,000 pounds.
And then, using winches and a one-ton pick-up truck, formidable energy and extreme patience, the men moves the Koa log from its resting place, inch by inch to the entrance of the forest.
At this point you would imagine there to be a great cause for satisfaction, and yes, there is . . . but the men can’t rest here for long. There are still miles and miles of rugged, difficult, unpaved roads to travel before the going gets easier on modern asphalt roads.
On Oahu Sonny works from dawn until long after dusk on the canoe. Slowly but surely, with hand-made tools, Sonny brings forth the strong and slender koa canoe he had seen within the log.
The process is pure artistry and the finished Koa canoe is valuable beyond measure. A Koa canoe by Sonny Bradley is fast and straight, beautiful and spirited. It is a Hawaiian treasure.
As Fred Hemmings says, the winning canoe depends a lot on the paddlers’ energy, will and strategy, but the canoe itself plays a major role. In my opinion, Sonny’s first racing canoe, from a single koa log, the Uhanepanoakalani, has already in its short life, established itself as the fastest all-around koa racing canoes on the ocean today.” Hui Nalu, the popular canoe club on Oahu raced the UhanePanoaKalani to an incredible 2nd in the famous Molokai to Oahu Canoe Race last year. Sonny takes pride in his contribution to that success.
Hawaii Surf and Sea 1981
by Robert Watts
“Resting hull-up, some forty feet of solid koa gleams in the dimly-lit interior, it has the look of a thoroughbred. And that’s exactly what it is . . . an authentic, hand-hewn Hawaiian racing canoe.
Paddling…The same old strokes
Aloha Magazine 1982
By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
“There are very few today who possess the knowledge and skill required to build a seaworthy canoe. One of them is Sonny Bradley, whom Hemmings aptly calls ‘the renaissance man’. Revitalizing an art form conceived and perfected by the ancients, Bradley makes koa canoes of exquisite beauty.”
SONNY BRADLEY: MODERN DAY CANOE BUILDER
HCRA State Championship Regatta August 1983
By Stephen K. Morse
“In his old and worn shop, patched with tin roofing and scrap pieces, I found him working on one of the crown jewels of outrigger racing canoes . . . a magnificent koa racing canoe.”
“I wanted to see the sport grow,” said Bradley, “ and I wanted to take on the challenge of making a faster and better canoe.”
Inside the Outrigger Canoe!
Waikiki Visitor April 1983
As Fred Hemmings says, “The winning canoe depends a lot on the paddlers energy, will and strategy, but the canoe itself plays a major role.
“Sonny’s racing canoes established itself as the fastest all around racing canoes on the ocean today. Sonny Bradley represents the spirit of Hawaii. He is a Hawaiian treasure.”