Students Build Their Own Canoes

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - November 30, 2011
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Le Jardin Academy student Tanner Gillespie (front) and Jay Dowsett work on a canoe. Photo courtesy Pam Gillespie

For 35 years, Jay Dowsett has shared his knowledge of canoe building with those who are willing to learn and are committed to completing something they start. His most recent project makes him smile about the future.

This story actually begins at the end of the 2010 ILH canoe paddling season, when Le Jardin Academy’s boys canoe paddling coach Mike Smith told Dowsett, “One of these days we need to get our own equipment.”

The seed was planted. For the first two years of Le Jardin’s canoe-paddling program, students borrowed canoes from Lanikai and Kailua canoe clubs to compete in ILH competition.

In 2010, they finished fourth in the state in borrowed boats. Parents and coaches decided one day at potluck that it was time the school had its own vessels.

Dowsett’s son Michael was a senior in 2010, and a few weeks before graduation he asked his father if he would help his Le Jardin teammates make a canoe.

“I told him, ‘You guys have to commit to this because once we commit we cannot stop,’” says Dowsett. “Knowing finals were coming up, we had to hustle.”

The team more than hustled they built a fiberglass canoe in one week.

“The kids came down to the shop with their own ideas,” recalls Dowsett. “I helped them complete the interior of the canoe, and when we pulled it out of the mold, and they saw a finished boat, they were stoked!”

They unveiled the canoe in an emotional ceremony that included chants and dance. The vision was just getting started.

In the fall of 2011, Pam Gillespie, a parent of one of the returning paddlers, took the reins to spearhead another canoe-building effort. Her son Tanner and his teammate Logan Spencer eventually took the reins from her.

“I’m the only one who has the malia mold. I bought my mold back to my shop so I could build them,” says Dowsett, who knew they were racing the clock. “The canoe needed to be ready before the first race of the season on Dec. 10.”

Thanks to the generous financial support of several businesses, the team worked toward completing its goal. They gathered at Dowsett’s shop at Sand Island, where they designed the canoe and sacrificed personal time to build their own boat with their own hands. Their hard work has paid off. Their second canoe is now complete.

“I have the mold and the technology, but it’s the kids who made it happen,” says Dowsett. “I was so impressed.”

The school will host a formal Hawaiian blessing ceremony where the canoe builder releases the vessel to its new owner. Dowsett is excited about the event.

“The ceremony includes the naming and the blessing of the canoe, and the cutting of the umbilical cord,” says Dowsett. “When I give a canoe to a canoe club, I perform the ceremony with those who are accepting the canoe. I remind them this has nothing to do with winning races, it’s about having fun, and at that point the canoe belongs to school.”

Dowsett says the canoes will be named Ho’omaka Hoe and Ia Mau Ho’olina. They were built for $7,500 each. Dowsett says the design includes butterfly patches or sponge print; each patch represents a senior who was working on the boat.

“I told them don’t worry about beating people,” says Dowsett. “All of that selfesteem is erased when you graduate. When you graduate, the people you competed against will become your lifelong friends.”

He has seen it before at other schools where he has helped students build their own canoes, including Maryknoll, Saint Louis, Mid-Pacific Institute, Punahou, Iolani and St. Andrew’s Priory.

“When I see projects like this come to fruition, I know we’re perpetuating (the art of) canoe-building,” says Dowsett. “I don’t know how many of these kids will keep it up, but what I do see is the next generation wanting to learn.”

And that’s more than enough for him to keep on teaching and keep on giving.


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