The Sampans of Hawai‘i

Long-Vanished Boats Provide Window into Japanese Heritage in the Hawaiian Islands

By Dr. Hans Van Tilburg

May 2020

Vessels are signposts of seafarers on the move, and the waters of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Hawai‘i have been witness to a wide variety from around the world. The Polynesian voyaging canoes were the first, bringing the original discoverers and settlers to the islands. Sailing in their wake, hundreds and hundreds of years later came the ships of European navigators, and then the brigs of whalers, schooners of missionaries, and steamships with migrants, many bound for the early plantations of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i.

In 1899, Gorokichi Nakasugi, a shipwright and fisherman from Wakayama Prefecture in Japan, arrived by steamer in Hawai‘i. Nakasugi brought with him a small 34-foot Japanese sailing sampan. What is a sampan? It is an adopted term, coming originally from the Chinese language, meaning three (san) boards (ban), describing a small simple skiff, many with a single mast and sail. Nakasugi’s sampan possessed elements of the Yamato-gata fishing vessel, a traditional Japanese craft still built at that time in small fishing villages of the southern Japanese islands.

boats in a harbor
Early sampans await use in Honolulu Harbor with lowered masts and sails. Photo: Hawai‘i State Archives

The original sailing sampans were quickly adapted to local conditions. Engines replaced sail and shortly thereafter, a prominent deckhouse made its appearance; the bow was enlarged for the rough seas. Long-range sampans grew to lengths of 75 to 90 feet or more. Shipwrights like Gorokichi Nakasugi, Seichi Funai, Joichi Tanimura, Mankichi Murakami, and Kametaro Nishimura incorporated these modifications on an individual basis, often at family-run island boatyards.

fishing vessel motoring out to sea
A long-range aku fishing sampan motors to sea with Diamondhead in the background. Photo: Hawai‘i State Archives

The emerging commercial tuna fishery, centered at Kewalo Basin on O‘ahu, provided an avenue for Japanese migrants, and larger amounts of ahi (yellowfin) and aku (skipjack) soon began to reach the docks. It was the ability to process (can) tuna for the distant market that made possible the expansion and modernization of Hawaii’s offshore fishing fleet. Hawaiian Tuna Packers Ltd. Was established in 1916, starting with a fleet of six motorized fishing sampans. These bright blue picturesque boats, now called Hawaiian sampans, eventually became known abroad. President Roosevelt went deep-sea fishing aboard local sampans while on vacation in 1934. Jack London traveled inter-island on local Hawaiian sampans.

people on and around a ship flying many flags
Ryuo Maru launches with appropriate ceremonial traditions and an American flag. Photo: Hawai‘i State Archives

Fishing from sampans was hard work. Similar to older Hawaiian methods, the aku boats used the nehu (anchovy) as live bait. Throwing nehu into schools of tuna created a feeding frenzy, and fishermen braced against the gunwales to cast with bamboo poles and barbless hooks, lashing the frenzy and repeatedly heaving heavy fish onto the stern deck. By 1940 there were over 450 sampans in the territory of Hawai‘i, making the fishery the island’s third largest industry behind sugar and pineapple.

As successful as these Japanese hybrid boats were, their demise was soon to come. Growing tensions between Japan and America in the 1930s brought increased scrutiny. Japanese nationals constituted a large part of the wide-roving fleet. Many of the larger sampans had ranges as high as 1,500 miles. Confiscation of Hawaiian fishing sampans by immigration officials began before the start of the war. One memo to the Commandant of the 14th Naval District dated November 1, 1935 reveals the state of suspicions at that time:

“…[sampans are] manned in large part by alien Japanese whose loyalty to Japan as opposed to the United States is a practical certainty…Their personnel would, in time of war, serve to provide Japanese vessels with a sufficient number of able, competent pilots thoroughly familiar with all local waters…They can obtain exact soundings by means of weighted fishing lines…They would serve as a means of secretly landing intelligence or sabotage agents shortly prior to war.” (Record Group 181 National Archives San Bruno, declassified NND project number 803006)

There are no known incidents of any treachery among the fishing fleet, yet World War II had the single largest impact on the sampan fishing industry. Unfortunately, on December 7, 1941, American fighter planes strafed several fishing sampans, and others allegedly “confirmed” at least three sampan landing parties between Barbers Point and Nanakuli on O‘ahu (fishermen escaping the confusion). But wartime restrictions ultimately played a much greater role in the demise of the sampan fleet. By the end of 1942, the tuna catch was down by a staggering 99 percent. The confiscated blue-painted aku boats were changed to white, depth charge racks and other armaments were added, and they were put into nearshore patrol service.

empty depth charge rack underwater
The depth charge rack (charges safely removed) of the YP-183 (former Fuji Maru) rests in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Hans Van Tilburg/NOAA

In the Hawaiian Islands, the sampan fishing fleet never recovered after the war. West Coast canneries had already switched to purse seining for tuna, the large nets bringing in 20 times more fish than Hawaii’s pole-and-line method. The popular image of Hawaiian sampans persisted as a tourist icon in post-war Hawai‘i (Elvis Presley entertained the local crew aboard a local sampan in his 1962 movie Girls! Girls! Girls!), but the hard-working wooden-hulled boats and the back-breaking pole-and-line fishery would eventually dwindle to near extinction.

people on a beach near rusted engine parts
An Atlas three-cylinder diesel engine is cast ashore from an unknown sampan wreck. Photo: Hans Van Tilburg/NOAA

The memory of Gorokichi Nakasugi’s contribution to our maritime history, and the hard work of all of the Japanese shipwrights and fishermen, exist now only as elements of our heritage. Historical photographs and film footage, watercolors of old-time Hawai‘i, images on vintage cocktail napkins, and the bones of the historic sampan shipwrecks (both as fishing vessels and naval patrol vessels) that lie beneath the waters of the sanctuary, tell the story.

a blue ship with the name sea queen in harbor
Sea Queen was one of the last pre-war wooden Hawaiian sampans. Photo: Hans Van Tilburg/NOAA

Dr. Hans Van Tilburg is the maritime heritage coordinator for the Pacific Islands Region of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.