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Sammy Kadotani tells his ‘legend of the tin boat’

By Staff | Mar 25, 2010


LAHAINA — When Sammy Kadotani encounters old friends from the Down Town boys, he is often asked, “Eh, you buggah — still got your tin boat?”

One of Kadotani’s tin boats — a symbol of youth ingenuity from 1930s Lahaina — will soon be placed in Lahaina Restoration Foundation’s Plantation Museum in the Wharf Cinema Center.

He explained that some 80 years ago, the Down Town boys from Lahaina Town — Teng Laborte, Dada Kobatake, Stooge Nakayama, Mino Watada, Ben Gun Taketa, Take Yamauchi and Kadotani — along with Makila Camp boys Akito Yokoyama, Bobby Brooks and Genku Morinaga, decided to build a boat.

“It took us several weeks to decide what kind of a boat,” Kadotani explained. “Then finally the idea of a tin boat popped up, so it was decided to build a tin boat with corrugated iron.

“The Japanese name for this corrugated iron was ‘Totan,’ which was mainly used for roofing homes. The plantation homes were built with these corrugated irons for their roofs.”    

Nolan Lehman (left) and Dillon LeBlanc were treated to tin boat rides in 2007.

The kids laid the iron pieces on the ground and flattened them out with a two-by-four board or sledge hammer. With no interruptions, Kadotani said, the sheets could be ready in an hour.

The metal sheet would be wrapped around boards and secured with nails to form the front and back of the tin boat. Some kids used flat pieces of wood for the stern.

To cover the sharp top edges of the corrugated iron, the kids used split garden hoses.

All of the pounding created holes to be patched in the thin iron sheets.

“We used to dig up Front Street to get the tar out of there,” said Kadotani, 87, laughing at their solution.

Once the boats were done, the seven- to nine-year-olds faced an important question, Kadotani said: “How the hell we gonna paddle?”

They tried dried out branches from coconut palms before using 6” by 8” pieces of plywood in each hand.

Carrying the boats to the beach in pairs, the children had a blast riding their tin boats from Puamana to King Kamehameha III School.

“The idea of building a tin boat was for surfing, spear fishing, racing from Puamana to Kam III School and on to Front Street,” Kadotani noted.

“One strict policy that we had to abide by was that no one… NO ONE was allowed to go outside of the reef in ‘blue water’ as a safety precaution.

“Our favorite area for riding the tin boat was in front of Kam III School. Back in those days, the beach front of the school was wide open sea. The breakwater and the harbor were not built yet, and surfing there was the famous location for our local boys, not only tin boat but borrowing our mother’s wash board.”

The kids eventually grew up, and many of the tin boats were scrapped. A lifelong resident many call the “Mayor of Lahaina,” Kadotani kept three of them.

In 2007, for a Carden Academy silent auction, Kadotani offered a unique item: “Ride the Tin Boat with Sammy K.”

Following many bids and a sizable donation, Scott Lehman was able to offer a fun experience for Nolan Lehman and Dillon LeBlanc, then seven years old.

They went fishing and surfing with Sammy and Kaylen Kadotani as lifeguards.

Kadotani will bring a tin boat for display at Lahaina Restoration Foundation’s “Lahaina Plantation Days, Then and Now” event this summer.

With his help, tin boats may make a comeback.

“Any parent who is interested in building a tin boat with his son, please feel free to call me, Sam Kadotani, 661-3973,” he concluded.