Clay Bertelmann, Makali‘i Builder

By Bob Krauss, Advertiser Staff Writer, January 8, 2004

The death of Clay Bertelmann, 57, on Tuesday in Waimea on the Big Island, ended the career of an important figure in Hawai'i's voyaging history. He was the builder of the voyaging canoe Makali'i and founded the voyaging society Na Kalai Wa'a.

Clay Bertelmann It was Bertelmann, a gruff former cowboy for Parker Ranch, who took master navigator Mau Piailug on the Makali'i back to his remote home island island, Satawal, in honor of Mau's contribution to the rebirth of canoe voyaging in Hawai'i.

The journey of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe in 1999 went through half the length of Micronesia. The first Hawaiian voyaging canoe to visit those far-flung islands and atolls created a resurgence of interest in voyaging among Micronesians. Alsen Kelen, project manager for the sailing canoe program at Majuro in the Marshall Islands, named his daughter Makali'i.

Mau, who was in Hawai'i for a medical checkup, spent last Sunday with Bertelmann at the hospital and was able to say goodbye. He lectured on navigational chants Tuesday night at the Hawai'i Maritime Center where students from Halau Kumana, a charter school, gave a chant in honor of voyaging and dedicated it to Bertelmann.

"Clay left a very positive and inspiring mark for voyaging for future generations," said Mau. "His spirit will continue voyaging."

Bertelmann, a rough-talking barrel of a man, inspired the building of Makali'i without government subsidy. He created the canoe through community effort much as voyaging canoes in ancient Hawaii were built through the effort of the entire population of an ahupua'a.

In the process, Makali'i crew members learned the legends and dances of voyaging and soon became noted for their spirited haka, or dance of challenge/welcome, throughout the Pacific.

Educational programs

Bertelmann's home in Waimea became Mau's home in Hawai'i. Na Kalai Wa'a developed educational programs that have taken 4,000 Big Island schoolchildren on training voyages.

Dr. Matt Hamabata, executive director of the Kohala Center, an independent research and educational institution on the Big Island, said: "Last December, scientists from the World Bank coral research team asked to meet with Clay and Na Kalai Wa'a because of their knowledge of ocean systems.

"They took 17 scientists from around the world to see the canoe and explained to them to the ancient navigational heiau above Mahukona. We are going to miss him very much."

Sailed on the Hokule'a

Bertelmann and his brother, Shorty, were early voyagers on the Hokule'a before building their own canoe. Bruce Blankenfeld, Hokule'a navigator on numerous voyages, said of Clay Bertelmann: "He did a wonderful job of keeping interest in voyaging alive. He had vitality that infused into young people."

Pat Duarte, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Honolulu, said members still consider Bertelmann a member of their 'ohana.

"He had a great love for Hawai'i and voyaging and projected it through young people," said Duarte. "Clay Bertelmann was very important in Hawai'i's voyaging history."

Bertelmann is survived by his wife, Deedee; five children; and six grandchildren. Services will be held Jan. 16, from 8 to 11 a.m., at the Waimea Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Burial will follow.