Coast Guard Cutter Kukui departs Hawaii for maintenance in Baltimore before heading to Sitka

Coast Guard Cutter Kukui departs Honolulu for the final time. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Bethany GollinHonolulu – On January 9, exactly 19 years to the day after its commissioning, Coast Guard Cutter Kukui set sail for the last time from Sand Island in Honolulu. The 46 member crew are sailing the cutter to the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore for its regular scheduled midlife maintenance. When Kukui leaves the yards, it will have a new crew and will be voyaging to a new homeport in Sitka, Alaska. As the cutter and crew depart, they leave with a new mission, a mission of aloha. They strive to bring the strong friendship and traditions of Hawaii to the East Coast and beyond to each crewmember’s future unit throughout the Coast Guard.

“The Kukui has a long history in Hawaii and the surrounding South Pacific. Because of that, it is especially sad to see it go,” said Lt. j.g. Bethany Gollin, Kukui operations department. “This juniper class, 225-foot cutter is the third vessel to bare the Kukui name in the Hawaiian Islands.”

The first cutter Kukui was built by the New York Shipping Company in 1908. The vessel’s first of many adventures was the long journey around Cape Horn, before the Panama Canal was built, to its homeport of Honolulu. The cutter served in the Hawaiian Islands until 1946. During those 38 years, the vessel’s crew primarily performed aids to navigation duties in the Pacific. In 1941, when the U.S. was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the 190-foot buoy tender’s crew was conducting standard in-port weekend duties, unarmed and moored to Pier Four in Honolulu Harbor. Following the attack, the Kukui took part in the Battle of Niihau by transporting an Army combat squad to remote Niihau Island in response to reports that a Japanese fighter pilot crashed onto the island and took the few inhabitants hostage. It was later discovered that they locals had already dealt with the threat.

In 1946, a new 339-foot cargo ship was name Kukui and came to Hawaii where it served until 1972. Its crew constructed Long Range Navigation Stations, also known as LORAN, and provided support to Pacific Islanders in remote locations such as the delivery of food, medicine and building materials. A truly unique vessel, the second Kukui was decommissioned in 1972 and sold to the Philippine navy. It was renamed Mactan and homeported in Subic Bay.

Commissioned on Jan. 9, 1998, the current Kukui continued the heritage started so many years ago by its predecessors. It is one of a fleet of optimally manned, modern and extremely capable sea going buoy tenders serving around the nation. Over the past two decades, Kukui’s crews have been a servicer of aids to navigation from the Hawaiian Islands to Midway and American Samoa. They have provided support to developing island nations by conducting bilateral fisheries law enforcement and continued the humanitarian mission of its predecessors to bring aid to our remote neighbors.

With the Kukui going to its midlife maintenance, the district will temporarily be reduced to two buoy tenders, an aids to navigation team and the regional dive locker to maintain aids throughout the region. Careful planning and prioritization of ATON projects will be employed during the gap in cutter coverage to minimize the impact of the asset’s absence.  “The Kukui’s long histories in Hawaii and namesake add to the significance of the cutter’s departure after over a century of presence and service in the Pacific,” said Gollin.

“It is named after the kukui tree, which is not only the Hawaii state tree, but also a symbol of Hawaii that has deep roots in the traditions of the islands.”

The kukui tree and its valuable nut traveled with ancient Hawaiian voyagers in their malia, outrigger voyaging canoes, a staple of their voyage kit. The nut was used for food and medicine while the oil from the white kernels fueled torches and stone lamps lighting and guiding their malias home. Today, the kukui nut can be seen all over the islands made into decorative leis for celebrations and ceremonies.

“Therefore, it was only appropriate that the Kukui and our crew be sent off in local style with a Hawaiian lei hanging from the bow and a blessing from a local kahu, a Hawaiian priest, who wished them a safe journey as they set sail for new waters,” said Gollin.

This month the Kukui heads back to the East Coast, but this time, unlike the first Kukui, the crew can take the short cut through the Panama Canal. The current crew of the Kukui is a lucky group of Coast Guard men and women who not only get the title of, “the last Kukui (WLB 203) crew in Hawaii,” but also had the privilege to carry the Kukui traditions throughout the Pacific for the past few years. They conducted law enforcement and humanitarian missions with unique and remote port calls such as, Kanton, Rarotonga and Samoa.

Kukui has long been known as the workhorse of the Pacific. The following quote was found in a story written by retired Coast Guard Capt. Jim Donahue, who served as a civil engineer and navigator from 1969-1971, “Hazardous duty? Some of the time. Demanding duty? Most of the time. Rewarding duty? Yes, all of the time.”

These sentiments are echoed by the Kukui crew who now sail on a 43-day patrol through the Panama Canal also known as the ditch, seeing waters new to many of them and visiting a handful of new port calls. Fair winds and following seas Kukui. Travel safe and spread your aloha!

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