Writer, fisherman and father Hillel Wright gestured as he leaned out of the sun, into the shade under the canopy at the Kava Café in Havi. He glanced at his grandson Ollie then summarized the tale he’d just told – “It’s the whole philosophy of commercial fishing.”
Now living in Japan, the green-eyed, mustached former PHD candidate should know - he spent thirty years at sea fishing the Pacific and now writes for Fishing News International a leading fishing publication of Asia.
It all started in Hawaii in 1969 on a 60 foot diesel sampan named “Alika.”
“Late one night, my friend calls and tells me that if I can make Hilo Docks by 4:30 AM there’s a job for me,” Wright said, sipping an Americano. “I bought a Renault Dauphine down the street for 200 bucks, drove it as fast as I could and by the time I rolled into the Suisan parking lot, the motor was toast. It would never run again, but I got the job.”
Single, fresh out of Southern Illinois University with a master’s in Literature, the soon to be father of four slid 5 tons of block ice across the dock that morning filling the cold hatch. It was the beginning of the fall season and for the next two months he’d be working off the Puna coast, five days a week, 20 hours a day with four other men, hot-bunking and pulling in ahi by day and mahi-mahi, and walu by night.
Under the direction of a Hawaiian Captain, “Old Man John” the fishing in those days was pretty good.
“He knew how to find fish,” Wright said.”He’d look out over the sea as dawn crept up and watch the birds. ‘Aku birds,’ he’d say and then ‘Ahi birds – go, go, steer 280.’ And before you know we’d be full of fish.”
“By the third week, I had the program down,” Wright said. “One day I’d just finished laying in the insulation in the ice hold and sat down on the hatch cover and lit a cigarette. I was watching the sea when I heard Old Man John yell something at me. I couldn’t make it out, it was Hawaiian and then finally he’s in may face and yells in English, ‘No sit on Ass!’ and that, in one sentence is the whole philosophy of commercial fishing.”
Moana Loa, the mountain towering above the Puna coast also had philosophy that year. It was the year that Mauna Ulu, a vent of Kilauea erupted.
“We were twenty miles off shore working bottom fish. Then it blows,” Wright said. “You never saw fireworks like that. Old Man John, or Ahab as I knew him up to that point, suddenly gets nice. He tells us to pull in the hooks, make a pot of tea and sit down on deck. His whole personality changed, he became grandpa. Told us about Madam Pelu, his Alamakuu, as the boat rocked and the vent blew oranges and reds into the sky.”
Wright lives with his wife Shiori in Kawasaki and wears a gold wedding ban inscribed with eagles, “they mate for life.” On the same hand a thick turquoise ring covers nearly the bottom joint of his index finger. He grips it and twirls it on his finger.
“Helps with my spiritual risk taking,” he said. “All religions are one,” he said as an Aloha Petroleum tanker passed by on Mamalahoa Highway, shaking the ground. “I try to follow the local customs, live life and make my pilgrimages.”
He comes to the Big Island regularly, a place where his first daughter Anita was born, and always makes Hapuna Beach - he lived there when it was a county park during the summer of 1969.
“There was a bunch of us hippies. Tourists, locals, high school girls all came to the park. Everybody wanted to see what we were up to. We slept under the stars at night, stowed our stuff under the picnic tables – nobody stole back then. We combed the beaches in the morning for money. Occasionally the Aku boats would anchor at the cove to catch bait. We’d snorkel out to them, they’d throw their gill nets and we’d chase the Weki into their nets.”
Wright follows a lizard with his eyes, as the reptile slinks across a hou-hou wall.
“I stayed in one of the A frames last week,” he said. “Walked down the beach late the first night and heard the Matahunas singing. You don’t believe me?”
Wright edited five books and wrote another five including an interview he did with Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg.
“He had quite a mind, and quite an agenda. And for the most part it all worked together,” Wright said.
At sea on the “Alika,” Wright recalls the smell of salt air, the warm blood of tuna and a Louisville Slugger that Old Man John used on the ahi that came flying over the rail.
“He was pretty good with it,” Wright said.
Before flying to the Big Island, that summer of ’69, Wright spent a month in Berkeley, hanging out, learning Zen-Buddha chants and hitchhiking.
The first question they asked me the morning I arrived at the Alika was whether I was a hippie. ‘No,’ I told them, ‘I’m a gypsy.’ So they called me Egypt. A few days later as we waited for the fish to bite, I start chanting. And almost immediately, the ahi start biting. I remember Old Man John shaking his head, saying, ‘Da Kina Egypt, singing for fish,’” Wright said, as he looked out across the patio of the café. “There I was, a Jew named Egypt singing Buddhist chants on a Hawaiian boat. Kahuna magic, I guess.”