How Hawaii’s Last Princess Found Karma At The Bottom Of Cavite Habour

The Barque Kaiulani by John Stobart

Maritime history nerds will know the name Kaiulani , an historically important vessel which met a sad end on the bottom of Cavite harbour in the 1960s. Not only is she part of maritime history, but the diplomatic history of the Philippines and the United States, too, involving a gift to the United States by the government of the Philippines which might have led to international friction between the two countries.

Kaiulani was the last steel-hulled square-rigged clipper built in the United States, launched in 1899. It was the only one of 17,000 such ships to be built in the country, known to have survived, or would have been had it ended its days. as intended, on Maine Street Avenue Dock in Washington DC. She symbolises the close of the age of sail for American merchant shipping and plans were made to make her the cornerstone of the American bicentennial in 1976.

The best-laid plans oft go astray, and so it was with Kaiulani.

A year before her launch, the United States annexed Hawaii, although it was not to be a state until 1959. Hawaii’s last royal Princess was Kaiulani, an appropriate name for a vessel that was the last of its line, who died in March 1899. It is said she died of a broken heart and the fanciful might consider that she got her revenge.

The 76-metre (250 foot) vessel was built in Bath, Main, to service the sugar trade between San Francisco and Hawaii, so the first Filiipinos to see her may have been sugar workers. With the advent of steam, sailing ships became cheap, so in 1910 Kaiulani was sold to the Alaska Canning Association, APA, which caught and canned salmon, another place where early Filipino OFWs might have been the first to see her. 

Kauilani spent several years laid up on ‘Rotten Row’ in Oakland Estuary. She did, however, have her time in the limelight in a 1937 movie, Souls At Sea, starring Gary Cooper and George Raft.

But history had not finished with Kaiulani.


At the outbreak of WW2 she was bought by a San Francisco group, registered un the Panama flag, renamed Kaiulani, and chartered to a Danish company, East Asiatic, to carry lumber from Grays Harbor, Washington, to Durban, South Africa and carry explosives from Africa to Australia.

On September 28, 1941, she set sail from Durban to Sydney, Australia. En route, the captain was alerted to a Japanese submarine attack on Sydney and diverted to Hobart, Tasmania, where she arrive on June 19, 1942. It was the end of her last commercial voyage under sail, and the last as a sailing ship.

Kaiulani was requisitioned by the US Army. Int an act of necessary vandalism her masts and superstructure were removed and she was turned into a coal barge. The army officer who supervised the work said: “I had to give the orders to do the job, and I hated it. A beautiful ship was sacrificed to get the job done.”

She served the Pacific Fleet sailing between Australia and New Guinea, following it as US forces made their way to the Philippines. In her way, she helped liberate the Philippines from Japan.

At the war’s end, Kaiulani was sold to Madrigal Shipping, who used her to transport mahogany between Manila and Mindanao for the next 17 years.

In 1962, a group of sailing ship enthusiasts involved in planning a new Washington channel waterfront thought that a square-rigger would be just the thing for a centrepiece of the development as a maritime museum. They learned that there was only one such vessel of any historical significance left afloat – the Kaiulani – and set about a campaign to recover it.

Word of the campaign reached the then-president of the Philippines, Diosdado Macapagal. Madrigal Shipping offered to return Kaiulani as a gift to the American people.

Macapagal visited the US and on October 5, 1964, presented the deed of donation to US President Lydon Johnson. Then, during Johnson’s visit to the Philippines for a conference, a similar ceremony was conducted with Macapagal announcing “

“Let it sail to the Potomac with its cargo of goodwill and best wishes. Let it be a shining, unsinkable memorial to the common ideals that weld the Filipino and the American peoples so closely together.”

The US was to restore Kaiulani to its former glory and sail it home. At least, that was the plan.

Kaiulani in the Dewey drydock, Subic Bay. Photo Reyes & Lim

Kaiulani was towed to the US naval base at Subic Bay, much to the dismay of the base commander who had ships from Vietnam that needed repair. and installed in the Dewey Drydock for a hull survey. Her hull was sound below the waterline and could be put into seaworthy condition, despite having had virtually no maintenance and being badly battered carrying logs.

For a while, the vessel was anchored in Subic Bay. The US Navy would not provide security for the ship – It was not uncommon for private and commercial vessels to disappear from the bay, taken to a remote location, and cut up for scrap. So it was that a family of Aetas was installed to provide the necessary protection.

The Philippine Navy offered the use of its shipward facility at Cavite, near Manila, but labour and materials were to be supplied by the American National Historical Society, which headed the project.  Funds were limited and on a shoestring budget, they hired Captain Jim Kleinschmidt, an expert from Mystic Seaport who had done similar work before who set-to over the next year with a Filipino workforce of up to 40, who worked for the next year on the basic steelwork needed.

First, the vessel needed to be in good enough condition to meet Lloyds specifications so that it could be towed to Hong Kong where it would be fully fitted-out before passage to the US.

Sometimes it was not possible to meet payroll and Philippine supporters like Andres Soriano stepped in. But in August 1966 the project ran out of money and to make things worse a severe typhoon sank the Kaiulani in six metres of water that September. In what was described as a ‘magnificent gesture’, the Philippine Navy refloated the vessel in time for a visit by Lyndon Johnson.

By now, Ferdinand Marcos was president and Imelda his First Lady. John M Wilson, Deputy Chief of Mission describes what happened next:

“The people from Washington arranging Lady Bird’s program thought it would be a very good idea if Lady Bird went out and saw the Kaiulani. We didn’t think it was such a hotidea because the ship wasn’t anything to look at. They went out to see the Kaiulani anyway, only to discover that it had filled with water in the last typhoon and had sunk at its dock. Nothing phased the gal who was arranging this on our side came in and said, “Tell our navy to come in and raise it.” The Navy took one look at it and said, “We can raise it, but it will cost you $1,500,000 to do it.”

That stopped the American group for a while. But then they went to see Imelda, and Imelda said she would see what she could do with the Philippine navy, which she did. She called in the head of the Navy and said the Kaiulani had to be raised. The good admiral got out the swabbies and a bunch of buckets and at low tide they bailed out the Kaiulani, which then rose majestically from its placeon the bottom. Overnight, it was painted it a bright blue; and the good ladies all went by chopper the next day and had their pictures taken by the Kaiulani, and all was fine. The next day it rained like hell and the Kaiulani sank again. But nobody cared by then.

Wilson’s account of the sinking by typhoons may be an error, despite it being mentioned in other sources. According to Alan D. Hutchinson, who lead the campaign for her restoration, a firm of Philippine maritime architects, Reyes & Lim, which worked on the project, she was sunk deliberately on the theory that she would weather better under the water than afloat. Certainly, she would be at less risk that way than exposed to Manila’s vicious typhoons. 

So, Kaiulani was sunk to better preserve her, pumped out for the Johnson visit, then sunk again to be refloated when funds were available to continue the restoration.

The National Maritime History Society and its enthusiasts, as well as an Australian group, did still care. They continued their fund-raising campaign without much success.

Concerns were expressed in the US Congress that abandoning the Kaiulani would be seen as an insult to the Philippines since it had been given as a gift and could have lead to diplomatic problems.

Over the next eight years, while the hull of the Kaiulani law rusting away in Manila, many more attempts were made to finance her restoration. With an estimated $5m needed to bring her back to life apparently beyond reach the project died.

In 1974, quietly, Kaiulani was broken up for scrap. A few pieces of her steelwork, some plates and keel, found their way to a San Francisco Museum.

A great lady died and, prehaps, Princess Kaiulani had her revenge.

2 thoughts on “How Hawaii’s Last Princess Found Karma At The Bottom Of Cavite Habour

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