Charlie Pereira Blake has been making fishing nets since he was 12 years old, keeping alive a Hawaiian tradition that dates back centuries when most people fished to feed their families.
All day long, “Uncle Charlie,” an exuberant 85-year-old, sews his nets, his large weathered hands expertly manipulating nylon line around, over and under bamboo needles. When he’s done, the net he has created is perfectly-sized to be tossed into the ocean to capture fish.
Uncle Charlie’s nets are so coveted that he’s got a waiting list. The man himself is such a treasure, that no fewer than four songs have been written about him.
“Oh, there are a lot of songs about me! One says, ‘If you want a net from Charlie, get yourself in line,’ he says, with a broad smile. “Oh, those songs are good!”
Uncle Charlie brings his net-making gear with him everywhere he goes, pinning one end of a net-in-progress to any nearby tree. As he sews, he chats with everyone who passes by, making friends and sharing aloha in his booming voice and his hearty laugh.
“People say, ‘Oh, Uncle Charlie, you make the best nets.’ I had good teachers, including my dad,” a mason who came to Portugal from Hawaii at the age of 4, Charlie says. “My dad learned how to sew throw nets from the Hawaiian people. He made nets all his life in his spare time.”
Like father, like son. Once Charlie caught his first fish in one of his own nets, he was hooked. “I just kept on sewing nets because I caught a fish that I could give to friends.”
Charlie even sewed nets while he was in the U.S. Army, while he was stationed in Lisbon, Portugal. When he and his wife, Loke, visited a fishing village there, he spotted a fisherman hand-making his own fishing net.
“I don’t speak the language so I tapped him on the shoulder and he gave it to me and I sewed on his net a little bit,” Charlie says. “His needle was similar to mine.”
Charlie took his own needles with him and sewed his nets when he was stationed in Germany from 1964 to 1967; in Fort Bliss, Texas; and again in Germany from 1968 to 1971.
By the time Uncle Charlie retired from the Coco Palms Hotel on Kauai — where he was once employee of the month — he had sewn 62 nets in 24 years. Now he makes nets at the pace of one per month.
Charlie’s generosity is legendary. He gives his nets as birthday gifts, gave one away on his anniversary, and even gave a net to someone at the memorial service for his wife, who passed away in 2009, after they had been married for 53 years.
Although he normally sells his nets for $300 apiece, “sometimes I cannot! A young man who has a wife and children and paying $1,000 a month house rent? I never paid a thousand. What’s he got left after that?” So Charlie will sometimes discount his price to whatever a young buyer can pay.
“I’m not after the money,” Uncle Charlie says. “I want the guy to go catch a fish with my net.”
But one of Uncle Charlie’s favorite gifts is the gift of knowledge.
“When I teach someone how to sew a net, I think this one skill will live on for a long time,” he says.
Sewing nets is in Charlie Pereira Blake’s heart. He sometimes even dreams that has a net in his hands. He can often be found sewing his nets in the courtyard of the Kauai Museum on Saturdays, but he has a spot he prefers even more than that one.
“My favorite place to sew is right there on the beach at my home on Moloaa Bay,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to finish one net, and each one that’s done, I’m happy.”
Pamela Varma Brown is the publisher of “Kauai Stories,” and the forthcoming “Kauai Stories 2,” which will include Uncle Charlie’s story in more detail.