The Wayback Machine -
Canoes of the Kiribati Islands

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Presented by a Kiribati person (I-Kiribati)
Dame Jane Resture, Ph.D.

The love of his canoe still amounts to a passion with the Gilbert Islander (I-Kiribati). It ranks second only to the feeling he has for his paternal land. How highly a canoe was prized in the old days may be estimated by the single fact that it might sometimes be accepted as a forfeit in full settlement of a blood-feud. On the island of Abaiang there is an historic case on record, in which the timely gift of one of these craft prevented a sanguinary war; and again, on that atoll, it was a practice of the chieftains to give liberty and land to slaves who were expert in building and handling their racing craft. For the shipwright's and the yachtsman's arts were gifts of the gods, entitling a man to freedom and a competence.

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No doubt a great deal of this prestige that the canoe enjoyed emanated from its vital usefulness to people who wrung a good half of their living from the sea. But there was more in it than that. The canoe-emotion was, psychologically speaking, a complex whose components were not all utilitarian. The Gilbertese bosom fostered, and still fosters, a genuine love of canoes for their own sake - for their slim strength, their sweetness in handling, their lean and raking lines, and for the superb sport they afford a man. An old man could be seen to sit for hours beside his craft - not a particularly fine one, but his own - watching it with the eye of a lover, and drinking in every point of beauty that is showed. With exactly the same expression in the eyes, a young man can be seen gazing at his newly-acquired car. This love of swift things, that have moods, that require deft handling, that seem to know a master-touch, is one of the most widely-shared emotions of the human race.

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A Gilbertese canoe-man chooses a name for his boat with loving care; were it a son he could not show more solicitude. He walks alone on the beach, he abstains from women, he eats neither fish nor any cooked food while his mind is bent upon the christening. No fear of an unlucky naming, no dread of unpropitious magic, impels him to such care and abnegation; he is simply governed by the desire of the mot juste, the well-found epithet, the name which will cap and consummate the work of his hand. And he generally finds it. Gilbertese canoe names abound in aptness, in grace, and in real poetic feeling; they have the authentic ring. "Movement-of-clouds", "Tongue-of-lightning", "Wing of dragon fly", "Dawn red", "Frigate bird", "Light", "Seen-and-gone-again", "Child-of-the-Tide-race", --these names are psychologically interesting, in that they show a deliberate aesthetic sense in the islander, who consciously attempts to express the airy race of his craft in epigrammatic fashion.  

As the voyaging canoes of the Polynesians followed the curve of the Micronesian archipelago down to Tonga, Samoa and eastward from there, it was the same: the wind was always in their faces -- seldom too strong and never too cold, but always against them day and night. It ruled their lives, their way of living and their attitude to life; it helped to develop a racial character; above all it governed the type and capabilities of the boats they had to build. For these were crafts such as had never been seen before, with fore-and-aft sails and hull forms that would travel fast across the wind; and they appeared in Oceania long before anyone else had thought of such a need.


The first thing that had to be done was to find a place where the canoe should be built. On an island whose whole surface may consist of level sand this would not seem difficult, but for the master builder it is not so simple. First, it must be mauri (blessed or lucky) and secondly it must be quite near his sleeping quarters, so that no stranger might creep by night to pry into the methods of construction secret to his family. In the old days, the craftsman would have lived and slept by his work to guard against such trespassers.

The ground having been nicely levelled, a rough thatch of coconut leaves, a dozen yards long by four wide, was raised in the midst, its eaves stood some four feet high. This roof was the shield of work and workers from the elements, while a screen of coconut leaves under the eaves prevented prying eyes. Construction was undertaken by three or four trusted men under the supervision of the master canoe builder - normally an older respected craftsman

Then they went out to collect timber for the craft. Under the old man's instructions, these were the woods they sought: For keel and stems, te itai (Calophyllum inophyllum) or te kanawa (Cordia subcordata), for the ribs, te uri (sp. fragraea) or te buka (Hernandia peltata). For planks, preferably uri, but any of the other woods mentioned was allowed as a substitute. For outrigger booms, only the hardest seasoned coconut timber is ever used by craftsmen. One old man owned three pieces in a half-dressed condition, which his long deceased father had slung to the roof of his dwelling, and these had been preserved against rot by occasional rubbings with coconut oil. They were as hard as steel and very stiff. He produced them with a sedate chuckle, remarking 'Kai, e na botoa rama-u iai' (lit. 'Ah, it will ride-buoyantly my-outrigger-float to-this').

The timber for the various parts often took four men a couple of weeks to cut and bring home, but a good deal of this time was spent in half-dressing the heavier pieces where they lay felled, for ease of transport. To complete the task an enormous amount of material was accumulated. For every plank had to be shaped using an adze and in the old days this would have been an adze made from Tridacna shell honed to a fine edge with pumice stone.

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An adze and a wood rasp, made from the
cured hide of a stingray mounted on wooden handles.

Working moderately hard for about eight hours a day, the four able-bodied workers dubbed out fifteen planks of about 12 ft. x 8 in. x 1 in. in one month with metal adzes. These were then laid aside to season, while the keel and stems were made.


For the keel a beautiful straight piece of calophyllum timber 18 ft. long was chosen. A side was roughly flattened and two parallel lines about 5 in. apart drawn along the surface; these lines were made by soaking two lengths of sinnet in a mixture of soot and water, stretching them at the required distance apart along the timber, and pressing them hard enough to imprint their stain on the white surface. The marks thus made were taken as guides and the timber shaped into what might have been taken for a 3 x 4 in. rafter. This, again, was very elegantly trimmed to a triangular shape, its cross-section being in isosceles triangle on a base of 3 in. (Fig. 1(a)).

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Figure 1

(a) Section of keel in preparation.
(b) Section of finished keel.          
x = bilge groove
yy = bevels for accommodation edges of garboard strakes
zz = holes pierced to take sinnet lashings for securing garboard strakes.

A groove 2 in. wide and 3/4 in. deep was then chipped along the middle of the 3 in. surface from end to end of the timber. This was to be the bilge of the canoe; its containing edges, which were destined to take the garboard strakes, were bevelled away outwards at an angle of about 23 degrees. Figure 1(b) is a cross-section of the finished keel.

The stems were next dealt with. Two knees of calophyllum approximately the same in curvature had been chosen for these parts. They were first roughly trimmed down to a triangular section, so that they looked more or less like sharply-curved knife blades with cutting edges outward; during this process they were constantly laid one on the other to compare their general contours, until at last they were very well matched in shape. At this stage they were a good deal thicker than the finished keel. They were then taken individually by the master builder himself, and with infinite care were brought to the shape portrayed in the following figure (Fig. 2). The only tools used were an adze and a wood rasp, made from the cured hide of a stingray mounted on wooden handles.


The finished stem is shaped as below:

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Figure 2

In the finished stem shown above X is the end of the stem that joins on to the keel. a is a continuation of the bilge groove of the keel, and b is a continuation of the bevel of the keel. The holes for the sinnet lashings are designated c, c, c. There is a tongue of solid timber running between the bevels on either side of the stem and this is designated d, d. This tongue forms a very solid backing for the garboard strakes and is pierced with holes in pairs as shown from side to side. The planks of the hole are correspondingly pierced, and lashed in place with sinnet.

Interestingly, the measurements used in all this work were taken from parts of the human body - a common practice among Pacific races. For consistency sake they were taken from the body of a single man - normally a grey-beard whose title, te tia-baire (the measurer) indicated his functions.


There is one very important fact that needs to be noted when building a Kiribati canoe. The keel has to be bent obliquely so that its middle point is off centre with the centre line of the keel. This lateral bend is one of the most important points in traditional Kiribati canoe building for it essentially concerns the navigability of the finished craft. The keel is set using the simple frame shown in Figure 3 below.

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Figure 3 - Setting the Keel.

a = Keel
bb = Chairs with V-shaped nicks, in which the keel sits.
c = Pin used to be pressed the middle of the keel.
The reason why the keel is off centre is that it offsets the tendency for the float to exert a retarding pull on one side and in doing so, tends to drag the craft around in a circle. The offset of the keel in the direction of the float tends to move the canoe in the opposite direction neutralising the pull of the float and allowing the canoe to travel directly forward. This is illustrated in Figure 4 below.

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Figure 4 - Counterbalancing forces.

By the standards of the Kiribati canoe builder, a well-built canoe should travel perfectly straight when given a push with its float awash; if it does this, it will answer to the lightest touch of the steering oar when the outrigger and float lift to a full sail.


The stem is now fitted in accordance to Figure 4 below. The stem is made fast to the keel by two lashings of three-ply sinnet through holes in both the stem and the keel. Caulking was often used at the joint in the form of sun dried pandanus leaf, which was first chewed until quite soft and then steeped in coconut oil.

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Figure 5 - Setting the stem.

a = Stool of keel
b = Crossbar supporting stem where it joins the keel.
c = Stake holding the stem in a vertical position.
d = End-to-end joint of keel and stem secured by sinnet lashings.

At this point in time Figure 6 below illustrates the appearance of the keel and stems when fully set up. The stretch string is allowed to remain as a guide to the gunwale line of the craft.

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Figure 6 - Skeleton of the keel and stems.

a = Central pin holding keel in position.
bb = Chairs supporting the ends of the keel.
cc = Stools supporting stems at junction with the keel.
ee = String stretched from tip to tip, to gauge relative heights and represent gunwale line.


The hull was now to be built up on the keel and stems. The rule followed was precisely contrary to the methods of European ship building in that the planks were done first followed by the ribs. Figure 7 below shows how the paint of the hull are inserted starting at the centre of the keel. To secure the strakes to the centre of the keel, they were pierced along their lower edges at intervals of about a foot and lashed with sennet to the bevels shown in Figure 1.

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Figure 7 - Constructing the hull.

a = Section of keel.
b = Pin holding of centre of keel to ground.
cc = Garboard strakes in position.
d = crosspiece acting as a stop to regulate the splay of the strakes.

The second and third planks laid were those on either side of the middle according to Figure 8 below.

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Figure 8 - Hull in process of construction.


At this stage the cheeks of the canoe are quite flexible, consisting of patches of wood sewn together on stems and keel. Before the ribs were put in, it was necessary to give the hull something like its final shape. This was done, under the supervision of the old man by pushing out the cheeks where necessary and wedging them into position by short cross pieces inside the hull. The ribs were then shaped and placed in position at intervals of about 20 inches along each side, being secured by lashing through the planks of the hull.

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Figure 9 - Installing the ribs.


Figure 10 below shows the curvature of the outrigger upwards from the float.

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Figure 10 - Curvature of the Outrigger.

Connection of the outrigger to the hull is indicated below.

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Figure 11 - Connecting the Hull to the Outrigger.

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Figure 12 - Attachment of float to the Outrigger. (Lashings omitted.)

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Figure 13 - Method of securing outrigger attachment to the float. The arrows indicate lashing.

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Figure 14 - General appearance of a paddling canoe with certain details omitted.


In order for the canoe to be sailed, several other parts now needed to be added. These comprise purchases, at either end for the steering oar; steps, at either end, for the gaff or sprit of the three-cornered sail.

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Figure 15 - Purchases for the steering oar comprising Y-shape prongs of timber lashed about 20 inches down from either stern.

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Figure 16 - Position of mast-step over outrigger booms up against windward gunwale.

aa = Mast-step.
bb = Outrigger booms.

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Figure 17 - The steps for the sail, at either end of the hull, comprise thick pencils of wood lashed across the bows.

The alternative arrangement where the step protrudes beyond the bow is shown in Figure 18 below.

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Figure 18

The hull is now finished and all that remains is to make the spars and sail. Figure 19 below shows how these were set, but the size of the sail indicated would be considered so small as to only be suitable for fishing. The proportions observed by the sail-maker in fitting out a canoe for racing are as follows:

a. The boom should be one fathom longer than the hull;
b. The sprit should be equal in length with the hull;
c. The mast should be equal to 3/4 of the length of the hull.

Figure 19 - side elevation of hull and spars.

a = notched or pronged end of sprit about to sit on step,
b = tapered end of mast about to sit in after step,
c = peak halyard for racing sail, served through a hole pierced in mast.

The ideal sail is therefore an isosceles triangle, or, rather, would be such, were it not for the outward curve that is given to its edges in the cutting.

In the old days, the sail had to be made of native material, which consisted of pandanus leaves. The leaf was first bleached by alternatively soaking it in sea water and drying it in the sun for about a week. It was then pounded with heavy pestles against a smooth convex wooden surface, until it became soft and flexible. In this condition, its outer surfaces were easily peeled away from each other. These were scraped and trimmed into strips some thirty inches long by three inches wide which was sewn together to form a sail. The thread for sewing was made from the fibrous portion of the pandanus root. The sails were beautifully light, and very durable if kept well rubbed with coconut oil which of course meant that they dried out very quickly should the canoe capsized.

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Figure 20 - Bracing the Mast.

a = Prong sticks bracing mast.
b = One of the pair of stays from outrigger to masthead.
c = Auxiliary stay sometimes used.

The accessory provided with the canoe were two paddles, a steering-oar, an anchor and a bailer.

Figure 21 - Canoe accessories.

To preserve the timber of the canoe, she was given several coats of boiled coconut oil, which was well rubbed in. The actual launching was a matter of some anxiety for the old man, as the canoe was intended for fishing and it was necessary to keep its maiden trip secret from the fish. According to Gilbertese belief, the fish have an agent ashore who spies on the movement of the fisherman and warns his friends whenever a canoe is carried to the water's edge for launching. But if the vessel is launched at night when the agent is asleep, and then left moored a little offshore, the fish will get no warning.

The canoe was therefore not launched until the night had fallen. When the time approached the old man would mutter the final spell by which the canoe would be prepared for its busy career. He would break into the following incantation, his voice scarcely rising above a whisper.

Aikou-a-a-i-o mangarai, mangarai,
Ngkoe ane Na Bakoa nako-iu!
Wa-u n akawa aio-e-e-ie!
Ko taraia, ao ko noria-e-o!
Ko taraia, ao ko noria.
E koro i nano-ni bareaka-na,
Ko taraia, ao ko noria.
Do not interfere, interfere,
Thou, Sir Shark, with me!
My canoe for fishing this!
Thou watchest it, and thou seest it.
Thou watchest it, and thou seest it.
It is ashore inside its shed,
Thou watchest it, and thou seest it.

When this was said three times, the old man took three green coconuts and placed them in the hull, one at either end and one in the middle. These were to remain aboard all night, to provide food for any predatory spirit, who, if left hungry might eat the strength out of the canoe. Then, out of the darkness of the shed and under the glimmering stars, the vessel was carried very silently to the water's edge. She was put down in the shallows just offshore and left anchored there until the morning.

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Launching the canoe.


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Some of the original illustrations on this Web site have been done by Mrs. R. Seligman.

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