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Oceania Voyaging Canoes

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The voyaging canoes of Oceania were generally double canoes in Polynesia and canoes with an outrigger on one side in Micronesia. The preferred size of vessels for deep sea voyaging seems to have been in the 50 to 75 foot range. This was because they tended to be least liable to have accidents in stormy weather.

These vessels whether Micronesian or Polynesian were not made from hollowed-out tree trunks. They were essentially planked vessels, with broad strakes fastened to each other and to ribs and keel by stitching or lashing with coconut fibre. The keel was generally adzed out from solid log and was composed of several sections fastened together. A vee-shaped cross-section was the norm in all the plank built types, except in Fiji, where the round-bilged Melanesian hull form was apparently retained when numerous Micronesian features were adopted.

A Fijian ndrua, from Williams, 1858

The following are the main types of ocean-going canoes:

1. Pahi. This was the ocean-going vessel of the Tahitian and Tuamotuan archipelago. It was twin-hulled two-mastered sailing vessel some 50-70 feet long.

A Tahitian pahi

2. Tongiaki. This classical type of Tongan double canoe was analogous to contemporary craft in Samoa and Rotuma. Like the pahi, it has hulls of equal length. It was similar in cross-section though different in profile and carried a sizeable platform.

The cross-section of a Tongan tongiaki

3. Ndrua. The Fijian double canoe was considerably different in that it had hulls of different length, the smaller of which functions rather like an outrigger. It was an adaptation of a Micronesian design and was much more manoeuvrable than the tongiaki and replaced the older twin-hulled canoes in western Polynesian about 200 years ago.

The great functional division of the sailing canoes of Oceania is between those that come about by tacking in the European manner and those that alter direction by changing ends. Tacking canoes have distinctive and permanent bows and sterns like western craft. All Micronesian canoes had identical ends and as such the bow and stern are interchangeable and they can sail either end foremost. The outrigger float is always kept to windward, where it acts largely as a balance weight. In order to go onto the opposite tack, the mast is raked towards the new bow, the sail is swung round behind the mast and the steering paddle moved to what will become the stern. When this happens, the canoe moves in a nearly reciprocal direction.

Voyaging canoes, albeit, only 25-27 feet long are still evident in Oceania. In the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) voyaging canoes (baurua) are still made in the traditional manner and are of local material. In most places, however, traditional sailing vessels are being rapidly eclipsed and have mostly vanished into memory.

A Gilbertese (Kiribati) 100-foot baurua
photographed under construction in 1939

The last Fijian ndrua was built in 1943 on the island of Ongea and was intended to carry copra. It was 48 feet long and its deck, which supported a small hut, measured 25' 6" x 12' 6". The sail was pandanus and the rigging made from plaited wild hibiscus bark. Today, however, even this vessel has disintegrated as completely as did the last voyaging pahi on the foreshores of Tahiti 150 years ago.

Art of the Navigators
The Navigators of Oceania
Polynesian Voyaging
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(E-mail: -- Rev. 18th March 2004)