Story: Canoe navigation

Thousands of years ago, the ancestors of Māori journeyed out of South-East Asia and into the Pacific. They sailed in waka (canoes), and were some of the world's greatest canoe builders, navigators and mariners.

Story by Rāwiri Taonui
Main image: Canoes Te Au-o-Tonga (left) and Te Aurere off the East Coast, 2000

Story summary

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Waka – canoes

The earliest sailing vessels of Polynesian ancestors were rafts and dugout canoes. They were used on short voyages, but because dugouts capsized easily, and rafts were prone to swamping, they were not suitable for long distances. Eventually, an outrigger (a second hull) was fixed to the side. This made canoes faster and more stable. With these changes people could sail across long stretches of open sea. Sails and steering paddles were added for greater speed and control.

Polynesian double-hulled canoes or twin-hulled canoes were similar to outrigger canoes. They were fast and easy to manoeuvre, and could sail in rougher waters. They ranged in length from 20 metres for long trips up to 36 metres for shorter journeys. For comparison, Lieutenant James Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, was 33 metres long.

Ocean voyaging

To prepare for the voyage, sailors stocked canoes with food and water. People memorised the routes, or recorded them in songs. Directions were taken from the landscape in relation to the paths of stars. Navigators used the rising and setting points of stars and planets as signposts. During the day, the sun was a guide, and in overcast weather, ocean swells and wind direction were used to chart the way.

Locating land

Voyagers knew land was ahead before they could see it. Migrating birds may have helped show the way to new lands, and fishing birds such as gannets, terns and petrels were a sign that land was not far away. Pods of whales may also have guided canoes to New Zealand – the ancestor Paikea is said to have arrived on a whale.

Navigators could also find land by reading the position of stars, the colour and formation of clouds, and the pattern of waves.

Decline and revival of canoe voyaging

After Europeans colonised the Pacific, knowledge of traditional navigation methods was lost. Canoes were replaced by ships. Eventually, some people came to believe that long-distance Pacific voyages were impossible.

Partly as a response to this, replica canoes were built and sailed. The Hōkūle‘a was one of the first of these. In 1976 it completed a voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back.

Recent voyaging

The success of the Hōkūle‘a inspired others to recreate ancient canoes and journeys. The Hawaiki-nui, perhaps the most authentic of these modern craft, sailed unharmed through dramatic storms.

In 2019, three replica voyaging canoes took part in the Tuia 250 Voyage to sites of historic and cultural significance around Aotearoa New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe navigation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 February 2005