Story: Canoe navigation

Page 1. Waka – canoes

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Ancestral seafarers

Waka is the Māori word for canoe. The ancestors of Māori were among the greatest of canoe builders, navigators and mariners. Over the course of several thousand years, long before they came to New Zealand, Māori ancestors swept out of South-East Asia and Oceania into Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

Early sea craft

The earliest crossings were probably made on rafts and dugout canoes. Travel was limited to neighbouring islands that were within clear sight of one another. Rafts could carry several people and heavy loads, but were slow. Dugout canoes were faster, but could carry only a few people. Both were unsuited to longer crossings – high seas washed people off rafts, and dugouts were prone to capsizing.

Outrigger canoes

Over time, an outrigger (a secondary hull fixed parallel to the canoe) was added to increase stability. Decks gave stability between the hull and the outrigger. Sails were also added for greater speed, and steering paddles controlled direction.

The Micronesian baurua and proa were the most sophisticated outrigger canoes. They were always sailed with the outrigger facing the oncoming wind, so that it did not drag and slow the vessel. Hulls had a distinctive asymmetric shape. The outside of the hull was flat, which stopped the wind pushing the canoe sideways; the inside was rounded to keep the water flowing between the hull and the outrigger. Carefully counter-balanced decks maintained overall stability.

The stability and speed of these canoes allowed navigators to sail across long stretches of open sea between relatively distant islands. European explorers, including James Cook and Charles Wilkes, observed craft like these moving much faster than their own ships: some were estimated to be travelling at up to 22 knots. In two separate incidents, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in Samoa and Cook in Tonga wrote that outrigger canoes sailed around them, ‘with the same ease as if we had been at anchor’. 1

Polynesian double-hulled canoes

Polynesians developed the double-hulled canoe (sometimes called a twin-hulled canoe or catamaran) to sail in the rougher waters of the open Pacific. Some of these canoes were very large – one Fijian ndrua was 36 metres long (Cook's Endeavour was 33 metres). European explorers and missionaries reported ndrua carrying up to 250 people.

Ndrua had two hulls, one slightly longer than the other. The longer main hull could carry heavy loads; the shorter hull allowed manoeuvrability, functioning in much the same way as an outrigger.

The Tongan adaptation of ndrua was called kalia, and the Samoan equivalent was ‘alia. These vessels were best suited to ferrying large numbers of people between nearby islands.

Double-hulled canoes used over long distances were generally shorter (about 20 metres). Such vessels were capable of travelling between 150 and 250 km a day. Tongans used the tongiaki and Samoans the va‘a-tele, and an outrigger called an amatasi. Tahitians used the pahi and tipairua: on one occasion Cook saw six of these canoes, each 23 metres in length. The Rarotongan double-hull was called vaka-katea. Hawaiian double-hulls were wa‘a-kaulua, usually about 20 metres long; one, probably used for inter-island sailing, measured 33 metres and reputedly carried over 100 people.

Hulls, sails and steering paddles

Canoes could have two main hull shapes: the fast V-shape, and the more manoeuvrable U-shape. All double-hulled canoes sat high in the water to minimise drag, and were therefore capable of great speeds. The record-breaking catamaran yachts of Sir Peter Blake (Steinlager 1) and Grant Dalton (Club Med) were based on Polynesian designs.

Several types of sail were used on traditional craft. Forming a V-shape, sails caught more wind on masts which, made from natural materials, were much shorter than those of modern yachts.

Steering paddles were long, some over 6 metres. Length served two purposes: steering the canoe, and preventing the vessel being pushed sideways by the wind and sea swell. When plunged deep into the water, paddles had much the same function as the keel on a modern yacht.

  1. G. S. Parsonson, ‘The settlement of Oceania.’ In Polynesian navigation, edited by Jack Golson. Wellington: Polynesian Society, 1962, pp. 37–38. › Back
How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe navigation - Waka – canoes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005