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Canoe navigation

by  Rāwiri Taonui

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.

Waka – canoes

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.

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

Ocean voyaging

Preparing to sail

The most manageable long-distance canoes were about 20 metres long, with a crew of between five and 15. Food carried on board might include bananas, taro, kūmara (sweet potato), chickens, pigs, fish, breadfruit, yams and gourds. Coconuts served as both food and drink. Water was stored in gourds, and voyagers also caught rainwater in the sails. West Polynesian traditions speak of thirsty voyagers draining the blood of large fish into coconut shells. This may have been especially tasty.

Voyage routes were preserved in memory or recorded in song. They were mapped using notable landscape features such as mountains, outcrops of rock and prominent trees, lined up with known star paths. The term for this method of navigation is back-sighting. Navigators would set sail at dusk, lining up their canoe with prominent landmarks behind them, and follow the relevant star path as the sun set.

Navigation at sea

The principles of traditional Polynesian navigation were simple, but its practice was refined over generations of experience. The greatest skill of the old navigators was their ability to read the night sky. The rising and setting points of the brightest and most distinctive stars and planets were gauged with the help of sophisticated star compasses, and then memorised. Compasses were also used to chart the winds.

Navigators steered their canoes toward a star on the horizon. When that star rose too high in the sky or set beneath the horizon, another would be chosen, and so on through the night. Seven to 12 stars were sufficient for one night's navigation, and the moon and bright planets such as Kōpō (Venus) and Pareārau (Jupiter) were also useful. At daybreak, navigators noted the position of the canoe in relation to the rising sun. As the sun got higher in the sky, they looked to where it would set in the evening.

When skies were too overcast for navigators to use the sun, the moon, planets or stars, their course could be gauged according to ocean swells. In the Pacific, prevailing north- and south-easterly trade winds pushed up swells that remained constant for long periods. Navigators kept their canoes at the same angle to these swells. Sudden changes in canoe motion indicated that it had changed course. To avoid veering off course, a rope was trailed behind the canoe – if a wave suddenly jarred the vessel, the rope remained true to the original line of travel. Some navigators also lined up their canoe with wind direction, using pennants tied to the mast and rigging as guides.

Locating land


The pathways of migratory birds may have helped in the discovery of new lands. There were certainly people who were familiar with patterns of bird migration. For example, the direction of the West Polynesian pigeon’s annual migration was followed by navigators between Tonga and Samoa. Ancestors of the Māori may have speculated that there was land in the south-west Pacific, as the long-tailed cuckoo and shining cuckoo fly south from the islands of Polynesia and Melanesia respectively every spring and return in autumn.

Land is signalled by the birds that fly out to sea at sunrise to fish, then return to their nests at sunset. Frigate birds fly up to 100 km from land, gannets and petrels 70 km, and terns up to 50 km.


At the beginning of each winter the humpback and other whale species travel in multiple family groups, or pods, as they migrate north from Antarctica to the Pacific. Some pass along the west coast of New Zealand into the waters of Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Some travel along both sides of the country toward Tonga and Samoa, while others pass the east coast to Rarotonga and Tahiti. In November and December, the whales return south to Antarctica.

Māori ancestors may have believed that by following whales they would be led to land, as whales typically calve in the calmer waters off atolls, islands or larger land masses. Because they are slow, whales would have been easy to follow. Their rate of travel, three to five knots, is well within the cruising speed of a double-hulled canoe. According to Māori oral traditions, whales guided canoes to New Zealand, and the ancestor Paikea is even said to have arrived on one.

The season when whales migrate south coincides with the appearance of the stars and planets most useful for navigating to New Zealand – the setting sun, Kōpū (Venus), Te Waka o Tamarereti (Scorpio) and Māhutonga (the Southern Cross).


Zenith stars that at their highest point shine directly over known islands were useful for locating land. They were used by Tongan, Tahitian and Tikopian navigators. Arcturus is the zenith star for Hawaii, and Sirius for both Ra‘iatea in Tahiti and Vanua Levu in Fiji. Navigators positioned their canoes immediately beneath their target star, knowing that this would place them within 80 km of the destination island.

Measuring the height of meridian stars (stars on the same longitude) above the horizon using fingers and hands was a useful method for finding land. Polynesian sailors may have been guided by meridian stars such as the Southern Cross. For instance, viewed from Hawaii the bottom of the upright Southern Cross is four fingers above the horizon; sailing south it increases to one full hand span at the equator, and two hand spans approaching the latitude of Tahiti.


The shape, movement and colour of clouds were important indicators of land. Convection clouds build up during the day over large islands, becoming higher, thicker, darker and slower moving than clouds over the sea. Cloud over high islands such as Tahiti and Hawaii can be seen over 150 km away. The small, characteristically eyebrow-shaped clouds that form over small atolls can be seen up to 50 kilometres away. A reef is indicated by pinkish cloud, while the cloud base over forested islands is dark or green. When a cloud is unusually bright, sunlight is being reflected off atoll lagoons onto the cloud base.

Land swell

Experienced navigators used distinctive land-swell patterns, which form when sea swells strike land, to determine the location of land long before it was visible. Land-swell patterns have two distinctive forms. In one, waves take shape when the prevailing swell strikes an island and bounces back on itself. Bounce-back waves can be detected 50 km away from small islands, and up to 300 km away from land masses the size of New Zealand. In the other land-swell form, patterns are created when a swell divides and curls around an island. Navigators can detect the confused wave pattern or shadow of turbulence at some distance.


The sea itself provided useful markers for navigation. Changes in colour, the presence of certain fish species, ocean currents, the ‘scent of land' and the appearance of whirlpools were all important signs. Debris such as driftwood and leaves suggested nearby land, and floating rubbish signalled that a settlement was close.

Decline and renaissance of canoe voyaging


Knowledge and practice of traditional methods of navigation declined after Europeans colonised the Pacific. Canoes were replaced by European ships, and some colonial governments introduced regulations restricting free movement between different administrative territories.

The decline was so dramatic that theorists about canoe voyaging began to deny that Pacific journeys were possible. Andrew Sharp, in his book Ancient voyagers in the Pacific (1957), suggested that because Polynesian craft were vulnerable to swamping and breaking up, ancestors could not have voyaged for distances greater than 480 km. Partly to test such theories, replica canoes were built and sailed.

Renaissance: the Hōkūle‘a

The Polynesian Voyaging Society of Hawaii built the Hōkūle‘a, a 20-metre double-hulled canoe, from fibreglass and plywood. In 1976 it completed a return voyage to Tahiti under the guidance of Mau Piailug, a traditional navigator from Satawal in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. A second return voyage to Tahiti was made in 1980. These voyages proved that navigation without modern instruments was possible.

Piailug's teaching emphasised the spirit it took to be a navigator:

I have no fear when I am at sea because I have faith in the words of the ancestors. This faith is what we call courage. With this courage you can travel anywhere in the world and not get lost. Because I have faith in the words of my ancestors, I am a navigator. I learned these words when I was a young boy in my father's canoe. 1

Piailug instructed a young Hawaiian, Nainoa Thompson. In turn, Thompson taught a new generation of young navigators from Tahiti, the Marquesas, Rarotonga and New Zealand. In 1985 Thompson launched a two-year voyage of rediscovery, sailing the Hōkūle‘a from Hawaii, around the Pacific islands and New Zealand, and home again. Traditional vessels were proven not to be inferior to modern yachts when the European boat that escorted the Hōkūle‘a on its voyage broke down and had to be escorted to Rarotonga for repairs.

In 1999 and 2000, the Hōkūle‘a sailed from Hawaii to Easter Island and back, one of the longest and most difficult pathways travelled by the Polynesian ancestors. Six women crewed on the return leg to Hawaii; one, Pi‘ikea Miller, became the first woman navigator of the modern period.

    • Interview with Mau Piailug, 1972. › Back

Recent voyaging

Te Aurere

The Hōkūle‘a was the first replica canoe of many. Its voyages inspired Hekenukumai (Hector) Busby from Northland, New Zealand, to build Te Aurere, which made a dramatic voyage to Rarotonga early in the voyaging season in 1992. Navigated by Mau Piailug, Te Aurere was battered by storms for days on end. The New Zealand Meteorological Service advised the crew to sail in a certain direction, but Piailug, relying on his traditional skills, suggested another. Te Aurere followed the advice of the meteorologists and ran into an even worse storm. A few days later, when the same thing happened, the crew decided to follow Piailug’s advice. They sailed into calmer weather.

In 1995 Te Aurere sailed from the Marquesas Islands to Hawaii with several other modern canoes, including Tākitimu and Te Au-o-Tonga from Rarotonga, and Hōkūle‘a and Hawai‘iloa from Hawaii. On the return trip, Te Aurere sailed non-stop for 30 days from Hawaii to Rarotonga, then on to New Zealand.

Te Au-o-tonga

As well as sailing alongside Te Aurere, Te Au-o-tonga made trans-Pacific journeys of its own, proving it was possible to sail from West Polynesia to New Zealand, as Māori ancestors may have done. Thomas Davis built Te Au-o-tonga in Rarotonga and sailed it to Samoa. When easterly trade winds proved too strong for a direct return to Rarotonga, Davis sailed south to New Zealand before cutting north-east to Rarotonga.


Many replica canoes have been criticised for not being entirely traditional. Hōkūle‘a was made from modern materials, Te Au-o-Tonga and Te Aurere had outboard motors, and most carry radios and satellite navigation instruments. However, Hawaiki-nui is relatively authentic. It was carved by Mātahi Avauli Whakataka-Brightwell in the early 1980s, with the hulls hewn from tōtara and lashed together with sennit rope made from coconut fibre. Bamboo masts supported sails woven from pandanus leaves. The only modern equipment was a radio. In 1985 Whakataka-Brightwell and the Tahitian navigator Francis Cowan sailed Hawaiki-nui from Tahiti to Rarotonga, then on to New Zealand, steering through several storms.

Whakataka-Brightwell has summed up the spirit of the renaissance:

I would sit beside Hawaikinui, next to my father’s tipuna photograph … my mind, my spirit embraced in the beauty of our canoe – the hull adze cuts, the family-tree sculpture, the scent of the wood, the fibre rope lashings. I searched the Maori horizon for a solution to ancestral landlessness, the lack of culture and language, the poor health and unemployment of my tribe. 1

Tuia 250 Voyage

In late 2019, three replica voyaging canoes took part in the Tuia 250 Voyage to 14 sites of historic and cultural significance around Aotearoa New Zealand. They were the va’a tipaerua Fa’aifaite from Tahiti, and the waka hourua Haunui and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti. These vessels were accompanied by three European tall ships, including the HMB Endeavour replica from Australia.

    • Quoted in Anne Nelson, Maori canoes, Nga waka Maori. Auckland: Macmillan, 1991, p. 15. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe navigation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 February 2005