Story: Waka ama – outrigger canoeing

Waka ama (outrigger canoes) have been used in the Pacific Islands for centuries. Interest in waka ama and racing was reignited in New Zealand in the 1980s.

Story by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr
Main image: Whaingaroa Hoe tournament, Raglan Harbour, 2012

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Waka ama is the New Zealand term for the sport of outrigger canoeing.

Traditional waka ama

Waka ama have been used in the Pacific Islands for centuries, but were rare in New Zealand by the time Europeans arrived. 18th-century British explorers saw some double-hulled canoes, but few outrigger canoes. There were many large trees in New Zealand, so Māori were able to build wide, stable canoes that did not need an outrigger.

Outriggers (ama) are used to stabilise canoes that are deeper than they are wide. The ama is lashed to two crossbeams, which are lashed to the hull. The ama is usually on the left side of the hull.

Waka ama today

Waka ama are widely used in the Pacific for fishing, carrying goods, travel and racing. Waka racing is a popular sport in Hawaii and French Polynesia.

In New Zealand there was a resurgence of interest in waka ama in the late 1980s, after the double-hulled canoe Hawaikinui was built and sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand. Clubs were set up around the country, and in 1987 a national body was formed. National championships have been held annually since 1989. Since 1990 New Zealand has sent teams to the World Va’a (waka) Championships every two years. New Zealand teams have become world champions in some divisions.

In 2012 the national body, Waka Ama NZ, represented over 1,000 members in 43 clubs.

Most waka ama today are built out of composite materials such as fibreglass. Designers try to make them faster and more responsive. Waka ama clubs often emphasise Māori language and customs associated with waka building and paddling. Waka ama are mostly used for racing, but some people also use them for fishing, or just for fun.

How to cite this page:

Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, 'Waka ama – outrigger canoeing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, published 5 September 2013