Story: Waka ama – outrigger canoeing

Page 1. Traditional waka ama

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Waka ama is the New Zealand term for the sport of outrigger canoeing. The name distinguishes an outrigger canoe from other types of waka (canoes).

Why an outrigger is needed

Most Māori waka, such as waka taua (war canoes), waka tīwai (river canoes) and waka tētē (sea-fishing canoes), have a single hull, carved from a tree trunk broad enough that the beam (width) of the waka is greater than the depth of the hull. The beam of a waka ama hull is narrower than its depth, and requires an outrigger float to prevent capsizing. This is called an ama or amatiatia, and is lashed to two crossbeams, known as kīato, which are lashed in turn to the hull. The ama is usually attached to the left-hand side of the hull.

Early waka ama

Waka ama have been widely used in the smaller islands of the Pacific for centuries, but had become very rare in New Zealand by the time the first European explorers arrived. Although there were occasional sightings of waka hourua (double-hulled canoes), used for fishing and as work platforms, waka ama were seldom noted.

When British explorer James Cook was passing Māhia on the North Island’s east coast on his first voyage to the Pacific in 1769, his ship was approached by a number of canoes. The artist Sydney Parkinson noted, ‘Several of the canoes had outriggers; and one of them had a very curious piece of ornamental carving at the head of it.’1 On Cook’s second voyage, in 1773, more canoes were seen at Queen Charlotte Sound. Georg Forster recorded that some ‘had an outrigger, or narrow piece of plank, fixed parallel to one side of the canoe by means of transverse poles, to prevent their oversetting.’2 However, both men noted that outrigger canoes were relatively rare even at the time, and later observers such as missionaries did not mention them at all.

Ancient waka ama

Physical evidence of waka ama in New Zealand is limited to a single, very old, canoe dug out of swampy ground on the Taieri plains, Otago, about 1895. Its hull shape is unlike any other known Māori canoe, and it appears to have been made with stone tools. The only known example of an ama (outrigger) was found at Moncks Cave, near Sumner, in the late 19th century.

The absence of waka ama may be due to the many large trees in New Zealand compared with other Pacific islands. Unlike their Polynesian forebears, Māori waka builders were able to build hulls that were wide and stable, and did not need ama to help keep them upright.

  1. Sydney Parkinson, A journal of a voyage to the South Seas. London: Caliban Books, 1984, p. 91 (originally published 1773). Back
  2. Georg Forster, A voyage around the world. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1986, p. 136 (originally published 1777). Back
How to cite this page:

Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, 'Waka ama – outrigger canoeing - Traditional waka ama', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, published 5 Sep 2013