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).
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.
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.
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.
Waka ama are widely used in the Pacific for fishing, transporting goods, travel and racing. In Hawaii and French Polynesia, waka racing is a popular competitive sport. Races are held between islands over distances of as much as 70 kilometres. There are also sprint events over distances ranging from 500 to 1,500 metres. In New Zealand, waka ama are predominantly used for competitive racing. Almost all New Zealand waka ama are constructed from composite materials such as fibreglass, as are most of the waka ama raced competitively around the world.
Interest in waka ama was reignited in New Zealand in the late 1980s, after Matahi Brightwell and traditional Polynesian navigator Francis Cowan built the double-hulled sailing canoe Hawaikinui. In 1985 this canoe sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand without modern navigational instruments. During its construction Brightwell became involved with Tahiti’s national sport of waka ama racing. He facilitated the gifting of two six-person waka ama to New Zealand, beginning a wave of popularity for the sport.
The voyage of Hawaikinui inspired US-born Kris Kjeldsen to teach waka-building and -racing to young people in his community of Pawarenga, in the Hokianga. They formed a club, Nga Hoe Horo o Pawarenga, in 1987. Several other waka ama clubs were set up in the mid-1980s: Mareikura in Gisborne (Brightwell’s home town) in 1985, Okahu Bay Canoe Club in Auckland and Mitimitaga o le Pasifika in Whāngārei.
In 1987 a national governing body, Tatou Hoe o Aotearoa, was formed. The following year two New Zealand teams travelled to Hawaii for the World Outrigger Canoe Sprint Championships. More clubs joined and the national association grew. In 1989 the first Waka Ama National Championships were held at Lake Karapiro.
The International Polynesian Canoe Federation (IPCF) granted New Zealand hosting rights to the World Va’a Sprint Championships in 1990. This placed a responsibility on the race organisers to build a fleet of waka ama for the event, to the standard IPCF design. These were the first waka owned by many clubs. Some continued to own and race these 1990 waka in the 21st century, although they had been surpassed in performance and speed by newer designs.
In the 1990s Tatou Hoe o Aotearoa changed its name to Nga Kaihoe o Aotearoa (later Waka Ama NZ). The International Polynesian Canoe Federation (IPCF) also changed its name to the International Va’a Federation, to acknowledge that not all Pacific people who raced va’a (waka) were Polynesian and neither were their va’a. Competition categories were formalised for races between single paddlers and two-, three- and six-person waka.
National waka ama championships have been held annually since 1989. New Zealand has sent representative teams to World Va’a Sprint Championships every two years since 1990 and has been very successful, becoming world champions in a number of divisions. Teams have also travelled to many other races around the world.
In 2012 Waka Ama NZ represented over 1,000 members belonging to 43 local clubs organised into six regional associations. They ranged in age from the ‘midget’ (primary school) category to over 70. Women outnumbered men, especially in the open and masters categories.
Waka builders are constantly trying to make waka ama faster and more responsive. Crews develop new training techniques and racing strategies. There are many traditional rituals, proverbs and Māori-language terms associated with waka building and paddling. As a result, many waka ama clubs emphasise Māori language and customs, and some practitioners have been introduced to Māori culture in this way.
Although racing is the mainstay of waka ama in New Zealand, some people are happy to use their waka ama for fishing or, as in the old days, just for having fun.
Cameron, Garrick. Ki te hoe! Wellington: Te Tāhuhu o te Matauranga e Huia, 2012.
Nelson, Anne. Maori canoes: nga waka Maori. Wellington: IPL Books, 1998.
Waka ama safety rules, your guide. Wellington: Maritime New Zealand, 2011.