Story: Waka – canoes

Page 7. Waka equipment

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Paddling was the most common method of propelling canoes. The paddle was known as the hoe, or hīrau. Longer paddles were known as hoe whakatere, hoe whakahaere or urungi. They were usually made of kahikatea wood, although mataī could also be suitably light and strong. Tuta Nihoniho, of the Ngāti Porou tribe, noted that paddles could also be made of mānuka, maire, the heart of pukatea, and tawa.

The steering oars were straight, but on properly formed paddles the blade was set at a slight angle. The side of the blade used for pushing against the water was flat, while the other was rounded. The handle was straight, though in the Waikato district curved handles were used. Generally paddles were unadorned, but occasionally they were painted with scrolled kōwhaiwhai patterns. Paddles for purely ceremonial uses were usually carved.

On coastal trips one man would usually steer. However, on voyages in the open ocean there could be up to four – two at the stern, and two near the bow.


Triangular rā (sails) were sometimes used. They were usually made of the light raupō leaf, but could also be of flax or supplejack. Sails were often attached to a main mast with a sprit by which they could be extended or retracted. Another type, rā kaupaparu, was held on a short mast with two booms. It is not clear whether this was an indigenous or introduced form. Ordinarily one sail was used, but a large canoe could take two, or even three.

Poling or punting

On rivers, canoes were often propelled upstream by a toko (pole). Poling was difficult work – hence the saying, ‘He waka tuku ki tai, tūruru ana ngā tāngata o runga; he waka toko, tau ana te kohakoha.’ (When the canoe drifts downstream, the people on board crouch; with a poled canoe, expect exertion.)


Anchors were known as punga. The main anchor at the stern was the punga whakawhenua, while the smaller anchor at the bow was the punga kārewa, lowered to steady a vessel when the sea was rough. A lighter stone known as a punga terewai, although not strictly speaking an anchor, was used in sounding, and determining the currents.

Stones were made into anchors by various methods. Sometimes a rope was run through a hole in the stone, or wrapped around the stone where the middle was narrower than the ends. A stone might be enmeshed in flax or vines, or one or more stones were put into a basket. A long, thin stone could be tied to two sticks lashed in the form of a cross.


In waka with a floor or deck, places for bailing were set aside and known as puna wai or tāinga ā wai. Generally a person would be assigned to each bailing well when needed, and sometimes two people would bail from the same well. Bailers were made from a variety of woods, and were often carved. They were known as tatā, tīheru and tā wai.

How to cite this page:

Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, 'Waka – canoes - Waka equipment', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, published 12 Jun 2006