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Waka – canoes

by  Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr

New Zealand’s abundance of wide-girthed trees such as tōtara meant that Māori could build much more diverse waka (canoes) than in their Polynesian homeland. They developed a variety of vessels for coastal and inland waterways. Each had its special function, from the grand carved waka taua for war parties, to handy rafts for fishing.

Pacific origins

Traditional importance

The significance of waka (canoes) for Māori has its roots in times past, when voyaging waka forged the links between the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki and New Zealand, the cradle of Māori culture. Māui, a god-like ancestor, travelled by waka into the southern ocean and fished up the North Island, known as Te Ika-ā-Māui (the fish of Māui). His waka became the South Island, Te Waka-ā-Māui (Māui’s canoe). A human ancestor, Kupe, is said to have later discovered New Zealand on a waka voyage. His wife Kuramārōtini is credited with naming it Aotearoa (long white cloud) – the Māori name now used for New Zealand.

Various tribes recall in many stories the subsequent arrival of their ancestors on numerous waka, at landing places which are important sites. Today, Māori trace descent from ancestors on these voyaging waka, and from founding ancestors of iwi and hapū.

Early design and construction

The exact details of the voyaging waka are unknown, but traditional Pacific canoes provide some clues. Their design and construction were determined by the type and availability of resources, and the purpose of the waka. On many islands the trees were small, and construction methods were gradually refined and developed. Over centuries, simple dugout logs evolved into vessels with outrigger floats for stability. Planks of wood were attached to the gunwales (the upper edges along each side) to raise them higher above the waterline, making for greater seaworthiness.

Sails and double hulls

The addition of sails enabled canoes to travel further and faster in the right conditions. Later, two hulls were lashed together to form double-hulled vessels that could carry reasonably large numbers of people and cargo over long ocean corridors.

Double-hulled waka in New Zealand

It is probable that the ancestral voyaging canoes from the Pacific could be sailed as well as rowed, and that they held sufficient food and water for a month or more, as well as accommodating people. Modern-day experiments have shown that sailing from Rarotonga to Aotearoa (New Zealand) could take anything from two to three weeks. Māori ancestral waka were most likely large outrigger canoes or double-hulled vessels.

The double-hulled waka had been observed on Abel Tasman’s voyage to New Zealand in 1642. Sydney Parkinson, an artist on James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769, and the German scientist Johann Reinhold Forster, who sailed with Cook in 1773, described waka fitted with outriggers (ama, amatiatia or kōrewa). However, there is limited information on Māori outrigger canoes.

Although 19th-century ethnographers recorded double-hulled canoes being used as fishing platforms, there is no account of these vessels making long journeys or expeditions. Even in Cook’s time double hulls were scarce in the North Island, although still relatively numerous in the South Island. Double-hulled canoes eventually fell out of use during the 19th century – this happened first in the North Island. The last examples seem to have been single-hulled vessels temporarily lashed together, rather than the purpose-built double hull. It was not until the early 1990s that the double hull was revived with the building of Te Aurere of Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), along with the replication of ancient voyaging methods and technologies.

Waka in New Zealand

As Māori tribes developed and grew there was also a change in waka culture. Descended from a people who lived on small Pacific islands, where land was at a premium and their lives often depended on what they could find in the ocean, they now had extensive space and resources. The importance of building vessels that could navigate vast oceans declined. The forests provided an abundance of building materials suitable for local needs. As a result, there were changes in the design, construction and use of craft.

Single-hulled vessels

In Aotearoa (New Zealand), waka became predominantly single-hulled vessels, classified by their size, shape, adornment and use. This in turn was determined by the type and quantity of native trees. The beam of a Pacific Island canoe was limited by the narrow girth of the local trees. A builder would have to construct a narrow hull and build up the sides to raise the freeboard, which created instability. To compensate, he would attach an outrigger float with crossbeams to the hull.

By contrast, New Zealand’s trees – tōtara, kauri, mangeao, rimu, kahikatea, and mataī – were so large that canoes of sufficient beam could be constructed with raised top strakes (planking from prow to stern) attached to the gunwales, yet still be so stable that an outrigger float was unnecessary. The widely available tōtara was the most common material, while kauri was used in the north. Canoes were built for inland and coastal waterways, and no longer needed the specifications of the ancestral voyaging waka. New types became common in Māori communities – waka taua, waka tētē, waka tīwai, mōkihi, and the modern-day waka tangata.

Waka taua

The largest waka

Waka taua were the biggest, ranging from 9 to over 30 metres long. Vessels holding up to 100 people were observed by James Cook during his voyages in the 18th century, while other commentators observed equally substantial waka in the 19th century.

Waka taua were also the most ornately adorned and carved. They were sometimes referred to as waka pītau, which describes the perforated, spiral carving that supports the carved figurehead in the tauihu (prow).

The historian Hoani Nahe recalled two Ngāti Maru waka taua – Otuiti and Okunui – in the late 1800s, which he described as the largest he had ever seen. They could hold five ranks of men from the bows to the stern where three men would sit, two of them alternating with paddlers as they became tired. Hulls often consisted of three sections held together by a haumi (mortise and tenon joint) and lashed in place.

Selecting the tree

Trees were chosen for their strength and length. A selected tree became taunahatia (bespoken for use) and a clearing was made around it. Such a tree might remain standing for years, and in some cases a karakia (incantation) would be said to prevent it being knocked over by Tāwhirimātea, the god of the winds.

Before felling, several aspects needed consideration – the location, the probable fall direction, any obstacles that could break the fall, and the practicality of moving the fallen tree. A tohunga would then say incantations to remove tapu (religious restriction) and propitiate Tāne, god of the forest. Once the tree was felled, tapu was reinstated.


At the beginning of the day the workers were placed under a tapu that was lifted at nightfall. They would roughly hollow out the tree close to where it fell, and then haul the roughed-out hiwi (hull) to a more convenient working place. Dressed and carved timber was also used for the rauawa (topstrakes), which added greater freeboard and improved seaworthiness. When the waka was ready, elaborately carved decorative pieces called tauihu (prow carvings) and the taurapa (sternpost) were attached to the ihu (bow) and the kei (stern). Then the kawa ceremony (tapu removal) was performed. A karakia was also said at the launching.

A vessel for war parties

Named for its use by taua (war parties), the canoe often transported warriors on military expeditions. It was therefore associated with the consequences of war – death and destruction. Waka taua sometimes returned the mortal remains of men slain in battle to their tribal home. This endowed the vessel with a spiritual status that endures to this day; many tribes have specific rituals to determine the use of their waka taua.

Waka tētē

The waka tētē (or waka pakoko) was generally shorter and plainer than the large waka taua. Some hulls were constructed from single logs, and some had joints similar to those of waka taua. The basic components were also the same: hull, gunwales, thwarts, bow piece and stern post. The gunwales were generally not decorated, and the bow piece and stern post were less intricately carved. The bow piece typically took the form of a stylised face with a protruding tongue, described as tētē, or pakoko, by which the vessel is classified.


These canoes were used in many ways, and were often not subject to as many ritual restrictions as waka taua. They carried goods, produce and people along many of the coastal and inland waterways. Early settler records describe the Auckland waterfront of the mid-1800s as crowded with these waka, laden with wares for trade.

Waka tangata

A late 20th-century development has been the construction of canoes for educational purposes. Known as waka tangata, they are very similar to waka tētē, with uncarved gunwales and stern posts of simple ornamentation. They are free from the religious restrictions that many tribes associate with waka, and can be used by everyone – waka tangata means the people’s canoe.

Other types of waka

Waka tīwai

These canoes, also known as waka kōpapa, were probably the most common and numerous. They were formed from a hollowed-out log, with no gunwales, carvings, thwarts, bow or stern pieces. Generally shorter and narrower than the waka taua and waka tētē, they were ideal for moving small groups of people and their belongings up and down rivers, and across harbours. Tribes living near a waterway would use them regularly.

Waka tīwai were also used for recreation. They are still raced in regattas today, especially in the Waikato region, where regular racing series are attended by many local schools. The canoes were sometimes referred to as waka peke (leaping canoes), because at some regattas they would be raced by jumping over logs raised slightly above the water surface. Often described as canoe hurdling, this was last practised at the Tūrangawaewae regatta in the early 1990s.

East Coast mōkihi (rafts)

The 19th-century Ngāti Porou leader Tuta Nihoniho described one form of mōkihi, or raft, constructed by his tribe for inshore fishing. Also known as amatiatia (outriggers), these craft were made of buoyant wood from small trees – whau or houama – and pinned together with mānuka. A second layer of smaller timbers was placed over the main pieces. They were then lashed together with a length of supplejack vine. Two such floats were placed about 1 metre apart and tied to three or four connecting poles. Two people would sit, one on each side, and paddle. The rafts were used for fishing, and to set and collect crayfish traps.

South Island mōkihi

One type of raft was more specific to the South Island tribes. Made of raupō (bulrush) and harakeke (flax), the mōkihi, or mōkī, had two forms. The first was a bundle of dry bulrushes or flax flower stalks on which a person would sit, paddling with his hands or a piece of wood. The second was bigger and more elaborate – several bundles were lashed together to resemble a boat.

These rafts were used to transport people and goods along the South Island’s inland waterways. They did not last as long as canoes of tōtara or kauri, but the materials were usually handy to waterways, the rafts were quick to make, and they made an excellent temporary means of transportation.

Moriori waka

The Moriori people of the Chatham Islands (Wharekauri), 800 kilometres east of mainland New Zealand, used four types of waka: waka pūhara, waka rimu, waka pahī and waka rā. These have been described as rafts rather than canoes. The likely reason was that the Chatham Islands did not have timber of sufficient size and quality to make canoes. As long as the components were properly fastened together, these waka were very safe, and unlikely to fill and capsize. It is known that one such craft could carry more than 50 people.

Waka pūhara and waka rimu

The waka pūhara, or kōrari, had two keels (made of poles or small beams) and was flat-bottomed. The stern post (koua to Moriori) and the pūremu (two pieces of wood projecting from the stern) were carved. The bottom and sides were formed of dry flower stalks of flax. To help keep the vessel afloat, kelp was inflated and stored in the base of the canoe.

The waka rimu was similar, except that the sides and bottom were covered only with pieces of bull kelp (rimurapa).

Waka pahī

The waka pahī was a deep-water vessel, used for trips to the outlying islands. It was built up on two keels of matipou wood, up to 9 metres in length. The stern post, made of akeake, could be over 3 metres high, while the pūremu was a little shorter. Bull kelp was also used for flotation.

The waka rā

The waka rā was made of bracken stems and flax stalk, similar to the mōkihi. The sides were low, and the craft was used ceremonially: images of men, each with a paddle tied to his hand, would be placed in the waka, which was then set adrift. Its purpose was to ask Rongotakuiti, representing seals and blackfish, to send an abundance of food supplies.

Waka equipment


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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, 'Waka – canoes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, published 12 June 2006