Traditional Outrigger Canoes of the Pacific Islands

I’ve had an interest in the watercraft culture of Oceania since living in Hawaii in the mid 1970s, and seeing an old small outrigger canoe in the Bernice Bishop museum. Just amazing to me how people without metal tools; fashioned completely smooth boards, sewed them together with coconut fiber lines atop of the dugout log base to which also were lashed the outriggers. The narrow boat hulls made them fast and efficient. The outriggers made them stable.

Some of the outrigger designs were not just simple stabilizing floats. The flexible function of the outriggers on the Marshall islands canoes were a stroke of genius. Their ingenious design, developed over hundreds of years, is only part of their intriguing story. How they used them over hundreds of miles of open ocean pathways between islands hundreds of miles away is another great story, too.

The features and functions of the canoes of Micronesia, in this case the canoes of the Marshall Islands, are just amazing. imo, :thinking:

Near the end of the above video you may have noticed children sailing small canoe models. They are called - Riwuit. Several years ago Tim Anderson posted instructions how to build a riwuit. I actually started making one, but due to other life demands the project fell by the wayside, the materials finally lost. Maybe I ought to try again.

Riwuit - making a sailing outrigger model:

The early European explorers were quite impressed by the design & speed of the canoes of the Pacific islanders, and their skills sailing them displayed during first contact. In the below link, Chamorro Islands, are the northern Mariana islands. Think, Guam, Saipan, Rota, etc. The Chamorros the indigenous people of Guam. Who called their canoes, Sakman. Later called Flying Proas, by the Europeans.

About the only thing I find annoying studying the history of canoe migrations across the Pacific are comments by people blaming the Europeans for ending their great long distance voyages. But actually, voyages between Hawaii and the Society Islands (Tahiti) ended about 1300. Long before the Europeans found the Pacific. And Captain Cook did not Hawaii until 1778. And that by accident. He had been sent to the Society Islands to observe the transit of Venus, to establish the size of the earth. And was on his way to Alaska, via a route not normally sailed. An accidental discovery.

The critics do have a point about the invaders crushing their culture. Often destroying their canoes, to control them, and suppressing their culture in many ways. But ending the long trans-Pacific voyages of the Polynesians wasn’t one of them. Thankfully, the canoe culture was somewhat preserved by the people who lived on islands that remained fairly isolated, islands of little economic value to the outsiders. There their boat building, sailing and navigational skills survived for voyages of a few hundred miles length. At least among a few people, the most notable being Pius “Mau” Piailug, in the Caroline Islands.

Sadly, diseases brought by the Europeans caused the deaths of up to 80% of native people. On many of the island groups. Islands that were densely populated at first contact with the European explorers, were often nearly depopulated when they returned years later. Many of the remaining died from brutal oppression. Or as happened many other places in the world. One tribe or group formed alliances with the Europeans, and with their help, nearly whipped out their historic enemies.

[the same disease process happened in Central and South America. The Europeans brought diseases, to which the native people had no immunity, to the Caribbean islands. The Caribbean people traded and interacted with the people of central and south America. By the time the Europeans actually went ashore in central and south America, the majority of the people, at least 80%, had already died from disease. Their cities overgrown by and hidden by the jungle. Becoming myths, that people thought never really existed. Only in recent years have the lost cities been found, using LIDAR mapping. Finding cities that archeological evidence suggest they were larger and more densely populated than London or Madrid or Paris at the time of first contact. ]

Due to objections of excavating human bones from old burials on Pacific islands as a method to track migrations via DNA testing - one of the newer strategies is to track the DNA in the bones of the Pacific Rat. They are native to the Pacific, and do not interbreed with rats species brought to the islands on European ships. No one objects to rat bones being dug up. And the rat DNA can reveal if there had been multiple voyages to different island groups over hundreds of years, not just one voyage and colonization / occupation of the island group.

The importance? One migration could be due to an accident, perhaps blown off course by a storm. Multiple migrations prove established trade routes and navigational skills.

Sweet potatoes also have DNA. One of the great mysteries is why did the Europeans find so many island groups where sweet potatoes were an established food crop.

Apparently sweet potatoes had been grown as an established food crop long before first contact. But sweet potatoes come from South America. And Thor Heyerdahl’s , Kon-Tiki theory was never considered credible, and long disproved. Though it is a great adventure story.

Tracking the sweet potato DNA to discover something about the how and when of migration, is complicated by the fact that later European explorers did bring new varieties of sweet potatoes to the Pacific islands from their base in S. American, thereby confusing and complicating DNA testing. Here is one theory:

Anyway, the historic canoe culture of the Pacific people is fascinating, theories of their origins and migrations intriguing. And contested. Maybe you will find it something fun to read about also. I recently read a new book, Sea People, by Christina Thompson. Interesting book, a great overview summary about what happened, how, why and when. While I knew the whaling industry was a big business in the 18th and 19th century. I really had no idea that in the 1840s there were about 700 whaling ships in the Pacific at any one time. A massive culture change, at least on the islands with safe harbors and close to the whales. After the 1850s the whaling trade declined because the whalers had nearly whipped the whales out.

One more informative Marshall Island Canoe culture link. From Gary Dierking’s blog, (Gary is an American who has lived in New Zealand for many years). The link has a one hour video. A wind powered boat is attractive where gas is $10/gallon, Yikes. :grimacing:


Fascinating thank you.

Tyson, I am pleased you found it interesting. It’s an interesting topic with many facets.

If you know any thing about sailing you know that monohulls (or some outriggers or catamarans) to sail upwind they proceed at an angle of about 45˚ from the either side of direction of the wind, and change from side to side by a maneuver called ‘tacking’. Sailing a zigzag path upwind. The boom, bottom of the sail, switches from port to starboard (left to right).

But outrigger canoes of the type in Micronesia always keep the outrigger to windward side. So they instead do a maneuver called ‘shunting’. The boat is brought perpendicular to the wind. Then the tack (lower corner) of the sail is switched from one end of the boat to the other end. The steering also switches to the other end. They do two shunts in this video. First one near the start, second one near the end. Filmed in Tumon Bay, NW side of Guam.

Seems kind of awkward, but not a problem if going a long distance without needing to change the angle of travel upwind. Modern experimenters have sometimes installed a curved track on the leeward side that will permit the tack of the sail to switch from end to end by simply pulling a line. Making it easier for single handed sailing.

Another video of a Marshall island Korkor canoe sailing without the sailors wearing the touristy grass skirts attire.

If I still lived by the ocean I’d figure out how to build one of these type boats. But I don’t, so reading about them or maybe building a model will have to do. :frowning:

When I left Hawaii I sold my Hobiecat 16. It went to a hotel on Maui.
I recently gave my old windsurfer to a guy who did some remodeling work on my kitchen. Well, gave it to him under the condition he could keep it if he and his kids really use it. But if they decide it’s not for them. I want it back, and we’d just pay him some additional cash for his work.

The Guam, Chamorro Sakman canoe.

Guam was the first Pacific island found by the European explorers. By the Portuguese explorer Magellan, sailing a Spanish ship. Magellan found Guam March 5, 1521.

221 years later, in 1742, British Commodore Sir George Anson, pursuing Spanish war ships into the Pacific, nearing Guam spotted a Chamorro sakman canoe flying a Spanish flag. In order to trick the crew of the sakman canoe and lure them closer to his ship Anson flew a Spanish flag. [think Rusell Crowe in Masters and Commanders imitating a whaling ship, though as I recall in that story the Brits were mixing it up with the French. Those Brits were tricky blokes :open_mouth: ] Captured the sakman canoe and its Chamorro crew with one Spanish officer.

One of his officers, Lt Peicry Brett, made detailed scale drawings of the sakman canoe. The only known record of what the traditional native canoes looked like. From Brett’s drawing reproductions of their traditional watercraft have been able to be built today.

[Over the four years I flew to and from Guam. I had never heard the native people called Chamorro. Just Guamanians. My uncle Bob lived there for four years in the 1960s while in the USAF, and he also never heard the name Chamorro. The resurgent use of the name seems to be due to the Pacific cultural fire lit by the voyage of the Hokulea in 1976 ]

Their language being different from Polynesian or Marshallese their traditional or original names of their canoes and the canoe part names are different. So even Sakman is a new name to me that I have only recently learned, before I only heard the traditional Guamanian / Micronesian canoes called Flying Proas. Boats sailed with the outrigger always on the windward side. And tacking by shunting.

More info about them: Our Sakman Story - Mario Borja

One of the clever ways boards (strakes ) were stitched together to increase the height of the sides on historic traditional canoe hulls above the log keel. Which is one of the things that impressed me on the canoe in the Bishop Museum. A clever solution, the board uniform in thickness, and finely polished, described as well polished as cabinets by one early explorer. And the board were made with clam shell adze, volcanic stone, and coral drills.

More information from the Museum of New Zealand [ aka Te Papa Tongarewa ]

collections.tepapa Pacific Canoes

collections.tepapa Outrigger Canoes

Man fishing in an outrigger canoe. Does his fishing rod not look a lot like a tenkara rod? :smile:

The above link does not say where the above photo was taken nor the type of canoe. But my guess is it is a New Guinea / Melanesian canoe. Plans to build a very similar canoe from two sheets of plywood, and low cost tarp from hardware store to make a sail, are available from James Wharram Designs in the UK.

Navigation by Ocean Swells

Another facet of the outrigger or double hulled canoes of the Pacific that keeps me intrigued about them is the fact that the canoe culture spaned about 4/5th of the earth’s circumference. And they did it using navigation methods much different from the the methods developed in the western world.

Methods developed by close observation of nature. For sure some of the same methods were sometimes used by western watermen. But it was not developed or advanced nearly as far as in the Pacific. Both used stars paths but in a much different way.

The sea people of the canoe culture navigated a lot by knowing the direction, size, of ocean swells and their interference patterns. Dory fishermen fishing off the fishing schooners in the north Atlantic also sometimes found their way back to their ships in foggy conditions by ocean swells, but that was only over short distances. The sea people navigators of the Pacific knew the ocean swell patterns over hundreds of miles between islands.

Here’s an interesting article from a few years ago in the NYT.

I think it would have been better if they called it The Secret of Ocean Swell Pilots, rather than Wave Pilots. Wind wave are locally created, but the ocean swells they used to navigate are waves that were created by winds hundreds of miles away. The largest ones from the so-called Roaring 40s. At 40˚ south latitude where winds can nearly circle the earth without being hindered by land. Smaller ocean swells come from high northern latitudes. Both sources send their swells to the islands north and south of the equator. The NYT article describes their attempt to gain a scientific understanding of what the the Pacific navigators learned to use in ancient times.

Ocean Navigation Techniques From Micronesia

This video starts at 14:47. I think you will find it interesting to watch it up to about 26 minutes. If not the entire video.
However, if you’d rather not watch any of the video – you can see the most important point of the video by just looking at the map of the video thumbnail. You can see that the canoe culture covers about 4/5th of the earth’s circumference. Outrigger canoes are traditional watercraft from Hawaii and Easter Island [aka Rapa Nui ] in the east. All the way to Madagascar and the west coast of Africa. Also taking in a bit of southern India and SE Asia. But if you watch the video to at least 26 minutes. They have a bit fun, by pondering the irony of history saying that Magellan discovered Guam. :upside_down_face:

[ I think they have a firm foundation to the claim they were the greatest ocean navigators in history. However, as far as we know Magellan’s expedition was the first to circumnavigate the earth. That feat remains out of their accomplishments, thus far. Magellan himself didn’t make it. He was killed in the Philippines. And about 90% if his crew also died along the way]

Watch the next video, only if this topic really interest you.
John Huth - physicist, author of “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way”.
Joe Genz - archeologists from UH Mānoa.
Alson Kelen - Marshallese navigator, and director of WAM, the Marshall Island canoe organization and
Gerbrant van Vledder - a Dutchman from Delft university, who studies water hydrology, who was drawn by curiosity of the Marshallese wave navigation.

The Dutch at the best at studies and projects that involve water. You can see weird stuff in the Netherlands. In America if you’re driving in a car or riding a train. Water and boats traveling on the water are always lower than you are. Not so in the Netherlands. You can be riding the train and see barges traveling down canals that are at elevations high above the train. Very weird when you notice it. You understand how Sylvester the Cat felt when the mice nailed the furniture to the ceiling and mounted the ceiling lamps to the floor. :smiley:

Gerbrant attempted to make computer simulations of the ocean swells that Alson Kelen could sense during their inter-island trip, as described in the NYT article, and in the videos. [Alson Kelen was the guy who explained the part names of the Marshall island canoe video in the first post]

Wave Piloting in the Marshall Islands || Radcliffe Institute

Alson has a great story in the video about how he went about getting funding for his school to train young people. A hint - an American official offered to double any funding Alson could get. Alson did a bit better than the official expected.

Well, this might be a good place to insert an PG13-rated joke to this tale.

It’s about how the multiple ocean swells were sensed by the ocean navigators of the Pacific using all of their natural senses. The theory is men have a certain advantage not available to women. Thus men would always be superior wayfinders better equipped to preserve the lives of the crew. It’s probably a first cousin to the claim that airplane pilots could fly by the seat of their pants. :open_mouth:

Why only men were permitted to become wayfinder naviagors

I’ve found this, ah, method of sensing motion on a couple of websites or videos. Before discovering there is a an older story about a blind navigator in ancient times who was more skilled than sighted navigators. When asked how he knew where they were in the ocean with more accuracy than the sighted navigators - that is the answer the ancient wayfinder gave. He could sense more interfering swell patterns passing under the canoe than the others could. And that’s how he did it.

Actually if you watched the above video Alson Kelen states that he can sense the ocean swells better in the dark of the night, because he is no longer confused in his mind by what he sees, his internal sense of motion is heightened when he can not see the ocean swell.

When Nainoa Thompson was being taught the ancient methods of navigation by Mau Piailug. Mau asked him how many swells he could feel passing under the canoe. Nainoa replied, two, maybe three. Mau said he could feel five different swells.

This perhaps illustrates why Alson Kelen could sense ocean swells that Gerbrant van Vledder’s scientific instruments and computer simulation only partly captured. An experienced skillful human wave / ocean swell navigator can develop a level of intuition that the computer simulations fail to capture or account for. However, Gerbrant van Vledder’s simulations did largely confirm the ocean swells and currents that Alson reported sensing. Thus it is a method of navigation the Pacific islanders successfully used since ancient times to make repeated voyages to islands hundreds of miles away. But it isn’t a skill that can be learned only by reading a book or watching a video.

Another island finding and navigation method used is something called – Etak, or etak. They seem to make a distinction between upper case and lower case. The complete concept is difficult to fully understand. But it is basically knowing - for one example of it - how far different species of birds, that nest on land, will fly from an island. One species might be known to only fly 20 miles from land, another species maybe 50 miles from land. Or certain species of fish are known to always only be a certain distance from land. And those distances might change with the seasons of the year.

Ocean swell navigation or Etak navigation. Both are interesting topics that are part of traditional Pacific canoe culture. That enabled the people and their culture to spread far across the world. However. they never found the east coast of the Americas, the Caribbean or Europe. A lot to be proud of but they did not find everything. Just most of the world before everyone else. Something to think about. :thinking:

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Wavewatch III and SWAN wave models used by Gerbrant van Vledder for his wave analysis. Unfortunately it’s only the introduction to his presentation, I haven’t found the rest of it:

But here’s a bit more from Tech University of Delft website:

In Hawaii white people are often called “haoles”.
Sometimes the name is meant in a negative way, other times not. Haole doesn’t exclusively refer to white people, but to main-landers. Anyone not native Hawaiian. Or halole can also just refer to other things not Hawaiian. Items, attitudes, way of doing things, etc.

In reading about the Marshall Islands (different language from Polynesian) I noticed white people were often called, “ripelle”. I wondered if it meant the same thing as haole. It doesn’t.

Ri = “the people of”. -elle = “clothes”. Thus, the people of clothes. Before the missionaries instilled a sense of shame. They mostly did without them. Or most of them. This is explained in the following blog post.

Tabal is one of the MI atolls. Honored guests given a traditional fest before beginning a voyage.

The blog - Art of Wayfinding - seems to be John Huth’s blog.
There are several blog post related to the topic in the previous post. Their journey between atolls and back, undertaken to try to measure, by use of scientific equipment, the ocean swells and their patterns as used as means to navigate across long distances on the sea.

Maybe you will find a few of the blog post interesting, too.
[note: several of them appear to have broken links to videos, no thumbnail image. But if you click on them they will play. Unless there is a message saying the video is not available. Pictures and videos can be enlarged. ]

"Leadership is action, not position" Is a message in Alson’s school, but the investigators found that the reality of life in the RMI (Republic of the Marshall Islands) is still very old traditional, position of authority rules, not action.

The Tradition of Wave Piloting MI part 3

The Sailing Seasons - Gerbrant van Vledder’s computer data on wind and ocean swell changes with the change in season.

Activities before departing Majuro to Aur atoll.

Voyage north to Aur Atoll

Return voyage Aur to Majuro - trying to understand what - Dilep is. Recall that dilep is described as a line of ‘opposing swells’ that connect islands, and that there is a line of ‘knots’ making up the dilep. Knots meaning interference points where ocean swells interact creating higher heights of the water surface. [the word Dilep - seemed strange to me. It is a popular name for a person in India. I’ve known a cardiologists for many years named Dilep Bassu. ]

Anyway, there are many other interesting blog post at Art of Wayfinding that are not related to any of this that you might find interesting:
Map reading, knowing the position of stars, hiking the Appalachian Trail, understanding Tides (something I found fun as I am at present reading a book, “Tides - the science and spirit of the ocean” by Jonathan White. I’ve been wondering if Jean Santos has ever seen the 45 foot tidal range at Mont St. Michael on the Normandy coast. ) Hand widths for range finding, combating confirmation bias (something that causes a lot of bad scientific research today. aka, cargo-cult science. Only seeing what you want to see. Or even incorrect medical diagnoses, or help you become more lost in the forest), death from exposure, understanding magnetic declination, etc.

Blog list:

But this one is was just kind of fun. The Amazing Thanksgiving Toilet Seat Massacre :slight_smile:

A couple of canoe videos that may be more easily understood by our Japanese forum members.

Micronesian Voyaging Canoe

Traditional Navigation

Nautical Cartography and Traditional Navigation in Oceania.
By Ben Finney in History of Cartography Vol. 2 Book 3, chapter 13, pdf file.

Ben Finney was one of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. He passed away a couple of years ago. One of the more difficult to understand navigational concepts of traditional oceanic navigation is the Etak system. A system part dead reckoning, part star navigation, with elements of knowledge of the flight range of birds, and other natural signs. Finney attempts to describe the etak concept on pdf pages 30 ~ 32 + 47.

Tupaia’s Map. Tupaia was man from the Society Islands (think Tahiti). Who for a while traveled with Capt James Cook on his ship, the Endeavour, until his death caused by contracting a disease.

Tupaia drew a now famous map showing locations of islands over a large area that were unknown to Cook or other European explorers. His map appeared to have many inaccuracies. But they seemed to be due more to misunderstanding of terms for directions, and due to a totally different way of seeing locations of islands and how to get there. Thus some islands on his map appeared to be a mirror image of their actual location. British /western maps are from a bird’s eye view looking down from the sky. The Polynesian’s view was horizontal looking out from the height of the ship’s deck across the water. More like driving directions to a location not possible to see in a dense forest.

tandfonline - The Making of Tupaia’s Map

[ I can easily understand the misunderstanding of direction terms between Capt Cook and Tupaia. When I first moved to Hawaii I obtained maps with directions on how to follow various interconnected hiking trails on Oahu. Some trails were on the east side of the island. Other trails on the west side. Walking the first trail the directions to turn mauka or turn makai appeared to mean east or west. On another trail mauka and makai appeared to sometimes mean north or south, but sometimes east or west. Eventually I figured out they meant toward the sea (shore) makai, or toward the mountains, mauka. ]

One guy in this next video, I think, gives to much credit to Tupaia, in claiming that Tupaia made Capt Cook famous. Capt Cook came from a humble family and made himself famous by his own great accomplishments. Just as Sacagawea did not make Lewis and Clark famous.

However, both Tupaia and Sacagawea deserve a lot more credit than they were ever given for making the expeditions they participated in more successful than they would have otherwise been. And perhaps Sacagawea was more important to Lewis and Clark’s success than Tupaia’s knowledge was toward Cook’s success.

Tupaia - Trailer

Tupaia, The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator, by Joan Druett

Again, I think, Tupaia may not have been the greatest Polynesian navigator of the 18th century. Other Polynesian navigators may have been just as skillful who never assisted other western explorers. However, Tupaia seems to have been one of the most important leaders of his people at the time.

And Tupaia only assisted Cook in the western side of Polynesia, making friendly receptions possible on many islands that wouldn’t have happened without his presence. Such as the friendly welcome in New Zealand. vs the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. The Maori invited him and his crew to come ashore and be eaten according to some tales. Tasman named the bay where some of crew were killed, Murders Bay (Moordenaar’s Bay in Dutch). Called Golden Bay today.

I think, Tupaia’s contributions were never credited as they ought to have been.

Tupaia was a very important person among his own people, and highly regarded by them. With a big kahuna attitude, which did not play well with the crew of the Endeavour. A ship’s crew that probably saw themselves as superior to a people that appeared to them to still be a stone age culture. However, Capt Cook was the first to notice that from New Zealand to Hawaii, the inhabitants were of the same culture, with closely related language, and customs, and wonder how it was possible for a single culture to be spread all the way across a vast ocean. A mystery still not fully answered. But greatly advanced since the voyage of the voyaging canoe Hokulea from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976.

A video made ten years ago. But only uploaded to youtube April, 2019

Canoes of Anuta

"Anuta is a tiny Polynesian Island at the eastern end of the Solomon Islands. It is just 1 mile long and 65m high, with a population of around 300.

There are 70 canoes on the island, which have a history going back at least 2-300 years, probably much longer. They are a unique V shaped hull design. Several of the canoes are very old, the oldest is estimated to have been built in the 1820s and is still occasionally in use today, as can be seen on this video.

This video was made in 2009 by Hanneke Boon at the end of the ‘Lapita Voyage’, when a double canoe to the same hull design as the original canoes of Anuta was donated to the islanders for independent travel to and from the island. …"

Francis Pimmel model of the canoe donated to the people of Anuta island.
Francis Pimmel is a Frenchman who lives on Oahu, and makes high quality canoe models.
Sorry, but there was no easy way to post a single image. But you will be impressed by the quality, fine detail, and beauty of his models in the many photos at the below link. :computer_mouse:

The Navigators - Pathfinders of the Pacific
A 24 page companion document to a DER (documentary educational resources) DVD with the same title, by Sam Low, Ph.D. But interesting reading even without seeing the 1 hours video. However, I received the DVD in the mail today. and only found this pdf file by chance during an internet search for - canoes of Satawal. :smile:

Oceanic Encounter with the Japanese: An Outrigger Canoe-Fishing Gear Complex in the Bonin Islands and Hachijo-Jima Island – Akira Goto, Nanzan University (Catholic University of Nanzan), Nagoya, Japan 8 Oceanic Encounter with the Japanese: An Outrigger Canoe-Fishing Gear Complex pdf

Certainly a topic that someone could get absorbed into for the rest of their lives. Very fascinating.