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The Maori Canoe

Canoes of Caroline Islands

Canoes of Caroline Islands

Morrell, who cruised among the Caroline Islands in 1830, speaks as follows of the canoes of the natives:—

The canoes of these natives are mostly of great length, carrying from fifteen to thirty men. The bottom is of one log, generally from thirty to fifty feet in length, and got out [hewn out] in the form of a canoe… On this foundation they proceed to build the vessel. Each side is formed of a single plank, from fourteen to eighteen inches in width, making the depth of the boat; but the two sides are not alike, one being nearly flat and straight next the water, and the other somewhat bulging. These sides are sewed fast to the bottom with a strong cord made from the bark of a tree, and also to a beautifully carved head and stern, resembling those of the ancient galleys which we often meet with in classical paintings.

As these canoes are frequently propelled by sails, and as the bulging side is always to windward, the reader will naturally suppose that it could not long retain an upright position, but would be liable to be upset. This is prevented, however, by a very ingenious contrivance. A frame, called an outrigger, projects out eight or ten feet horizontally from the rounded, bulging, or windward side, at the extreme end of which is attached a piece of buoyant wood, shaped something like a canoe. The weight of this apparatus prevents the boats capsizing to leeward, while that side being flat prevents her making leeway. At the same time the buoyancy of the outrigger and bamboo frame renders it impossible for her to overset to windward. This is the form and construction of their single canoes, which go through the water with great velocity, whether propelled by paddles or sails, or both.

Their double canoes are formed in the same manner as the one just described, with the exception of the outrigger, which, of course, is not necessary. Two canoes are fastened together abreast of each other, with bamboos extended across them, on the same principle of construction as our twin ferry-steamboats. These canoes are generally about forty feet in length, and the distance between them is from eight to ten feet. The bamboos which unite them are placed about two feet apart, and strongly secured to the gunnels by a lashing of their bark cord. Small sticks of bamboo are then extended fore and aft, secured to the cross-pieces, thus forming a light platform from twenty to twenty-five feet in length, and eight or ten feet wide. They paddle on the two outsides and insides of the canoes, propelling them forward with astonishing speed, much swifter than our whaleboats with six oars pulled by our most vigorous tars. These are called war-canoes, and many of them have very curiously carved heads and sterns, which rise from one to three feet above the hull, not unlike the fashion of the New-Zealanders. Their paddles are generally four feet in length, with blades about six inches wide, the whole very neatly finished off with carved work, admirably executed.

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Their sails for the single canoes are made, like their own garments, of a beautiful long grass, which they have the art of weaving into a strong substantial cloth. These sails are shaped like what is called a 'shoulder of mutton,' and used in the following manner: The mast stands exactly perpendicular in the centre of the canoe, being from twelve to eighteen feet in height. At the head of this mast is hoisted a yard, proportioned to the size of the canoe, from twenty-five to thirty-five feet in length. The sail spreads this yard, and when hoisted at the masthead its foot sweeps the gunnel of the canoe. These sails are set in such a manner that the canoes never need go in stays when beating to windward, being so constructed as to go either end foremost. When they wish to go on the other tack, she suddenly falls off until the other end of the boat becomes the head, and luffs up to the wind; by which time the men have raised the tack on the depressed end of the yard, and brought its opposite extremity down to the other end of the boat. Thus she hugs the wind on either side by turns, without ever looking directly in its teeth.

I have seen these boats going at the rate of eight miles an hour, within four points of the wind. But let them run large, or before the wind, with a strong breeze, and I have no doubt but they will go at the rate of twelve or thirteen miles an hour in smooth water. By only shifting the sail, with a side wind, these canoes will pass, back and forth, between two islands, each end alternately foremost, with great rapidity, without the necessity of putting about. The sails are made in small pieces of about three feet square, sewed together. In cutting the sail to its proper shape, the pieces which come off one side answer to go on the other; this gives it the proper form, and causes the halliards to be bent on in the middle of the yard.

These hewn-out hulls with single wide top-strakes sewn on, and carved head and stern pieces, remind us of New Zealand craft. The straight side to leeward acted as a lee-board: this is seen in the Indian Archipelago, but no such form is reported from Polynesia. It appears at the Gilbert Group. The sail appears to be that of the Fijian and Tongan Groups. Morrell does not mention the balance-platform in his account.

Arago tells us that no native of the Caroline Islands is allowed to marry until he has given proof of his dexterity in steering a proa: "For this examination a time is chosen when the sea is rather high. The candidate is placed at the sheet (for they steer their vessels entirely by the sails), and there, surrounded by reefs, and in the midst of foaming waves, he must make his proa sail a certain distance without allowing its balancer to touch the waves. I could not have believed that they possessed so much skill if I had not sailed in their vessels."

Dampier describes a form of proa seen by him at Mindanao, Philippine Isles, with what he calls an "outlayer" on each side. These were not true outriggers, but two projecting balance-platforms, one on either side, neither of which touched the water when the craft was on an even keel. "The boat is not flat on one side here, as at page 372Guam; but hath a Belly and Outlayers on each side; and whereas at Guam there is a little Boat fastened to the Outlayers, that lies in the Water, the Beams or Bamboos here are fastened traverse-wise to the Outlayers on each side, and touch not the Water like Boats, but one, three, or four foot above the Water, and serve for the Bargemen to sit and row and paddle on; the inside of the Vessel, except only just afore and abaft, being taken up with the apartments for the passengers. There run across the Outlayers two tire of Beams for the Paddlers to sit on, on each side of the Vessel. The lower tire of these Beams is not above a foot from the Water; so that, upon any reeling of the Vessel, the Beams are dipt in the Water, and the men that sit are wet up to their waste; their feet seldom escaping the water. And thus, as all our Vessels are Rowed from within, these are Paddled from without."

Fig. 167a Stick Charts from the Marshall Islands. We are told that by means of sticks, strings, and small pieces of wood the ocean currents, wave-trend, and islands were represented. Godeffroy Collection, Hamburg. Sketch by Miss E. Richardosn

D'Urville's illustrations of canoes of the Caroline Group show a comparatively short outrigger, with a balance-platform on the opposite side. There is also a platform on the booms of a triangular form, which is formed by covering with rods not only the space between the two booms, but also the spaces between the booms and the two side braces or struts, which resemble those of the Vanikoro canoe. There appears to be a roofed cabin on each of the platforms. The ends of the canoe are much elevated. The sail is of the lateen form, with two yards, and the mast nearly upright; the paddle depict-page 373ed resembles the Maori form. The hold is open throughout its length, except at the middle. Another canoe, of a larger type, shows a narrow hull, long booms on which several longitudinal spars are lashed, and on these, immediately over the booms, other poles are lashed, apparently to strengthen the structure. The balance-platform, like those of Vanikoro, is not horizontal but tilted upwards. The latter carries an awning-like roof, and the boom platform a thatched cabin. The paddle shown is not of Maori form; it may be a steer-oar.