Kiribati canoes

The Art of Building a Kiribati canoe

Building a Kiribati canoe is only done by people who have the know-how and skills that have been handed down to them and who have assisted them to gain the required experience and skill. The builder also possesses certain traditional customs and magic related to his knowledge because in Kiribati culture the canoe possesses very intimate relationship to the owner family, clan or the community and is treated with great respect and care.

The builder started by assembling the materials that will be required. In the traditional way all of the materials including the sail will be obtained or manufactured entirely from local sources. However with the availability of modern tools and materials, the builder nowadays will use these to save time and for convenience.

The first step is to fashion the keel and brow of the canoe. This is quite a tricky undertaking as the keel must be laid absolutely horizontal and the two ends of the canoe, the brows, must match the other exactly. In other words the two ends of the canoe must be a mirror image of the other. Before the introduction of the spirit level, the canoe was usually build in an open shelter parallel to the beach and with a clear view of the horizon which was to form the baseline to determine the level of the keel timber. However before the keel was laid it must be fashioned into the right shape. Kiribati canoes are always built with asymmetrical sides, that is, one side is more rounded than the other. This is not unlike the aerofoil shape of the airplane wing. The reason for this is to compensate for the drag of the outrigger and its float. Therefore the more rounded side is always on the far side of the outrigger.

The next step is to set up the frames. These are always set up in pairs opposite to each other and they must be erected so that one side of the canoe is more rounded than the other as stated above. This is the fundamental shape of the Kiribati canoe. The reason for this is to compensate for the outrigger float, which always tends to swing the canoe towards that side. In a well-built canoe the bulging outer side of the canoe cancels this effect and it will run straight.

The next step is the fitting of the hull timbers. These were prepared beforehand being cut into equal width about 4 to 6 inches and planed into equal thickness throughout. The edges of the planks (hull timbers) about one-inch inward are then slotted at regular intervals and holes drilled at these positions. The next plank to go on top of this also have its edge slotted and holes drills to match the holes and slots on the previous plank. Thin coconut fibre sennits, which have been specially prepared by the family’s women into certain lengths, is now threaded and pulled tight to bind the two edges of the plank together. There is a special knot used to secure the lashing. Before the planks are secured to each other, a thin layer of glue obtained from the breadfruit tree is spread on the edges of the planks to help make them watertight. The sennit lashings and holes were also plugged with putty also from the boiled sap of the breadfruit tree or obtained from a trade store.

The next to come are the outriggers and in any canoe more than a few metres long there are always three at a minimum. These outriggers are cut from a very old and therefore very strong coconut tree that is chosen and cut for the purpose. Not just any old tree will do. In the old days when huge voyaging canoes were build the right coconut tree; both in age, location and shape have to be used. The tree is then split lengthwise and three or more beams were obtained to be trimmed into outriggers. These must be seasoned thoroughly before being assembled and lashed on the completed hull of the canoe.

The lengths and spacings of the outriggers are also critical and the experienced builder will determine these. The next to come is the outrigger float. This is usually fashioned from the trunk of an old breadfruit tree. This is fashioned and then air-dried before being used. The size and weight of the float is also important. The other fittings follow to complete the canoe to the builder’s satisfaction. Nowadays the finished canoe is always painted.

It must be remembered that the Kiribati canoe is assembled entirely by lashing all the parts together using coconut fibre sennit specially made for this purpose. No other type of fibre can be used. The completed canoe is a work of art. It is very beautiful and very fast. Because it is lashed together by coconut fibre it can withstand quite remarkably the forces of the wind and seas. Our ancestors were voyaging all over the Pacific Ocean in such canoes.

Before the canoe is put to use certain traditional blessings and rituals must be performed that involved the whole clan or community. The building and launching of a new canoe is a very important milestone in the life of the clan or community in Kiribati.

Tacking a Kiribati canoe

Design of the Sail

The sail is triangular with the top yard [te inaieta] shorter than the lower yard [te inainano]. The sail is held in the raised position by the mast [ te aneang] of sufficient length to hold the sail with the top yard just short of the vertical. This is the normal set up of the sail when cruising but the top yard can also be lowered during strong winds by relocating the mast footing further aft or lengthening the top yard strop  thus lowering the top yard to reduce the sail area. Also a stay is fastened to the top of the mast with its lower end attached to a sheave. The lower part of the stay consists of a loop which goes through the free running sheave and each end fastened to the tip of the outmost outriggers [kiaro] just above the  float [te rama]. Thus the stay always leads in the forward direction lifting the forward end of the float preventing it from being submerged and diving below the water as the canoe cruises along.

Traditional sails were made from finely woven pandanus leaves that were specially treated to achieve strength and pliability.

The sail is kept in the standing position by these arrangements and the force of the wind across from the outrigger side which must be kept on this side at all times. Should the canoe is steered into the wind the sail will start flapping and will likely collapse onto the outrigger unless the steersman quickly steers downwind.

Tacking (te riaki)

The canoe is tacked by physically changing the position of the sail to the other end of the canoe. This is a tricky process and usually done by a physically fit and experienced man. When it is time to tack, the steersman will slacken off the sheet [te baba] thus spilling the wind from the sail rendering it flappy. The canoe will slow down and stop. The tacker [ te tia riaki] will have positioned himself next to the foot of the top yard and unfastened or remove the lashing on the footing.

When ready he will squat down with knees bend and grabbing the foot of the top yard with both hands lifting it up to chest level as he stands up, then carefully rotate himself towards the leeward side [katea] with the sail footing to face the opposite end of the canoe. He will walk slowly ensuring good footing to avoid slips or imbalance while at the same time watching the position of the lower yard which will gradually shift around or assisted around by the steersman who at the same time will move to the other end of the canoe with his steering oar and also holding the loose end of the sheet careful not to drop it in the water.

Once the sail has been lifted from its footing its natural tendency is to float up being lifted by the wind and so the tacker will pull it down and steady it as he carries it to the other end of the canoe.

These two men must pass each other in the middle of the canoe, the steersman watching the tacker to ensure that they maintain the same relative position on the canoe so that when the tacker reaches the end of the canoe, he has also reached the other end thus maintaining equilibrium of trim avoiding one end of the canoe becoming submerged. The steersman will carefully pull on the sheet to ensure the lower yard shifts towards his end of the canoe. When this happens he will shout to the tacker “E a nako” meaning it has become ready and good.

The tacker will then squat or kneel down pulling the bottom of the top yard down into the footing and position it in its place, lashing it again. When this is done he will move to his position in the middle of the canoe and stand by to counterbalance the outrigger. The steersman will then pull onto the sheet filling the sail again with wind accelerating the canoe and steering her on the next tack of the voyage.

This information contributed by Capt Bennett T Muller