THE FLYING PROA OF KAPINGAMARANGI by John Scull
We were setting off on a great adventure: my wife Linda and I were going for a year of teaching and relaxing on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Caroline Islands of the Pacific. Among other things I wanted to do on a Pacific island, I planned to learn to sail an outrigger canoe. These fast, seaworthy craft were developed in Micronesia and gradually spread throughout the Pacific, often displacing the Polynesian catamarans and Indonesian trimarans. I had been fascinated with them since my childhood. Even so, it was with sadness in my heart that I sold my 15-foot Kestrel and loaned my canoe to a friend before boarding the plane that would take me island-hopping across the Pacific.
I was very disappointed, then, when I arrived on Pohnpei and learned that the sailing canoe had nearly faded into history. I was about ten years too late; the last sailing canoe anyone had seen had belonged to settlers from the little-known Polynesian atoll of Kapingamarangi, 500 miles to the south. They had supplemented their income from wood carving and fishing by taking the occasional tourists who visited this remote island for rides in the lagoon until their old canvas sail ripped in a gust and their sailing business came to an end. The local people now used boats for work, not recreation, and outboard motors caught more fish.
Then Linda discovered that a man about my age who worked at the post office was actually from Kapingamarangi. Deturo said he could remember sailing as a young man. With enthusiastic prodding from me he agreed that sailing had been great fun and that it was sad that young men didn't even learn how anymore. He said many men in his village agreed with him and one day he invited me up to talk. After drinking many coconuts at many meetings we struck a bargain: I would provide sailcloth, Deturo would provide a canoe, his brother would make a sail, and his friend Uruhet would teach me to sail. Then, after I left the island, they could again take tourists for rides. I wrote to my brother Jim in San Diego and he sent me two rolls of leftover sailcloth from a hang glider company. One roll was orange, one was turquoise, and there was enough cloth for two proa sails.
A crowd of children and villagers gathered to watch the making of the sail. The sailmaker lay the spars for the lateen sail in the sand and drove stakes in at the corners. He stretched telephone wire between the pegs and then, using a complex method of folding the wires, measured the locations for more pegs to give the sail an appropriate amount of camber. These wires were then used as a pattern for cutting the cloth. The sailmaker and his assistant then cut the cloth for two striped orange and turquoise sails. I found the colors loud and garish but the islanders loved them. There was some doubt among onlookers, though, that the light, papery dacron would prove as strong as heavy canvas. After carefully cutting the cloth with a knife, Deturo's brother went to work with a less-than-traditional electric zig-zag sewing machine.
As the pictures show, the seams of the sail ran vertically between the spars instead of horizontally as would be expected. Quarter-inch cord was sewn into the seams on the luff and foot of the sail; another cord, outside the seam, was tied to the first with fishing line at three-inch intervals. This cord was then lashed to the spars with fishing line.
Rigging the canoe is simple. The sail is unrolled, the mast is raised, and the shroud is tied to the outrigger
The sailing canoe itself was about 22 feet long. Its sharply-pointed, fine hull narrowed at both the top and bottom. It was carved from a single breadfruit log and planks for gunwales were then sewn on with sennet (coconut fiber) cord. The seams were sealed with breadfruit pitch. The canoe hull had a sharply vertical entry at both ends. I was told that when they first brought their canoes from sandy Kapingamarangi to volcanic Pohnpei, they had experimentally rounded these points so the canoes could be easily dragged ashore on this rocky island. It was found, though, that the modified canoes performed very poorly to windward and were only suitable for paddling or motoring.
Years of vibration from an outboard motor had loosened everything so the canoe needed extensive work. No nails, screws, glue, or other imported fasteners were used on the canoe -- the outrigger was held together with sennet lashings. Somewhat like Manila rope, sennet has a coarse surface so that lashings and slip knots hold fast through friction. When tying down shrouds or the sheet, a turn of the line around an outrigger strut serves as well as an expensive cam cleat.
Preparation of the sail and the canoe continued fitfully for over five months. At first I was impatient and frustrated with the slow pace but gradually I adjusted to island ways, relaxed, and took advantage of this rare opportunity to participate in local village life. Finally, when I had almost given up, Deturo said everything was ready and we went on the first of many day sailing trips both inside and outside Pohnpei's barrier reef. The Northeast trades usually blew at Force 5, raising whitecaps on the lagoon. Occasionally there were brief rain squalls accompanied by storm force winds.
In Kapingamarangi tradition both women and men sail. Linda's job was to stand on the outrigger, shifting her weight to keep it just skimming the water as the Kapingamarangi woman is doing in the photographs. My job was to hunker on the narrow hull with the other (male) crew members. When sailing up wind or on a reach the forward crew member bails while the after one handles the sail. When running before the wind, the forward crew member handles the sheet while the after one holds the steering paddle on the leeward side of the canoe and presses it down with his foot. Normally, one crew member also always has a trawling line tied around his big toe. I never tried this, but my Polynesian teachers all had scars on their toes.
When tacking, the canoe is steered on to a reach and the sail is luffed. Then the tack of the sail is lifted and passed to the other end of the canoe. The sail is sheeted in and the canoe quickly accelerates on a reach on the opposite tack. The canoe is then brought on to its new course.
The canoe is double ended and to change tacks the canoe is turned perpendicular to the wind, the forward crew member lifts the tack of the sail and passes it to the other end of the canoe. The sailor at that end fits the notched end of the yard over the leeward gunwale. The other crewman sheets in the sail and the canoe heads off in the opposite direction. Once it has gained speed it is steered back on course. In this way, the outrigger is always kept on the windward side of the canoe and the rig is held up by the pressure of the wind against the single shroud tied to the outrigger. Instead of having a skipper and crew, the canoe has a starboard tack helmsman, a port tack helmsman, and someone on the outrigger for moveable ballast.
When sailing downwind the canoe is steered by dragging a paddle in the water. When sailing on a reach or when beating, however, steering is accomplished by shifting the crew around or controlling the sail, rather like a sailboard. Move the weight forward and the canoe turns down wind; move the crew aft and it heads up. The center of effort of an Oceanic lateen sail is well forward; sheet in the sail and the boat falls off the wind; ease the sail and the boat points up. Point up a bit too far and the whole rig comes crashing down.
It seems to be essential to the proper performance of the canoe for the outrigger to be completely rigid except for extreme flexibility with respect to twist in the vertical dimension. This flexibility, along with an alert crew, reduces the chance that the outrigger float will submarine when it strikes a wave. Should this happen it brings the canoe sharply up into the wind with a surprising and usually unpleasant result.
Speed and safety depend mostly on the skill and alertness of the crew. For maximum speed the outrigger float is kept skimming just above the waves. On our Kapingamarangi canoe this was accomplished by having a standing crew member walk on the outrigger and sometimes lean out while holding the shroud. We later saw canoes in Kiribati (the Gilbert Islands) with long outriggers like ladders; the crew constantly climbed up and down to keep the boat balanced.
When a violent tropical squall is seen approaching, the rig is quickly taken down and laid on the outrigger frame. The canoe will now naturally lie to with the outrigger to windward. As long as the crew keeps its center of gravity low the canoe can ride out any weather in this way. Voyaging canoes caught in hurricanes make very little leeway and are in now danger as long as the canoe does not break up.
It is no accident that the proa was developed in the tropics. It is a very wet boat and sailing one in my home waters off the coast of Canada would likely result in hypothermia. Bailing is an almost continuous activity when sailing at any appreciable speed and speed is usually appreciable. I clocked our canoe at eleven knots over a one- mile stretch in the lagoon and I know we often went much faster. Voyaging canoes in the Caroline Islands have reportedly made long passages at average speeds of as much as eleven knots and larger Marshallese canoes have been clocked at 16 knots.
As I sit writing this I can feel the salt spray in my face, hear Uruhet laughing and shouting directions in broken English, and see Linda trying to keep her skirt down while standing on the outrigger float. I can remember becoming disoriented in the middle of a tack and the terror of my first time handling the sail. Mostly I remember the sheer exhilaration of slicing through choppy water and surfing down swells.
The only sailing experience I have had which could compare has been sailing in a Hobie Cat. Amazingly, the Oceanic proa was developed about 1,000 years earlier than the Hobie and is built without metal fasteners or other modern materials. It wasn't until the late 19th century that European vessels could match the speed or windward performance of these traditional craft. The canoe we sailed was a small fast boat built for chasing migratory fish; larger canoes were used for voyaging everywhere in the Pacific from Hawaii to Saipan to New Zealand to Easter Island.
More important than the excitement of sailing was the chance it provided us to make friends with Deturo and Uruhet and to have a glimpse of the life of the people of Kapingamarangi. We spent many hours visiting their woodcarving shop as work on the canoe fitfully advanced. We were invited to village feasts. We listened to their beautiful choral singing in the thatched men's house (where they also showed videos). We were able to take the ship Micro Glory to Kapingamarangi itself -- about 20 green islands circling an emerald lagoon. The tidy village on the atoll has an atmosphere of peace and order that seems as old as time. I don't know if they are again taking tourists for canoe rides and I don't know if we started a revival of teaching young people how to sail. I just learned how exciting it can be to experience skills and technology that are completely at peace and of a piece with their environment.
Tom Fulk's account of sailing Yapese canoes in Micronesia (Messing about in Boats, June 15, 1997) was fascinating. His description of the handling of the canoe -- steering entirely with the sail except when running, "tacking" by moving the sail to the other end of the boat (to the total confusion of a neophyte like myself), and the need for continuous bailing -- was very close indeed to my experience. Like the canoes he described, the Kapingamarangi canoe in which I sailed had an asymmetrical hull to improve its windward performance.
The boat in which I sailed (Messing about in Boats, March 15, 1997) had a very simple rig. A halyard was tied to the gaff and run through a bee hole at the masthead. A single shroud was tied to the masthead and the outrigger, preventing the rig from collapsing downwind, away from the outrigger. The boom and gaff fit in a notch at either end of the canoe, and the mast rested in a notch on a moveable thwart. As Tom and I both pointed out in our earlier articles, skillful steering was the only thing keeping the rig from falling in the windward direction. My canoe did not have the doubled sheet or the backstay and forestay he described, although I did see boats with this type of rig in canoe houses in the outer islands of Yap and I have seen many photographs of boats with this type of rigging.
Sailing seems to be disappearing in the Caroline Islands (now the Federated States of Micronesia), but in Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands), another Micronesian country, canoe racing is still an important sport. Linda and I attended the races at the 1988 Independence Day celebrations at Tarawa. The canoes raced across the lagoon and back (a round trip distance of about 30 nautical miles) sailing on a reach both ways. The boats are classed according to sail measurements.
I-Kiribati (Gilbertese) canoes are made of planks sewn together rather than being dugouts like the Kapingamarangi canoe. As the pictures show, the racing canoes were rigged as Tom described with the addition of even more complex tackle connecting the shroud to the outrigger. The pictures also show that sometimes the canoes, like the Kapingamarangi canoe in which I learned, are sailed with the outrigger floats out of the water.
As a design, the outrigger canoe has some definite advantages over other multihulls. With no float to dig in on the leeward side it is faster than a trimaran. The technique of changing ends avoids the tendency of catamarans to miss stays and end up in irons when tacking. The ability to quickly drop the rig and lie a-hull in a storm has allowed many outrigger canoes to survive typhoons. The fine narrow hull is very fast and makes little leeway, and a crew member on the outrigger provides effective moveable ballast.
The canoe I sailed, the one Tom described, and the racing canoes in the pictures, are all small fishing vessels. In the past, the people of Micronesia built much larger voyaging canoes and their traditional navigators were able to safely cross the vast distances of the Pacific ocean. The traditions of navigation and boatbuilding are sill alive in Micronesia, especially in the outer islands of Yap and Chuuk in the Caroline Islands. When the Hawai'ians wanted to re-enact a voyage between Tahiti and Hawai'i in 1976 in the catamaran Hokule'a, they took along Mau Piailug, a Micronesian navigator.
As Tom said, The Canoes of Oceania by Haddon and Hornell is the best source for learning more about the construction of outrigger canoes. To learn more about traditional navigation and voyaging, the best books are We, the Navigators by David Lewis, East is a Big Bird by Thomas Gladwin, and The Last Navigator by Stephen Thomas. For an account of a recent voyage from the Gilbert Islands to Fiji in a large I- Kiribati voyaging canoe, see Taratai by James Siers.
The author and villagers from Nabeina, Tarawa, getting ready for a voyage.
last updated February 2007