The History and Culture of the Outrigger Canoe

Sitting in my OC1, rocking gently on the ocean’s surface and feeling the slight breeze as it brushes softly against my cheeks always stills my mind and calms my spirit.  As I sit there and take in the beauty surrounding me above and below the surface I feel the spirit of the canoe envelop me.  As I gaze out at the expansive ocean before me, I can’t help but let my mind wander and I can almost see those first sailing canoes arriving on the islands for the first time.  

Thousands of years ago large double-hulled outrigger sailing canoes, led by Polynesian explorers navigating by only the stars and migrating birds, landed on the shores of the Hawaiian Islands.  Successfully traversing thousands of miles over open ocean without modern navigation equipment to guide them was a testament to the exceptional voyaging, navigational and canoe building skills of these ancient people.  These voyaging canoes had a large platform situated between the two hulls that carried the people, edible plants, water, animals and all that was required to survive the long journey and establish life in a new land.  It served as their “island” during the long, treacherous journeys across the oceans. 

Once they landed on the southern shores of the island of Hawaii, they discovered the large Koa trees standing over 100 feet tall.  These were perfect for carving canoes out of single log and ensured that their society could flourish.  Building a new canoe involved the work and dedication of many people and included cultural and traditional practices.  A kahuna, or Hawaiian priest, had to search for the perfect site and tree by following the ‘elepaio, or Hawaiian forest bird, into the forest.  The ‘elepaio was attracted to rotting Koa wood so if the bird began pecking at a tree it indicated the wood could not provide for the strong structure it took to build a canoe.  Once finding the perfect tree, the kahuna would then gather the canoe builders and other workers, staying throughout the building process offering prayers and blessings. 

Once the tree was transported back to shore, which often required the effort of hundreds of men over several days, the hull was finished in a special halau, or canoe shed.  One of the most highly honored members of the ancient Hawaiian society was the canoe carver, or kalai wa’a.  Black paint, made from a mixture of plants and charcoal, was then added to the outer layer of the canoe to help keep it waterproof.  For the Ali’i, or royalty, hens’ eggs were used to make the paint shiny and glossy.  The final act of building the canoe was the sacrifice of a dog and pig, which symbolized the tearing apart of the billows of the ocean and the rooting of the canoe into the open sea, respectively.  Noho, or canoe seats, were often named after the paddler instead of the position number, and specialized wood artisans were given the task of making the paddles, all of which were customized for each owner and displayed proudly inside the paddler’s home. 

Outrigger canoes were integral to the culture and survival of the ancient Hawaiian people.  The rugged terrain was not always passable on foot so outrigger canoes were used to transport people and supplies to different parts of the island and between islands.  Some had sails to help traverse the rough waters between the islands while others moved by the power of unified paddling over shorter distances.  They had smaller two-man or four-man vessels that were used for fishing and trade.  During war time these canoes carried weapons and helped facilitate surprise attacks on rivals.  Given how central the canoe was to life in ancient Hawaii, it is not a surprise that canoe carvers were revered members of society.  

When Captain Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1779, he counted at least 1,500 outrigger canoes.  It is estimated that there were likely 6,000 to 12,000 canoes across the islands to serve a population of about 200,000 people.   At this time a shift to more European ways of life was taking shape.  Canoe racing and placing bets on races was frowned upon by the European settlers so paddling was banned.   

This ban lasted nearly 100 years.  In 1875 King Kalakaua brought back the sport of outrigger racing by naming his birthday, November 16th, official annual regatta day.  In 1908 the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded on Oahu and it helped shepherd in the revival of the nearly lost sports of outrigger canoe racing and surfing.   

In 1975 historian and Polynesian Voyaging Society member Herb Kawainui Kane designed the Hokule’a, a replica of the large sailing canoes that first brought the Polynesian settlers to Hawaii.  In 1976 the Hokule’a departed Honolua Bay, Maui and safely arrived in Tahiti 34 days later.  The crew navigated using the traditional methods employed by those who first came to the islands.  Today, this canoe travels the world to educate and keep alive the Hawaiian culture and the magical way of life experienced across these beautiful islands.   

Canoes are not just boats, they are part of the fabric of Hawaiian culture, representing the struggles and triumphs of its people through the ages.  Their distinct lack of ornamentation is traditional for all outrigger canoes and is necessitated by the challenges faced when paddling in the rough Hawaiian waters.  Today there are over 80 canoe clubs across the Hawaiian Islands and many more around the world.   In the outrigger canoe culture, each journey carries the mana of our ancestors, guiding us along our way.  Today the canoe itself is a revered member of the crew, just as it was thousands of years ago.  

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