Our Vaka

Polynesian Traditional Twin hull Vaka

Polynesians developed the double-hulled canoe (sometimes called a twin-hulled canoe or catamaran) to sail in the rougher waters of the open Pacific. Some of these canoes were very large – one Fijian ndrua measured 36 metres long (Cook’s Endeavour was 33 metres). European explorers and missionaries reported ndrua carrying up to 250 people.

Ndrua had two hulls, one slightly longer than the other. The longer main hull could bear the weight of heavy loads; the shorter hull allowed manoeuvrability, functioning in much the same way as an outrigger.

The Tongan adaptation of ndrua was called kalia, and the Samoan equivalent was ‘alia. They were best suited for ferrying large numbers of people on trips between nearby islands.

For long distances, double-hulled canoes were generally shorter (about 20 metres). Such vessels were capable of travelling from 150 to 250 km a day. Tongans used the tongiaki and Samoans the va‘a-tele, and an outrigger called an amatasi. Tahitians used the pahi and tipairua: on one occasion Cook saw six of these canoes, each 23 metres in length. The Rarotongan double-hull was called vaka-katea. Hawaiian double-hulls were wa‘a-kaulua, usually about 20 metres long; although one, probably used for inter-island sailing, measured 33 metres and reputedly carried over 100 people.

Hulls, sails and steering paddlesCanoes could have two main hull shapes: the fast V-shape, and the more manoeuvrable U-shape. All double-hulled canoes sat high in the water to minimise drag, and were therefore capable of great speeds. Several types of sail were used on traditional craft. Forming a V-shape, sails caught more wind on masts which, made from natural materials, were much shorter than those of modern yachts.

Steering paddles were long, some over 6 metres. Length served two purposes: one was to steer the canoe; the other was to prevent the vessel being pushed sideways by the wind and sea swell. When plunged deep into the water, paddles had much the same function as the keel on a modern yacht.The Vaka Moana is our largest traditional canoe. It is a fully autonomous open ocean sailing canoe. Its name means “Boat of the Ocean”.

When James Cook first came to the Tuamotus and other Polynesian islands around 1770, he was inspired by the canoes and made drawings of them. Fortunately these drawings facilitated the lore of the ancient Polynesian knowledge and traditional design and enabled the construction of the first Vaka Moana in recent times. On the basis of James Cook’s old measurements and lines and through the initiative of Sir Thomas Davis, the first Vaka Moana “Te Au O Tonga“ was built in 1994 in Rarotonga/Cook Islands.

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