Outrigger Canoes of Fiji

Fiji - Scott #132 (1940)
Fiji – Scott #132 (1940)

The best thing about “random stamp days” is that I get to pick a stamp that normally wouldn’t be written about if I were to adhere to my usual policy of marking event anniversaries (apart from the occasional stamp-issuing entity profile). The issuer profiles have been few and far between since November as I haven’t added too many new places to my “Stamps from (Almost) Everywhere” collection lately.

The lovely King George VI pictorials that many British Commonwealth members began releasing in 1938 have long been a favorite of mine; in many cases, they represent the first “local” views of many a colony on its stamps. In many cases, they were a entity’s first bicolor issues as well and the engraved designs were almost without exception quite striking. I’d have to check, but I think the designs were all from the in-house team at Thomas de la Rue Co. Ltd. although Waterlow & Sons Ltd. did print some of the stamps.

Fiji has long held a place in my heart and I can’t really tell you why. I’ve never been there. I don’t remember if the Fijian stamps were the first of the 1938-55 KGVI pictorials I ever came across but I do recall a few residing in my first album, a 1938-edition of Scott’s Modern Postage Stamp Album that had been my mother’s when she’d been an active collector during World War II. She and her older brother George lived across the street from the New Mexico state capitol building in Santa Fe and used to obtain many of their stamps from discarded letters they would find in a large trash receptacle outside. Yes, my mom and uncle “dumpster-dove” for stamps! Mom gave me her old album around for either my birthday or Christmas when I was about nine or ten years old and Uncle George gave me his album (a 1935 edition Scott Modern) a year or two later.

The Fiji pictorials began appearing on April 5, 1938, and would eventually comprise thirteen main designs (and a few corrections) but with several changes in perforation gauge creating some 18 major numbers (by Scott) and another five minor numbers with the last being released in 1955 (Scott #117-131B). Mistakes in the first batch included an extra latitude line, missing longitude degree (180°), and even an extra island! There’s even a case of “one of these things is not like the others” in my opinion as the Government Buildings portrayed on Scott #121 and 121a 2-pence magenta and green just don’t look right when viewed alongside the more indigenous views seen on other stamps of the series. Of course, there is also the famous “empty canoe” (Scott #119) which I still don’t own a copy of (okay, a quick detour to eBay has solved that one…). The missing degrees were added to the 2-pence and 6-pence maps in redrawn (Die II) stamps issued on October 1, 1940 (Scott #133 and 135, with a new denomination — Scott #134, 2½ pence — added on  January 6, 1942). At the same time as the map corrections, today’s stamp was released with a man happily paddling away in the outrigger canoe (Scott #132).

As you can tell, this set of stamps is quite interesting (and the Fijian postal authorities reused several of the designs in the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign as well) and is ripe for specialization. More details on this latter aspect, apart from those mentioned above, can be found in a June 2016 article published on the Linn’s Stamp News website as well as on British dealer Murray Payne’s site. In fact, I quoted from the Linn’s article on my own stamp entity profile of Fiji which featured the 1-pence native village stamp from this series (Scott #118).

The 1½-penny rose carmine stamp picturing the Fijian outrigger sailing canoe of a type known locally as a waqa ni Viti or camakau was designed by Miss C.D. Lovejoy and recess printed in both its empty and occupied incarnations by Thomas de la Rue Ltd. on paper with a multi-script CA watermark. Die I (issued on April 5, 1938) and the initial release of Die II (October 1, 1940) were perforated 13½. A version perforated 14 was released in June 1942 (Scott #132b) and one perforated 12 was issued July 21, 1949 (Scott #132a). Additionally, the Stanley Gibbons catalogue lists a shade variety of deep carmine, released in October 1942 (SG #252a), presumably in a gauge of 13½.

There are many varieties and names for the outrigger canoe, and its not exclusive to the Pacific Ocean although they are best known from various ancestors of different Polynesian peoples. In Hawaii, it’s called a wa’a, a va’a in both Tahitian and Samoan, vaka in Cook Islands Maori, waka ama in New Zealand Māori, bangka in Filipino, and bangka or Jukung in Indonesian. Here in Thailand, I have never seen an outrigger canoe of this type but it can be translated as pie rua ka noo (พายเรือแคนู) — useful if I decide to have one made (which I am seriously thinking about following my research for today’s article).

The Fijian camakau is a type of canoe featuring one or more lateral support floats known as outriggers, which are fastened to one or both sides of the main hull. Smaller canoes often employ a single outrigger on the port side, while larger canoes may employ a single-outrigger, double-outrigger, or double-hull configuration (see also catamaran). The sailing canoes are an important part of the Polynesian heritage and are raced and sailed in Fiji, Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa and by the Māori of New Zealand. They are also very popular in Puerto Rico.

A small outrigger sailing canoe, seen in the waters off Fiji.
A small outrigger sailing canoe, seen in the waters off Fiji.

Unlike a single-hulled canoe, an outrigger or double-hull canoe generates stability as a result of the distance between its hulls rather than due to the shape of each individual hull. As such, the hulls of outrigger or double-hull canoes are typically longer, narrower and more hydrodynamically efficient than those of single-hull canoes. Compared to other types of canoes, outrigger canoes can be quite fast, yet are also capable of being paddled and sailed in rougher water. This paddling technique, however, differs greatly from kayaking or rowing. The paddle, or blade, used by the paddler is single sided, with either a straight or a double-bend shaft. Despite the single paddle, an experienced paddler will only paddle on one side, using a technique such as a J-stroke to maintain heading and stability.

The outrigger float is called the ama in many Polynesian languages (compare Hawaiian ama, Maori ama, and Samoan ama, all meaning ‘outrigger float’). Similar terms also exist in other Malayo-Polynesian languages, such as Pohnpeian dahm, Yapese thaam, Ambonese Malay semang, all meaning ‘outrigger float’, as well as Chamorro sakman meaning ‘[a] large canoe — from Polynesia or Papua, [with] no outrigger, capable of carrying over 100 people’. The outrigger boom — spars connecting the ama to the main hull (or the two hulls in a double-hull canoe) — are called ʻiako in Hawaiian and kiato in Māori (with similar words in other Polynesian languages).

Single-hull outrigger canoes have an ama connected to the main hull by the spars The ama, which is usually rigged on the left side, provides stability. The paddlers need to be careful to avoid leaning too far on the opposite side of the ama, as that may cause the canoe to capsize (huli or lumaʻi). Outrigger sailing canoes range from smaller three or four-person canoes to large voyaging canoes. Sailing canoes may have one ama, two amas (one on each side, but only one side is normally in contact with the water), or a double-hull configuration (like a catamaran).

The ships of Abel Tasman's expedition, right-center, and Polynesian outrigger canoe (a Tongan tongiaki) as well as a bonito fishing canoe, front, meet off the coast of one of the Fiji Islands in 1643. This engraving by A Dalrymple, 1770, is based on a drawing by Tasman. Reproduced in We, the Navigators by David Lewis, Australian National University Press, 1972.
The ships of Abel Tasman’s expedition, right-center, and Polynesian outrigger canoe (a Tongan tongiaki) as well as a bonito fishing canoe, front, meet off the coast of one of the Fiji Islands in 1643. This engraving by A. Dalrymple, 1770, is based on a drawing by Tasman. Reproduced in We, the Navigators by David Lewis, Australian National University Press, 1972.

Outrigger canoes were originally developed by the Austronesian-speaking peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia for sea travel. They were used to transport these peoples both eastward to Polynesia and New Zealand and westward across the Indian Ocean as far as Madagascar during the Austronesian migration period. While today they can be found in East Africa (e.g. the ungalawa of Tanzania), the Austronesian peoples (Filipino, Malay, Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian peoples) continue to be the primary users of the outrigger canoes.

Outrigger fishing canoes are also used among certain non-Austronesian groups, such as the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, where they are known as oruwa, as well as among some groups in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands west of Thailand and east of India. The ethnological significance of this spread has been studied by James Hornell.

When Magellan’s ships first encountered the Chamorros of the Mariana Islands in 1521, Antonio Pigafetta recorded that the Chamorros’ sailboats far surpassed Magellan’s in speed and maneuverability.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society has two double-hull sailing canoes, Hokulea and Hawaiiloa, and sails them between various islands in the Pacific using traditional Polynesian navigation methods without instruments. The Hikianalia and Alingano Maisu are other extant double-hulled voyaging canoes.

The technology has persisted into the modern age. Outrigger canoes can be quite large fishing or transport vessels. In the Philippines, outrigger canoes (called bangka, parao or balanghai) are often fitted with petrol engines. The links between seafaring and outrigger canoes in the Philippines extend through to political life, in which the smallest political unit in the country is still called Barangay after the historical Balangay outrigger proas used in the original migrations of the first Austronesian peoples across the archipelago and beyond.

Sketch of Fijian outrigger canoe with lateen sail, date not given, by Ethel Richardson. Te Papa (MU000049/009/0004)
Sketch of Fijian outrigger canoe with lateen sail, date not given, by Ethel Richardson. Te Papa (MU000049/009/0004)

The single outrigger canoe of Fiji, as seen in 1829-31 by the writer of The Wreck of the Glide, is described as follows:

The single canoe is furnished with an outrigger — that is, a stick of timber about the length of the canoe and parallel with it. Into the upper part of this log small but strong sticks are placed vertically and close together, as high as the top of the canoe. Over them and the side of the canoe is a bamboo platform like that in the double canoes. The object of the outrigger is to prevent upsetting.

In describing a canoe seen in the Fiji Islands, Charles Wilkes who led the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, wrote:

It had a magnificent appearance, with its immense sail of white mats; the pennants streaming from its yard…. It was a single canoe, one hundred feet in length, with an outrigger of large size, ornamented with a great number of the Cypraea ovula shells; its velocity was almost inconceivable, and every one was struck with the adroitness with which it was managed and landed on the beach.”

Wilkes also wrote about a Fijian king, saying that “When Tanoa launches a canoe, ten or more men are slaughtered on the deck, in order that it may be washed with human blood.”

Three canoes were seen by Wilkes in course of construction at one of the Fiji Isles. One of these was 102 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 5 feet deep; the other two were somewhat smaller. Captain Wilkes, by the way, is much better known as the commander of a ship during the American Civil War (1861–1865) which attacked a Royal Mail Ship, almost leading to war between the United States and Great Britain in what became known as the Trent Affair.

A member of the crew of the Glide, which visited Fiji in 1829 and was wrecked there in 1831, wrote:

The Fijians have two sorts of canoes, double and single. The double canoe is so called from its having two canoes, of nearly equal size, placed parallel with each other and about four feet apart, and covered with a platform of bamboo sticks. The canoe is furnished with a mast, grooved in the top to admit the halyards. The sail is triangular in form, and is made of straw mats sewed together. Some of these double canoes are nearly as long as a ship, and will carry from three to four hundred men.

The Friendly-Islanders frequently ply their large double canoes to and from the Fijis, a distance of about three hundred miles. Taking advantage of favourable winds, and directing their course in the daytime by the sun, and in the night by the moon and stars, they rarely deviate from a straight course between the groups. I have frequently seen their canoes sailing in a heavy sea at the rate of nine or ten knots an hour. The incredible swiftness of these canoes I regard as an argument in support of the supposition which refers the origin of this people to the Asiatic continent.

Model of a Fijian outrigger sailing canoe displayed at an exhibition by the Vatican Museums in the Vatican City, December 2016.
Model of a Fijian outrigger sailing canoe displayed at an exhibition by the Vatican Museums in the Vatican City, December 2016.

A paper on Fijian canoes appeared in the 1915 edition of Transactions of the Fijian Society, translated by Mr. G. A. Beauclerc, describing the following types of canoe:

  • Takia. A small dugout canoe with outrigger, propelled by paddlers only, used for river and longshore work.
  • Wanga vakatau. A dugout vessel with top-strakes attached; these are termed bava. The ends are covered in with pieces called tau. With this canoe two forms of sail are used — the vakasave, which is hauled up the mast, and the dumu, which is apparently attached to the mast and the whole lifted together.
  • Thamakau. A large sailing-canoe provided with an outrigger. It is sometimes made in two pieces, in which case it is described as a veikoso.
  • Wanga drua, or double canoe. A built-up vessel. The keel-piece, termed takele [cf. Maori takere] is in two parts, which, like the haumi of a Maori canoe, are kept rigid by the side planks lashed to them. Series of planks are attached on each side, each series having a distinctive name, the uppermost ones being the baya. In this vessel the log outrigger is replaced by a plank-built canoe, hence this type may be termed a double canoe. The lashings of the various planks are not visible on the outside, and joins are remarkably close and neat. The two vessels are connected by cross-beams, and a house or cabin is built on the deck. It requires many men to manipulate the sails of these large vessels — from forty to a hundred. The steer-oar is very heavy, and needs powerful men to control it in a fresh wind. At such times bailers are busy in both hulls.

The sails of these vessels are made from leaves of the pandanus. The yards of the lateen-like sail are hoisted by means of halyards passed through a hole at the top of the mast, or over a crotch.

An undated photograph of Maori racing outrigger sailing canoes off the coast of New Zealand in the early twentieth century.
An undated photograph of Maori racing outrigger sailing canoes off the coast of New Zealand in the early twentieth century.

The mingling of Polynesians with the Melanesian folk of Fiji in former times seems to be reflected in the language. Thus, in Fijian, we note Maori terms in canoe nomenclature, as in wanga, or wanka, a canoe (Maori waka); drua, a double canoe (Maori rua = two); thama, outrigger of a canoe (Maori ama); maulailai, small end of a canoe, and others. Also, wanka bears in Fijian the same double meaning (1, canoe; 2, the shrine of a god) that waka does in Maori.

A later work called Fiji and the Fijians lists four classes of canoes found in Fiji: the velovelo, the camakau (as depicted on our stamp), the tabilai, and the drua. All have various modifications of the outrigger (cama) and are distinguished by peculiarities in the hull. The velovelo (or, more properly, the takia as mentioned above) is open throughout its length like a boat, and the spars to which the cama is secured rest on the gunwale. The camakau has a solid spar for its cama: the hull has a deck over the middle third of its length, twice its own width, and raised on a deep plank built edgeways on each gunwale. Between the edge of this deck and the outrigger all is open. The projecting ends of. the canoe, which are lower than the main deck or platform, as much as the depth of the plank on which it is raised, are each covered with one solid triangular piece of wood, hollowed underneath, and thickest at the broad end next the center deck, to which it thus forms a gradual ascent. The two ridges formed by the hollowing underneath on the sides of the triangle are united to the edge of the hull, so as to completely box it up. The rig of the camakau is the same as that of the double canoe, and from the small resistance this build offers to the water it is the “clipper” of Fiji, and the vessel described under the name of pirogue in the Imperial Dictionary.

The tahilai is a link between the camakau and drua, and is made with the outrigger of either. It is often of great length, several feet at each end being solid wood, cut away something like the hull of a ship sternward, the stern-post of the ship representing the cut-water of the canoe, which, instead of being sharp, presents a square perpendicular edge to the water. This is the same at both ends, and is distinctive of the class.

The drua, or double canoe, differs from the rest in having another smaller canoe for its outrigger, and the deck is laid across both. According to some sources, the last Fijian drua was built in 1943 on the island of Ongea and was intended to carry copra. Only two original druas appear to have survived, both of them small. One, named Sema Makawa, is in the New Zealand Maritime Museum. The second one is Ratu Finau, at the Fiji Museum in Suva. In late October 2016, a new drua was completed and launched at Navua in Serua province on Viti Levu Fiji’s main island. At 51 feet long and able to carry 15 passengers with a crew of four, the i Vola Siga Vou is the largest drua built in Fiji.

For much more about Fijian and other types of Polynesian outrigger canoes, I recommend The Maori Canoe by Elsdon Best which originally appeared in the Dominion Museum Bulletin No. 7 (Wellington, 1925) and can be found online in the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection of the Victoria University of Wellington Library, along with many other fascinating pieces.

Racing outrigger canoes. The canoe in the front right, with a narrower hull and smaller body, is a single-person outrigger canoe, or OC1. The other canoes are six-person outrigger canoes, or OC6. Photo taken on March 16, 2007.
Racing outrigger canoes. The canoe in the front right, with a narrower hull and smaller body, is a single-person outrigger canoe, or OC1. The other canoes are six-person outrigger canoes, or OC6. Photo taken on March 16, 2007.

Outrigger canoe racing has become a popular canoeing sport, with numerous clubs located around the world. Outrigger Canoe Racing is the state sport of Hawaii and an interscholastic high school sport. In Hawaii, entire families participate in summer regattas with age groups from keiki (children as young as six years old with an adult steersperson) and age 12 through age 60+.

Major races in Hawaii include the Molokaʻi Hoe 43-mile (69 km) men’s race from the island of Molokai to Oahu across the Kaiwi Channel, Na Wahine O Ke Kai (the same race for women) and the Queen Liliʻuokalani Race held near Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Six-person outrigger canoes (or OC6) are among the most common used for sport use; single-person outrigger canoes (or OC1) are also very common. Two- and four-person outrigger canoes are also sometimes used, and two six-person outrigger canoes are sometimes rigged together like a catamaran to form a twelve-person double canoe.

Modern OC6 hulls and amas are commonly made from glass-reinforced plastic. However, some canoes are made of more traditional materials. In Ancient Hawaii, canoes were carved from the trunks of very old koa trees. These canoes, although rare, are still very much in use today. The ʻiako are usually made of wood; the ʻiako-ama and ʻiako-hull connections are typically done with rope wrapped and tied in interlocking fashion to reduce the risk of the connection coming completely apart if the rope breaks.

Modern OC1 hulls and amas are commonly made from glass-reinforced plastic, carbon fiber reinforced plastic, and/or Kevlar to produce a strong but light canoe. OC1 are often made with rudders operated by foot pedals. More traditional designs do not have rudders. OC1 commonly use ʻiako made of aluminum, with a mechanism for quickly assembling and disassembling the canoe (snap buttons, large wing nuts, etc.).

Longer races involving the OC6 often involve paddler replacements, which involve exit and entry to the canoe directly from the water while the canoe is under way (this is called a water change). Typically, nine paddlers form a crew, with six paddling the OC6 and the other three resting, drinking, and/or eating on an escort boat. Replacement typically occurs at 20 to 30 minute intervals; the escort boat drops the relief paddlers into the water ahead of the OC6, which is steered toward them. The relief paddlers climb in on the ama side as those they are replacing roll out into the water on the opposite side. The escort boat then picks up the paddlers in the water so that they can rest, drink, and/or eat before they in turn relieve some of the paddlers in the OC6.

The longer races are typically conducted in the open ocean, e.g. between islands in the South Pacific, the Molokaʻi Hoe in Hawaii, the Hamilton Cup in Australia, the Vaka Eiva in Rarotonga (Cook Islands), the Motu2Motu in Aitutaki (Cook Islands) and the Catalina Channel crossing in California are four examples of races involving water changes.

In Fiji, the Fiji Outrigger Canoe Racing Association is the governing body for outrigger canoe racing. There are currently six active clubs in the island country: Lami Kaiwai OCC, Takia OCC, Tafaga OCC, Ocean Pacific CC, Nadi Bay CC, and Savusavu OCC.

Fiji flag (1970-present)

One thought on “Outrigger Canoes of Fiji

  1. Re: “An undated photograph of Maori racing outrigger sailing canoes off the coast of New Zealand in the early twentieth century.”

    In fact this photo shows two Fijian “camakau” racing each other somewhere in Fiji – probably around the time of the Queen’s visit to Fiji in 1953 shortly after her coronation . The photographer was Robert Wright. The photo can be seen on this web-page . . .


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