pirogue mélanienne à balancier

Pacific islands sailing canoes

pirogue micronésienne

In 1831, Jules Dumont d'Urville classifies the Pacific Islands in three entities:
  • Polynesia (” many islands “) which comprises the islands and archipelagos between New Zealand, Hawaii and the Easter Island 
  • Melanesia (” black islands “) which forms an arc located at the North and the North-East of Australia and the South of Micronesia, with Fiji New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Guinea
  • Micronesia (” small islands “) in the North-West of the Pacific, in a triangle between Hawaii, Philippines and New Guinea; it gathers the states of Micronesia, Marshall, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau as well as Mariannes and Guam.

The dugouts of the Pacific are different by their sails (crab-claw or half-crab-claw, triangular, Latin), by their hulls (simple or double), the presence of a beam, a bridge in case of double hull. The ends of the hulls can differ. Their masts can be right or made of double spars. The hulls can be dug in a tree trunk or composed of an assembly of boards. The dugouts differ according to their use (fishing, war, voyage in open sea) and from the geographical surface (beach, lagoon, reefs,…). One also distinguishes the dugouts that tack and those that shunt. Tacking rigs are similar to those seen in most parts of the world, but shunting rigs change tack by reversing the sail from one end of the hull to the other. The former bow becomes the stern and vice versa.

Amastasi Amastasi
AMATASI is rigged with sails made by sheets of pandanus (a family of trees including the coconut) braided and linked on 2 members. Attached together, large double dugouts of 30-60 feet length could carry 25 men on hundreds of miles off Samoa-Tonga


Mangareva (Polynesian “floating mountain”) is the main and most central of the Gambier islands being 8 km long on 1.5 km in its greater width (15.4 sq km). Pitcairn is located at 350 miles in the SE of Mangareva, 900 miles east of Tahiti. According to the legend, the arrogant Taratahi chief was forced to leave Mangareva and sailed to a named island Mata-ki-te-rangi, which could be Pitcairn.


VAKA is a Maori term in Cook islands which means at the same time tribe (“vaka tangata”), or dugout (“vaka tere”). In the other Polynesian languages, the term also exists with an identical or close meaning, va' a (Tahitian), waka (Maori of New Zealand), vaka in Wallisian…

The single hull dugouts could also reach several tens of meters length and be used for ocean trade.

WAKA are Maori watercrafts, from the small current dugouts for fishing and the river transport (waka tiwai), to the large war canoes (waka taua), decorated, where the length can reach 40 meters (130 ft).

VA'A TEU'UA: example of war canoe with inlayed stern. 
The Pacific peoples did not know metal; the construction of the dugouts was made exclusively with vegetable matters.
Pirogue de l'ile des Pins Pirogue d'Ouvea

The dugout of the isle of Pines is rigged with a Latin Micronesian rig, initially introduced in Fiji and spread from there in Tonga and Samoa. Rigging is almost identical to that of the Fijian dugouts, with in particular the rhombus flattened at the top of the mast, and perforated to let pass the rope. The mast is inclined towards an end or the other according to the direction, because these dugouts are always double-ended.

On the Ouvéa dugout, the old sail is a typical Melanesian sail, triangular, a plait pandanus sail, with a yard parallel to the mast and an oblique gaff sail boom, joined together as a V at their lower end.

Pahi Pahi

The PAHI was intended for large and long voyages. She was operated by 4 to 8 men according to her size, which was from 17 to 25 meters. She was made of two assembled dugouts; the bridge makes it possible to approximately 16 people to take seat with their provisions under a shelter. The two masts are unequal, the back mast being smaller. A scale of bamboo makes it possible to go up to the mast and to attach or detach the sail without putting down the mast

Pahi (Raiatea)

This PAHI of Raiatea carries only one mast; the hut, in the centre, could be transported on the ground to constitute a provisional shelter. It is also the symbol of the transposition at sea of the Polynesian society on the land, thus respecting social and symbolic balance land-sea, while the tikis of Polynesian hall of fame, in bows and sterns, protect the dugout and its occupants. A fire was also often maintained on board, in an oven made up of coral flagstones and was embedded in the central bridge.

Camakau Drua
The CAMAKAU is the most common kind of Fijian sailing canoes. The sail, in pandanus, is triangular with the apex pointing downwards and attached to one of the ends of the canoe. The hull, of about 10 to 12 m long, is carved from a single tree. The craft is double ended and may be sailed either way. The mast is pivoted at the head and rake is reversed when going about.
DRUA, also known as Na Drua , N'drua, NDRUA or Vaka Tepu (sacred canoe), is a double hull dugout originating from south-west Pacific islands. Unlike the CAMAKAU, the beam is not a simple log but a dug trunk as important as the hull. DRUA is a double ended dugout: the both ends of each hull are identical, but the hulls are of different sizes and the smaller one is always sailed to windward.

The first description of the TONGIAKI was made by the Dutch sailors Willem Schouten off Tafahi in 1616 and Abel Tasman close to Tonga in 1643. This double voyage canoe could carry up to 150 people, according to James Cook, on a platform installed on two identical hulls.


MASAWA is the name given to the outriggers of the Trobriand islands, an archipelago off the Eastern coast of New Guinea, used for navigation in open sea, with a rudimentary manufacturing (the spars are large branches) but strongly linked to the cultural rites of the islands. The bow and stern carry a carved motif (sea eagle)

Lakatoi Lakatoi

This large canoe, called LAKATOI, was used by Motu people who lived in Port Moresby, for transporting materials for trade around the Gulf of Papua.

Tipareua Tipairua

The TIPAIRUA or voyaging canoe has distinctive sails in half crab-claw and a hull out of wooden of breadfruit tree. This kind of primitive canoe was probably used to the travellers of central Polynesia. Tipaerua were the vessels of the kings and the chiefs and could exceed 21 meters (70 feet) long. This "catamaran"  is manned by from four to twenty men, according to its size.

A Canoe of the Sandwich Islands, the Rowers Masked, designed during Cook's third voyage

Plate 65 From the Atlas Accompanying Capt. James Cook and King "A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean"

John Ledyard, on board Resolution  when Cook was slain by the Hawaiians, said of the assembly of the natives: “they had assembled from the interior and the coast. Three thousand canoes were counted in the bay”. The missionary William Ellis: “The canoes of Sandwich islands appear eminently calculated for swiftness, being low, narrow, generally light, and drawing but little water. A canoe is always made out of a single tree: some of them are upward of seventy feet long, one or two feet wide, and sometimes more than three feet deep, though in length they seldom exceed fifty feet. The body of the canoe is generally covered with a black paint…. On the upper edge of the canoe is sewed, in a remarkably ordered way, a small band of hard whitewood, six to eight inches of width, according to the size and the length of the canoe. These bands meet and are closed on the top at both stem and stern…”

A replica of wa’a kaulua, a Polynesian voyaging canoe with double hull has sailed in 1976 under the name of Hokulea, with an overall length of 62 ' 5” (18.7 m), 54 ' at the waterline (16.5 m) Sails of crab-claw type.

The Wallisian dugout iss rigged with a 4 peaks (quadrangular) Melanesian sail 

Walap YAP
The WALAP of Enewetak carries a platform and the hull is dug in a breadfruit tree. Yap is one of Caroline islands, in Micronesia, where inhabitants were sailing without compass, being directed with stars. The Micronesian outrigger carries a triangular lateen sail.
The Micronesian proa type whose main characteristics are: single main hull, outrigger-mounted float/ballast, and asymmetric hull profile. WALAPs have a lee platform. Like all pacific proas, they are always sailed with the outrigger to windward, they do not tack but "shunt" (reverse direction), so both ends of the boat are identical. The distinction between bow and stern depends only on the actual direction of the boat.



Most of the outrigger canoes used at Pohnpei (one of the 4 Micronesian states) and nearby islands was of the "wa" type, she was made from a dugout hull, rounded in cross sections. Flat bottom amidships rising to overhanging, pointed ends sharp at cutwater. Multiple thwarts; small platform amidships rested on outrigger booms.
Length 6 - 9 metre with a beam of 0.34 metre with a dept of 0.44 metre.

The KAEP is a double ended prao, where the mast is swivelling. The average length of the hull is of ten meters, her width of 35 cm. and her maximum height of 90 cm. 

The outrigger dugouts were used in the lagoon and correspond to those used nowadays; but of others, larger, may have a sail to go from an island to another; they were called va'a motu. The hull’s parts were tied with nape or braided coconut fibre seams, and caulking was achieved with coconut fibres impregnated with burnt breadfruit tree’s resin.
However, thanks to the competitions or fa’atïtïäu’ara’a which have highlighted them for nearly one hundred and fifty years, outrigger sailing canoes have never disappeared and one can always admire them sailing in the lagoons of Tahiti and Bora Bora.


KOSRAE is a large interisland voyage canoe used in the Kiribati Group and the central Pacific Islands. Used for exploration, migration and trade voyages; she was capable to stay at sea for weeks. Double ended hull, planked up from a sharp keel piece that curved up at the ends to the top strake.



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