The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Sailmaking
1. Introduction and author bio
2. Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood
3. Roughing out the hull
4. Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock
5. Stitch and glue
6. Sanding and gluing
7. Outrigger and booms
9. Lashing the booms to the hull
10. Lashing the booms to the float
Pacific Islanders didn’t have cloth as we know it—woven with threads of fabric. Sure, there was barkcloth (known as tapa or kapa in Hawai‘i), but this is closer to paper than to cloth. In fact, it’s made from the paper mulberry tree (wauke, in Hawaiian) by much the same method as traditional papermaking. It is felted rather than woven, and not strong enough for a sail. On top of that, on these remote islands there were no large mammals to provide hides. Besides, animal hide does not do well in water, and sails do get wet.
The answer was truly ingenious: leaves. That is, leaves of the pandanus tree (hala), which are several feet long and very fibrous. Pandanus, sometimes called screwpine because of its corkscrew growing pattern, is one of the “canoe plants” that Pacific Islanders took with them on the canoes as they migrated across the ocean. Woven pandanus products are still used widely in the region, from small baskets and containers to large mats. And sails.
Tan Floren Meno Paulino (Tan is an honorific for female elders), a master pandanus weaver on Guam, explained to me the processing of pandanus. The hala leaves (lauhala) are picked and dried in the sun. Once a leaf is dry, a simple tool is used to strip off the thread of thorns that runs along each side. The leaf is then rolled into a coil, which sits for a while. When it is unrolled, you have a nice flattened strip of fiber. The leaf can then be pulled through a very simple gizmo that slices it into even widths for weaving. These can be very fine, for small or detailed projects, or wide for mats and sails.
Now pandanus mats are still pretty common throughout the Pacific. They are cheap and easy to make, last a long time, and are infinitely useful. But the standard over-and-under box weaving that is used to make mats is not the same as that used for sails. Samples in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu show that sail-weaving uses a twill pattern—over two and under two. This is said to provide more strength for flexing in heavy winds. One doesn’t see this much anymore.
Sails were apparently made from a series of mats stitched together. Here is a WWII-era photo from Ulithi Atoll taken by Marshall Paul Wees, a U.S. Navy doctor stationed there during the war. You can see that the men have staked out the sail pattern on the ground with pegs and string, and are then stitching together a series of strip-shaped mats into a sail.
Back in the old days, stitching would have been done with needles made from bone, usually bones of large sea birds. Here is an old image of bone needles from the Bishop Museum.
These days the process is more prosaic, since the fabrics and tools are available ready-made. Wharram’s Melanesia design uses what’s commonly called a crab claw sail, after its shape. This shape was common throughout much of the Pacific, though the sailor and scholar David Lewis speculated that it was replaced in central Polynesia by Micronesian-style sails like the one shown on the Carolinian-style canoe below.
Because my canoe is a cheap do-it-yourself project, my sail is made from common blue tarpaulin from the hardware store. It doesn’t look fancy, and it won’t last a terribly long time since the plastic breaks down in sunlight, but it certainly is inexpensive!
I must admit, I thought making the sail for this boat would be the most boring part. A lot of stitching, stitching, and stitching. After hewing logs into outrigger and booms, the idea of such minute work had little appeal. I was so wrong!
Step one is to cut the sail shape out of the tarp. The instructions weren’t as clear on how to do this as I would have liked, but I managed. Here is the tarp after I had cut out the pattern.
Next you lay a rope along the two sides that attach to the mast and the spar (the luff and the foot, if you must), but not the curve (or leech). The edge of the tarp is then folded over, and you use a very simple large stitch to attach this rope inside the tarp. I used polyester thread intended for exterior usage.
So, on a hot summer day in Baltimore, with the giant windows in my lofty apartment open, I sat on the floor in my lavalava stitching this sail, listening to a CD of Micronesian songs and chants. It was easy to feel that I was in a canoe house somewhere in the Pacific, doing what men have done for millennia: making a sail. It was wonderful.
The next step is to lay a second rope alongside the outside of the edge you have just stitched, and to stitch it on heavily every six inches. Basically, you are attaching loops of rope on the outside of the sail to the rope stitched inside the edge of the sail. These loops are what will be used to attach the sail to the mast and boom. A whole lot of stitching. The top edge (or leech) of the sail is simply stitched for reinforcement, since it is not attached to anything.
Now you can see the edge of the sail where it is attached to the mast. Clearly visible are both the rope inside the material, and the rope stitched to the outside every six inches, creating loops. Another rope passes through these loops and around the mast and boom. It’s so easy my five-year-old son could help.
And voilà! A sail! I painted a frigate bird on it, because I named this canoe Namaka‘iwa, “eyes of the frigate bird.”
Now to the last step: rigging the canoe and getting ready to sail it.
—Douglas Herman, NMAI
Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. On April 22, as part of the Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit, he will give an illustrated lecture at the museum in Washington, D.C., on traditional leadership and resource management practices in old Hawai‘i. Doug curated the exhibition E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, on view January 2016 to January 2017. He also blogs for the Smithsonian and is the institution's liaison with the round-the-world voyage of the Hōkūleʻa.
All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.