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April 02, 2017

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Rigging the canoe

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

8. Cordage
9. Lashing the booms to the hull 
10. Lashing the booms to the float 
11. Sailmaking

 

The whole canoe
The whole canoe, rigged for sailing, in my backyard.

The rigging for the Melanesia canoe has a few options, including a windsurfer mast and sail, which I’m sure would work really well. But I’m going for traditional here, even with my sail of blue-tarp, so I opted for the crab claw, as discussed in the previous post. This required a mast and spar. (It’s not really a boom. That’s for the more common Marconi rig). These could have been made of light, strong woods, but I used large-diameter bamboo.

Bamboo is very light and pretty strong for its weight. Moreover, it works really well for how the mast and spar are mounted. Wharram’s instructions tell you to make to Y-shaped pieces from tree branches, and then splice them onto your mast and spar. Since I am using bamboo, which is hollow, it is easy for me to simply insert these Ys into the ends of the poles. I used oak for my Ys, so that they would be as strong as possible, and epoxied them for good measure.

Ys & mast
Left: My oak Ys. Right: Inserting the Y into the bamboo mast, the bottom of which I have fiberglassed to strengthen against splitting.

As you can see below, the Y at the bottom of the mast sits atop the foremost ‘iako (boom). Gravity and the sail’s stays keep it there, but it can slide from side to side. That can be good or bad, but mostly it's hard to control, so sometimes I lash it in place. The Y at the end of the spar hooks onto the bottom of the mast. Very simple and easy.

Mast & spar
The mast and lower Y resting on the foremost boom. 

Now rigging this sail requires more rope, and here I have decided on two types. The first is good old manila rope, which has that natural, traditional look. This I have used for the stays (the ropes that stabilize the mast) and the sheet (the rope that controls the sail). I originally also used manila rope for the forestay that attaches to the bow. 

After some trial and error (OK, mostly error), I decided to make some changes. First of all, with the forestay tied to the handle on the front of the canoe I had no way of raising and lowering the sail while under way. I realized, as I careened into shore with a strong tailwind one day, that I’d better be able to do that. Moreover, you have to raise the mast before you even push off from the beach. So first I tied a pulley to the bow, and then I mounted a cleat where I could reach it. Then I purchased some commercial Dacron marine rope. Now, from my seat in the rear of the canoe, I can raise or lower the sail fairly easily.

Pulley & cleat
Left: Pulley attached to the bow. Right: The rope runs from the mast, through the pulley and over to where I can reach it and fasten it to a cleat.

Similarly with the sheet: The instructions show it simply going around the rear ‘iako. Well, I found myself holding the sheet and the steering paddle at the same time, and it got pretty stressful. I could never let go of the sheet. Now I’d sailed on regular sailboats and knew there was way to fix this problem. It’s called a cam cleat, and it has two little spring-loaded cams with teeth on them. You pull the rope through them, and the cams keep it from sliding back out. To change the position, you pull the rope up out of the cams, adjust, then pull it back down into them. Now I can adjust the sail and let go of the sheet, the cam cleat will hold it there. 

Cam cleat & stern rig
Left: The cam cleat. Normally the sheet would just go around the ‘iako on which it is mounted. Right: The sheet goes from the spar, through a rear pulley, and through the cam cleat. I can manage it easily from the stern seat that you can see.

The stays are tied directly to the foremost ‘iako, but this also turned out to make life more difficult than necessary, because they stretch a little and can need some adjusting when you’re out on the water. So I mounted two large screw eyes through which I loop and tie them with slip knots so I can easily undo and redo them. 

Stays & set-outs
Left: The stays (ropes on either side of the mast) are run through screw eyes on the forward ‘iako. Right: View of the bamboo set-outs.

I also—and I think this was suggested by the building instructions—made a pair of set-outs for each side of the canoe. I used more lengths of large-diameter bamboo and lashed them together in two bunches. These I tie lightly to the second and third ‘iako—lightly so that I can flip or slide them out of the way if I need to be paddling instead of sailing. These set-outs are useful under sail with good wind: when the canoe starts to heel over, I sit out on the opposite side to bring it back down. This is especially important if the ama (float) is on the lee side (away from the wind), in which case it is being pushed down into the water and causing more drag.

Then there is the matter of steering this canoe. I had, in my youth, tried sailing a regular sail canoe—a normal canoe rigged with a sail and leeboards that you steer with a paddle. So at first that’s how I tried to steer this one, and that worked fine if the wind was light. But if the wind was strong, the regular-sized paddle didn’t do the job, so I broke down and carved a proper steering paddle according to Wharram’s instructions. 

Steering paddle
Three stages of making the steering paddle. Left to right: The three pieces of wood glued together; the shape cut out and handle rounded; the blade honed down. 

This is a fairly simple operation. You glue two pieces of two-by-four on either side of a two-by-two. Next you cut out the paddle shape. And then you work with a plane to shave it down into a blade. This took a while, and the two-by-fours were pine with some knots in them, which made it a little more work, but in the end, I had a large steering paddle. 

Starting a paddle
Wharram provides detailed measurements for making the steering paddle. Left: Cutting out the shape of the blade. Note that the handle has already been rounded. Right: I have marked the thicknesses along the edge of the blade and have started planing it down.

I enjoyed carving this paddle so much that I figured I could do more. I wanted a paddle for my son, who was then about six. So I bought a poplar board from the hardware store, used an existing paddle to trace the shape, then cut it out and shaped it into a paddle. Just for fun, I carved and painted (as best I could) a humuhumunukunukuapua‘a on it—the Hawaiian state fish. 

Two paddles
Three paddles, two homemade. Left: The steering paddle next to an ordinary canoe paddle, to show how much larger the steering paddles is. Right: The paddle I carved for my son—large enough that he can grow into it. 
Humuhumu
My try at a humuhumunukunukuapua‘a, the Hawaiian state fish, carved and painted on my son's paddle blade.

Unlike the sail canoe of my youth, the Melanesia does not have leeboards, much less a centerboard, so “leeway” is a problem under sail. That is, when you are sailing at an angle to the wind, the canoe is pushed sideways in addition to being pushed forward. This giant steering paddle is supposed to be used like a moveable leeboard: You stick it straight up and down, moving it forward or aft as necessary to steer the canoe. You are not supposed to use it like a rudder, which is my inclination. I am still getting used to this. 

Now it's time to put this all together and go for a sail! 

—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.

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