March 17, 2017

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

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

 

Pandanus plant
Pandanus growing in the village of Inarahan, Guam. The fruits of some species are edible.

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.

Things woven by Tan Floren
A small sample of the work of master pandanus weaver Tan Floren Meno Paulina. I am reliably told that making hats, far left, is the most difficult art of pandanus weaving.

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.

Lourdes Yidwechog drying pandanus
Lourdes Yidwechog on Ulithi Atoll lays out pandanus leaves to dry.
Floren prepares fiber strips
Clockwise from upper left: Tan Floren uses a very simple knife to strip the thorny edge off the dried leaves. Then she rolls each dried leaf into a coil; when she unrolls it, she has a nice flattened strip of fiber. The leaf is pulled over a simple device that allows the user to space several blades evenly to cut lauhala into strips.
Tan Floren
Tan Floren, weaving.
Twill weave BPBM
Twill weaving on a sail in the collections of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

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.

Men stitching mats Ulithi Atoll
Men stitching mats together to make a sail. Ulithi Atoll, ca. 1944. Their pattern is outlined in stakes and string. Photo by Dr. Marshall Paul Wees.
Needles  Bishop Museum
Bone needles in the collection of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

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.

Ulithian canoe under sail
A Carolinian-style canoe with a lovely pandanus sail, ca. 1944. Off Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands. Photo by Dr. Marshall Paul Wees.
Cut-out tarp
Blue tarp from the hardware store, with the sail shape cut out of it.

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!

Working on the sail on the floor
One edge done, almost. Note the rolled pandanus mat, right, and the giant clam shell, upper left.

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.

Stitching the ropes to the sail
Half-inch stitches secure a rope into folds along the edges that attach to the mast and boom (left). A second rope stitched to the outside creates loops used for lashing (right).

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.

My son lashing the sail
My son helping to lash the sail.

And voilà! A sail! I painted a frigate bird on it, because I named this canoe Namaka‘iwa, “eyes of the frigate bird.”

Full sail with frigate bird
The finished sail lashed to mast and boom.

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.

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March 02, 2017

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Lashing the booms to the float

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood
Part 3: Roughing out the hull
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock
Part 5: Stitch and glue
Part 6: Sanding and gluing
Part 7: Outrigger and booms
Part 8: Cordage

Part 9: Lashing the booms to the hull

 

1LashedcanoeThe hull, booms, and outrigger lashed together. I have added bamboo platforms on either side, for sitting out. At this stage, I was using commercial nylon rope for all the lashing.

Lashing the outrigger (ama or float) to the booms (‘iako) has a great deal of variations depending on the style of canoe. So much so, in fact, that when the authors of Canoes of Oceania began their study, the goal was to understanding just this facet of outrigger canoe design.

2 Hawaiian canoe at the museum
The nice, curved ‘iako of a Hawaiian canoe are typically made from hao. This canoe was built for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004.

For the Hawaiian canoe, the booms are curved downward to meet the ama near the water level. A peg is driven through each boom into the float, and then lashed. As you can see below, it’s pretty simple, using figure-eight lashing over and around the peg, then choking it and tying it off.

Carolinian-style canoes, on the other hand, have a complicated lashing system using Y-shaped sticks stuck into the float. The ama is much shorter, and the system of booms more complex, allowing the canoe to hold a platform for transporting goods. 

Lashing types
Lashing the 'iako to the ama. Upper left: A peg fixed into the ama allows for tight, secure lashing that won't slip. Upper right: Lashing on a Carolinian canoe, with the complex of pieces and holes through the ama itself. Lower: A Palauan canoe at the Etpison Museum in Koror shows a similar, elegant method for attaching the outrigger.

The canoe I am building, Wharram’s Melanesia design, uses a third method found around the Pacific, including in . . . Melanesia. It involves four sticks for each boom, bored into the outrigger at different angles and lashed to the ends of the booms. That the sticks are at different angles is supposed to provide the tension that keeps them from popping out. Variations on this method can be found all over the Pacific.

4 Fijian canoe at the Bishop
A Fijian canoe at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, showing a method similar to Wharram's.

I started out using commercial nylon rope, as seen in these photos, but then decided I wanted my canoe to look as traditional as possible. At the same time, I want it to be safe and functional. And I don’t have access to a lot of coconut sennit. So I used manila rope from the hardware store, which is the next best choice. Compared to the synthetic ropes used on today’s sailboats, manila rope is rough, less durable, and far less strong, but like sennit, it tends to swell up a bit when wet. I used it for lashing the booms to the outrigger, but not for lashing the booms to the hull. For that last part, I used a thinner synthetic rope that is strong, light, and easy to tie and untie. Wharram’s plans for this canoe didn’t include holes big enough for a larger, natural-fiber rope, so I needed something smaller, yet strong. 

Now the outrigger is a different story. The end of each boom sits in the top of two pairs of Xs formed by the crossed sticks. Then you lash over the top of each X and it holds the boom down. As I mentioned, the tension caused by the different angles of the four sticks is supposed to make them all stay put. Well, there I was out on the Chesapeake Bay in high winds when I noticed some of them had come out! If the entire outrigger fell off, I was done for. The hull will not stay upright without it. So I headed quickly back to shore, and reconsidered.

5 Xs
Left: I keep these Xs lashed together, even when they are not on the canoe. Saves one step in the whole lashing process. Right: The Xs, showing how they are at different angles. Here they are loosely lashed for demonstration purposes.

I thought about those Carolinian canoes in Micronesia, where the much smaller outrigger was attached by “sticks” (Y-shaped), but there were also holes that went through the outrigger itself to tie it securely to the booms. Not around and under the outrigger, because that would add drag. So I drilled holes through my own outrigger and lashed through those in addition to the lashing on the sticks. Now that I have ropes going through the outrigger and up and around each of the three booms, I feel oh-so-much more confident! That ama is on snug and tight. It has never since shown any sign of coming loose. A bit more work, but I think it looks pretty neat too!

6 Xs lashed through the outrigger
Note the rope going through the outrigger float itself, then up over the top of the boom. These pull the two tight together, so that even if the sticks of the Xs come loose, they will not come out.

Now you see lots and lots of lashing at the tops of the Xs (above right). This is because I had a handful of spare sections of manila rope left over from my first attempt at rigging this boat, and decided to use them for the lashing. They were significantly longer than needed, but I hate to cut ropes (or can’t be bothered to re-whip them) so I decided to make these decorative in their lashing. A bit over-the-top, but what the heck? Perhaps next summer I will reconsider. In another post, I will tell a story of how sturdy my new system proved to be.

Whipping rope? You’ve probably experienced the problem with any twisted rope—or even string—that when you cut it, the ends start to unravel. To stop this, you can “whip” the rope.

7 How to whip rope
Cut rope wants to untwist. “Whipping” the end with waxed thread stops this from happening.

This is an easy technique that I learned by chance on YouTube one day. Using two to three feet of waxed thread (you can buy waxed “whipping thread” at boating supply stores), you make a half loop and lay it against the end of the rope, the top of the loop away from the cut rope end and the tail of the loop extended a few inches beyond the cut end of the rope.

8 Whipping a cord
I have laid a loop of thread about an inch and a half along the rope. I will wrap for about an inch, leaving a nice big loop to stick the end of the thread through. I'm wrapping as tightly as possible and trying to keep it even. I’ve finished wrapping, and am about to stick the end of the thread through the loop. With one end of the thread through the loop, I pull the other end, bringing the loop (and the end of the thread) down tight behind all the wraps. Cut off the excess and you’re done!

Then, starting at the cut end of the rope (some people say the loop should be towards the cut end instead, but whatever), you wrap this thread tightly around, working your way towards the loop. When you have maybe a good inch wrapped like this, you put the thread through the loop and pull it tight. Then you grab the tail of the loop and pull the loop (and with it, the other end of the thread) through, under the coils you just wrapped. Voila! Cut off the excess threads, and your rope is whipped! For this project, I had to whip a lot of ends of ropes and got pretty efficient at it. It really doesn’t take long at all.

Next installment? Making and rigging the 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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March 02, 2016

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Lashing the booms to the hull

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood
Part 3: Roughing out the hull
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock
Part 5: Stitch and glue
Part 6: Sanding and gluing
Part 7: Outrigger and booms
Part 8: Cordage

 

Lashing1
The iako, or booms, lashed to the hull of my canoe. Where my hull has reinforcements around the holes that the ropes pass through, an old Hawaiian canoe would have pepeiao—ears—carved into the hull, to hold a cross brace called a wae.

 

Lashing this canoe together needs to be quick and efficient. I say this because I drive a VW golf. With my roof racks, I can strap all the canoe parts on the car and drive to the Chesapeake Bay in half an hour. It takes maybe another 30 to 45 minutes to unload it, lash the whole thing together, and rig it. I can sail for a few hours, come back, take it all apart, put it back on top of the car, and drive home. For two to three hours' sail, it's worth it. Ahhhhh. But it means that I'm always putting the canoe together and taking it apart.

The lashing of a canoe is both an art and a science. The lashing needs to be strong enough to hold the craft together in rough seas, it must be tight so the pieces can flex but don’t wobble, and it can be beautiful as well.

There are two sets of lashing required for a small canoe like this. The first is connecting the booms (‘iako) to the hull, and the second connects the other ends of the ‘iako to the ama, the outrigger float. How these connections are done depends on the configuration of the canoe. On the Hawaiian-style canoe, the ‘iako are lashed to the hull using two projections called pepeiao—ears—carved on the inside of the hull. These projections have holes through which the rope can pass and are used for anchoring U-shaped braces called wae that span the hull. By projecting, the pepeiao provide much more room to lash the ‘iako and give greater stability.

Lashing-earsLashing-brace

Left: Pepeiao on the Kapi‘olanio canoe, carved out of the hull itself. Right: The brace and lashing of the ‘iako on the museum's much more modern ‘Auhou canoe. Note how the U-shaped wae is lashed to the pepeiao.


Lashing my canoe did not involve these wae braces, so to better understand Hawaiian canoes, I went to my canoe-building friend Jay Dowsett of the Friends of Hōkūleʻa for a lesson.

Lashing4-JayDowsett
Jay Dowsett, a canoe-builder and member of Friends of Hōkūleʻa.

Jay demonstrated on a modern fiberglass canoe, using a block of wood in place of the ‘iako. This is based on examples of old canoes. It seems a little tricky, but Jay assures me that doing this repeatedly is what’s going to teach you. First time is a learning curve, second time you’re pretty much getting it down, and by the third time you’ll be teaching it. He explains while I assist him:

This length of line is a total of 12 fathoms, and we then split the difference, put a loop in the center, and then we feed the loop around the wae, and then the two ends that you actually use for lashing through this loop. Then you try to tighten it up so that the ropes are coming off the bottom of the wae.

Now most people are under the impression that you’re using cotton cord because cotton shrinks when you wash it, but it’s actually the opposite: Cotton swells and gets thicker. It’s the swelling action that makes this tighter and tighter. Yes, when we do the lashing, the lashing is going to be very tight, but once it gets wet and starts to swell, that’s what really makes it bulletproof.

Making the loop

To begin lashing an ‘iako (boom) to his modern canoe, Jay folds 12 fathoms (72 feet) of cotton rope in the middle, then pulls the two ends of the rope through the loop in its center. In this fiberglass canoe, the wae (cross brace) is built right into the hull, but the method and principle are the same.


Jay and I stood on opposite sides of the canoe worked one of the two ends of the rope. I followed what he was doing as he talked me through the steps:

We’re going to do a series of cross-overs to hold it down. The rope comes over the back and goes forward, then through that hole. I’ll do the same.

A lot of people, when they first start rigging, they want to pull as tight as they can on the very first time. You can’t. What’s going to happen is, when you pull, the whole ‘iako is going to get shoved backwards. So doing the first one is a little tough as far as getting it really tight.

Then you go underneath the ‘iako, over the top, and through the back hole.

Lashing

Still lashing Still more lashing
More lashing

 

 

 

 

Clockwise from upper left: Jay seats the knot of the loop at the bottom of the wae. We each bring an end of the rope over the ‘iako and thread it through a hole on our side of hull. Once outside the hole, we loop the rope around the ‘iako, then thread it through the other hole on our side of the hull. Then the rope loops back over the center of the wae and goes to the opposite side, and we follow the same steps again.


We’re going to repeat this whole process over and over again until we run out of line. Now the key here is that someone is going to be considered first, and someone is going to be considered second. That means someone has to start the lashing, and someone has to follow.

Every time I go, I’m going to go behind this loop that you first put in, and then you’re going to go behind the loop after me. Then you’re going to come across and you’re going to lock me in. Bang, bang, bang, bang—these keep locking each other in. This loop is going to keep the rope from getting pulled over to my side. Now, you’re going to do the same thing. Now you can pull it as tight as you can manage.

Now to make it look pretty, you see where it crosses over, you don’t want to do that haphazardly anywhere. You want to try to keep it looking good, and keep it in the center. So as you cross over, all of the cross bars will be in the center. And then there’s always the question of, are we lashing to the inside or to the outside? That is, every time we cross over, are we going to be on the inside of the rope or the outside of the rope? In this particular case, we’re going to the inside, so each time we do it, we’re going to be moving closer and closer to the center. And there is method to this madness—you’ll see why.”

We continue following the same pattern. For the sake of this example, we will go around four times, but seven or eight is normal. It’s all repetition up to this point, following the same pattern and keeping it neat. Then we switch to just wrapping it four times with each end of the rope.

Then we switch ropes and take them straight over the top, again wrapping it four times with each end of the rope. Normally we would be pulling it very tight each time. After the fourth cross-over, we switch ropes.

Lashing x 4

For this demonstration, Jay and I did four rounds of lashing, as opposed to the more typical seven or eight, then wrapped each end of the rope over the center of the wae and ‘iako four times.

Now we go through and around those vertical loops we just made. Each time, we switch and take each other’s rope, then do it again. We are just wrapping—frapping, it’s called—the binds to pull them tight together. That tightens it all up and draws the 'iako down tight.

At the end we pull against each other, and that tightens it all up and pulls it down. Now we tie it off with a regular square knot. Normally I would tie the square knot on the other side. We shove the ends through and tie the knot on the other side.

Frapping More frapping Square knot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clockwise from upper left: To “frap” means to “tighten the slack.” This is done by wrapping the rope around the previous loops and “choking” them very tight together. The lashing is tied off with a square knot.

 

 

 



Then the excess—if you want, you take it around a couple of times and bury it. Or we can attach a bailer to it with a slip loop, so the bailer is hanging right there handy.

Now with the bigger boats, you’d just go with a straight clamp down, just clamp it down as tight as you can, but do it in several spots. And the way the lines were run, you’d come across and do figure eights. You’re talking about 16 or 20 wraps each time, and then you start getting into a figure eight wrap. That frapping then takes that whole rope and turns it into something like a solid piece of wood. When you knock on it, it sounds like a piece of wood.

 

Starting figure 8s More figure 8s

Above, left and right: Jay demonstrates making figure-eight bundles.


You will notice that Jay’s lashing weaves an attractive geometric pattern where the ropes cross each other. This, it turns out, is not just for looks. It actually locks down the ropes each time, making for less chance of catastrophic failure. I witnessed this after riding on a contemporary outrigger with folks from Windward Community College on O‘ahu. As we were putting the canoe up, we noticed that someone had vandalized the lashing by slashing it. Nonetheless, it had held together. “I’d like to have met the people who figured out this geometric pattern over time,” Jay says, “because those guys were geniuses. It was probably guys, because canoes were a male-dominated activity.”

Booms of the Makali'i
Above: The lashing on the booms of the Makali‘i voyaging canoe. Right: This vandalized lashing still holds together thanks to the interlocking pattern.

Cut lashing

These drawings show how James Wharram, whose Polynesian design I've been following for my canoe, suggests lashing the booms. It’s a very simple, in-and-out, over-and-under kind of lashing, exactly as Jay demonstrated, but without the wae. The rope goes through a hole, loops around the boom, then through the other hole, then does the same on the other side. Then wrap it around the lashing to “choke” it tight, and tie it off with a square knot.

Wharram drawings horiz

 

 

 

 

 


Lashing instructions from plans for the Melanesia, courtesy of James Wharram and Hanneke Boon.

 

And here’s what it looks like, finished:

Doug's lashing

The booms lashed to Doug's canoe.


It was a little confusing at first, and once in a while I still make a mistake, but mostly it goes very quickly. Now attaching the outrigger to the other end of the booms is an entirely different story, and the subject of my next installment.

Douglas Herman, NMAI


Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian and a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai'i and the Pacific Islands, is curator of the exhibition E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, on view at the museum in Washington, D.C., through January 2017. He also blogs for the Smithsonian and is the institution's liaison with the round-the-world voyage of the Hōkūleʻa, scheduled to visit Washington later this spring.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

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Astonishing post on how you built and still you build those fantastic canoes. I recommend reading here. Greetings from one who is visiting Seville.

July 01, 2014

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: The cordage that connects it all

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 
Part 5: Stitch and glue 
Part 6: Sanding and gluing
Part 7: Outrigger and booms 

Canoe on VW 3
An added beauty of this design is that it all fits on top of my small car. This means you need to lash it together when you arrive at the water, and unlash it to pack it when you leave. And that takes rope. 

Lifeline—that’s a good way to think about cordage generally. Cordage is so fundamental to human activities, it's hard to imagine a world without it. And for the voyaging canoe—both building it and sailing it—rope was absolutely critical. The survival of Polynesians traveling across the Pacific owes as much to rope as to anything else.

Traditional rope of any sort is made of strands of natural fiber, usually plant fiber. Ropes made of animal products are subject to rot, shrinkage in the rain, and other problems. And in Hawai`i there were no large animals anyway besides humans—ew! Plant fibers are of finite length, so the art of rope-making involves binding these fibers together in an overlapping fashion to produce a single strand of the necessary length that will hold together. 

Step one is to identify appropriate plant fibers. You want fibers that are strong, pliable, and durable (that won’t rot easily). The number-one fiber for canoe-lashing throughout the Pacific is coconut fiber. That’s right, coconuts. Now if you’re a temperate-climate reader, a coconut to you is a small, hard, brown ball that you see in the grocery store. Crack it open and the inside is lined with beautiful white flesh. Well, that’s a husked coconut. The outside has already been removed. But it’s this husk that is our focus here.

The coconut husk is made up of fibers that run its length. Pacific Islanders, of course, have identified which varieties of coconut are better for rope-making (longer ones, generally), which ones for drinking, and so forth. But in any case, the fibers are not going to be more than a foot long. And they’re caked with pithy stuff. 

Coconut & Husks 2a-a

Husk close-up 1a-a
Clockwise from left: A partially husked coconut shows the thick, fibrous husk and the nut lodged in the middle. The fibers are intermixed with soft, pithy material that needs to be stripped away for rope-making. Cleaned coconut fibers are ready to be rolled into a strand. 

 

Coconut fibers clean a

Rope-Making3c-a
A Refaluwasch (Carolinian) man demonstrates rolling the fibers on his thigh to make a yarn.

So it’s not intuitively obvious that this is good rope-making material. Pacific Islanders learned that if you soak the fibers in fresh or salt water for several weeks, the pithy stuff comes off easily, leaving clean, strong fibers. Now here’s the neat part: These fibers bind very easily to each other, with a little help. All you have to do is roll them together on your thigh, and you get a strand. Keep adding lengths of fiber as you go, and the strand gets longer and longer. 

Once you have enough strands, they can be braided or twisted together to make a rope. And those ropes can be braided or twisted together to make an even larger rope. And so forth and so on. The result is known as coconut sennit or coir, and the best of it is stronger than manila rope. Early Western ships arriving in the Hawaiian Islands would trade for coconut sennit for their ships’ riggings. One of its great advantages is its ability to hold up in salt water, so it’s great for seagoing vessels.

Rope-Making4a-a

TTPI rope-making a

Top: Refaluwasch men demonstrate twisting yarns into rope at a festival in Palau. Above: Navigator Pedro Yamalmai teachesrope-making to students of Outer Islands High School using exactly the same process. Ulithi, Micronesia; 1972. University of Hawaii at Manoa Library, Trust Territory Photo Archives (N-2703.13). 

How does coconut sennit compare to the natural fiber ropes we use today? Its lightness is an advantage for canoe lashing, as is its durability in water. And it floats!. Most coconut coir rope available today comes from Sri Lanka and is very rough. I bought some on eBay, where it seems to be always available and not expensive, but very poor quality compared to the Pacific Islander samples I have.

According to Marques Hanalei Marzan at the Bishop Museum, twisted rope wasn’t used as often as braided for lashing Hawaiian canoes. And not thin, three-ply sennit as shown in the photos here, but five-, seven-, or nine-ply braid. It would be almost a half an inch in thickness, and flat. And in this case, he says, it was not woven by braiding pre-made strands, but by twisting and braiding the fibers together at the same time.

Once the rope was made, you’d have to clean it up. There would be all those ends of individual fibers poking out. So before you were finished with the process of rope-making, you would have to trim your rope and make it look good. Without scissors.

This kind of braided rope was stronger than twisted rope, and a lot thicker. And the flatter surface wouldn’t be as bulky. The spaces between the rounds of lashing would fit more tightly, whereas a round, twisted rope would leave a lot of space in between the cordage.

P-Harvard Two Ropes a
Two types of Hawaiian braided rope in the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard: five-ply in the foreground, three-ply in the background. Photo by RDK Herman, courtesy of the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

I’m told that there are more than 300 known uses for different parts of the coconut plant, and cordage is certainly a major one. Because coconut palms were so important to Pacific Island cultures, they were pretty widely cultivated and available. But there were other fibers that could be used when coconut was not at hand, or not the best choice, or if you were in a pinch and needed something right then. One of these is the bark of the hau tree—the same tree that Hawaiians used for making the boom—‘iako—of their canoes. Peel the bark from the tree, strip the outer bark (which can also be used, in a pinch) from your peelings, rip the inner bark into strips, twist or braid them together, and away you go.

Ukiuki 1 a
Ukiuki. 

To me a less probable source is the native plant ukiuki. The fibrous leaves are maybe 18 inches long. But tough, apparently! You use the entire leaf. It was especially good for house-building.

The real king of Hawaiian fibers is olonā. Olonā is the strongest plant fiber known to humankind and just happens to be a native Hawaiian plant. Olonā cordage is especially good for making fishing lines and nets, for binding two-piece fishhooks, and for making the netting for the great feather cloaks (ahuula) of the Hawaiian chiefs. But since it is not involved in canoe-building, I won't elaborate on it here.

You know how in all those cowboy movies, when someone is tied up, the rescuer goes and simply cuts the rope off? Well, even in 19th-century America, making rope was a time-consuming process. My research suggests that while a machine for twisting yarns into ropes was invented in 1780, machines for twisting fibers into yarns didn’t come about until 1850. So I figure rope was not exactly cheap, and cowboys probably took care of what they had. They would have bothered to untie the man’s hands and save the rope, not cut it off! 

Rope is simply too valuable, and too useful, to waste. And for lashing together a voyaging canoe, you needed an enormous quantity of it, as we will see in the next installment. 

Next: Lashing the booms to the hull

Douglas Herman, NMAI


Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian and a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai'i and the Pacific Islands, is also blogging about the round-the-world voyage of the Holule'a for the Smithsonian.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

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You have shared such an informative post!!The simplest things of life are the most special that are also made unique and useful. I love the making of Hawaiian braided rope that looks simply stunning and creative. Thanks for sharing!!

the rope which made up from coconut tree is very very strong and cheap in cost, most of Indian villagers use this rope widely

May 14, 2014

Symposium "Looking to the Future: The Life and Legacy of Senator Daniel K. Inouye" Honors a Champion of American Indian Rights and Sovereignty


Daniel_Inouye,_official_Senate_photo_portrait,_2008
The Honorable Senator Daniel K. Inouye. Official portrait, 2008. Courtesy of the U.S. Senate


You don't have to be a student of history to know that Washington, D.C., can have short, selective memory. So it's hardly too soon to take a day to remember the remarkable contributions of the Honorable Senator Daniel Inouye (1924–2012) and to talk about how to continue his work on behalf of Native peoples.

On Thursday, May 15, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is hosting the symposium "Looking to the Future: The Life and Legacy of Senator Daniel K. Inouye." Speakers include John Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund; Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives; and Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University. The symposium will be webcast live. The complete program and symposium presenters, and a longer biography of Sen. Inouye are available online. To read more about Sen. Inouye's relationship to the National Museum of the American Indian, see "A Warrior Chief among Warriors: Remembering U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye" by Liz Hill (Red Lake Ojibwe), from the Spring 2014 issue of American Indian Magazine.

Daniel Inouye served in the U.S. Congress continuously since Hawaiian achieved statehood in 1959, as congressman from 1959 to 1962, and as senator from 1963 until his death. Throughout his career, he championed the interests of Hawai‘i’s people. He left a lasting imprint on his home state through his efforts to strengthen Hawai‘is infrastructure, diversify its economy, and protect its natural resources. 

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The signing of the memorandum of understanding transferring the superb collections of the Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation (MAI), in New York to the Smithsonian Institution. From left to right: Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), member of board of trustees, MAI; Roland Force, director MAI; Senator Daniel K. Inouye, chief supporter of legislation to create the National Museum of the American Indian; and Robert McCormick Adams, ninth secretary of the Smithsonian. WAshington, D.C., May 8, 1989. Photo by Laurie Minor-Penland, Smithsonian Institution 


For 35 years, Senator Inouye also served on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, assuming the chairmanship of the committee in 1987, later serving as vice chairman, and securing the committee’s status as a permanent standing committee of the Senate. During his tenure he helped pass landmark legislation affecting almost every aspect of life in Native America, including the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act, the Native Hawaiian Education Act, the National Museum of the American Indian Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Native American Languages Act, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, and scores of Indian water rights and land claim settlement acts, as well as reauthorizations of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Native American Programs Act, the Indian Education Act, the Indian Finance Act, the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act, Indian provisions of the Energy Security Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, and appropriations for Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian programs. 

For all of these accomplishments and for his sincere dedication to the values of Indian country, the preservation of Native culture and religious freedom, and his genuine respect for the indigenous people of America, the senator is revered throughout Native America. 

The symposium webcast will be archived on the National Museum of the American Indian YouTube channel. We'll post that link as soon as it becomes available. 

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