Our usual routine was thrown into disorder this week when I stumbled onto the news that a fleet of Pacific Island ocean going canoes were due to arrive at the harbour.
The Pacific Islands largely sit on the sidelines of mainstream cultural and historical awareness. Outside of a few stereotypes such as tropical holidays, tattooed Maoris, and the morality tale of Easter Island, it doesn’t seem to occupy a great deal of space in the global popular imagination. It certainly gets nowhere near the attention of the fertile crescent.
Without going into it, there are probably a number of reasons for this. Still, it is worth considering that while the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians were carefully feeling their way along the coast of the relatively sheltered Mediterranean, the ancestors of the Polynesians were spreading themselves all across the largest ocean on the planet. They did this in double hulled voyaging canoes – the vaka.
There are currently four of these traditional boats sailing from different islands in the Pacific to Sydney. They plan to present themselves to the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Parks Congress. Their aim is to help address the gap in conservation and sustainable development agenda. You can read more about their journey here.
After a trip to the library, we spend a deal of time studying a broad history of Pacific Island exploration, and the different types of canoes in use. There was some confusion over when the fleet would actually arrive at the harbour. A day later than we were expecting them, my oldest boy and I caught up with them. This is not the first time we have found ourselves down there exploring an unusual ship.
Traditionally, the vaka were two large dugout canoes placed side by side with a platform between them like a modern catamaran. They had two masts with crabclaw sails of plaited pandanus leaves, and a small bamboo deckhouse on the platform. William Dampier said about them ‘I do believe they sail the best of any boats in the world.’ Given he was one of the greatest explorers of his time, and altogether a very interesting person, I am inclined to believe him in this.
The boats we found were a modern interpretation of these. They had fibreglass hulls, modern sailcloth sails, and big solar panels across the stern.
They didn’t exactly seem to be open for public display, but they were on a very public voyage, and they were moored on a public part of the jetty. One thing led to another, and we found ourselves on deck being shown around.
At about 20m long, they fitted comfortably in with the other catamarans down there. All wooden surfaces had patterns carved into them. Even the deck and the anchor were carved. Each boat had a crew of sixteen.
Showcasing sustainability, these particular boats are notable for not using any fossil fuels. Outside of sail power, they also had a small engine driven propeller. The engine, and all electronics on the boat are fueled by the solar panels. On this voyage at least, the crew make a point of navigating by stars and landmarks. The navigator lives in the deckhouse.
Always one to be impressed by simple technology, my favourite detail was the rudder. It was a single large leafed oar, finely balanced, and tied to the deck. When it is untied, the blade naturally dips in the water, and the handle rests at waist height. Whoever is steering grabs on and leans in one direction or the other.
It was such a simple idea, although I have no doubt it is one of those jobs which appears a good deal easier than it really is. Our guide assured us it was not so simple at all in heavy seas.
Given the very low and exposed profile of the boat, I cannot imagine that anything would be.