Volume 85 1976 > Volume 85, No. 4 > Nui Island sailing canoes, by Peter McQuarrie, p 543-548
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- 543

This is a description of a type of sailing canoe used on the island of Nui, in the central Ellice Islands. 1 These craft are very differently designed from all other Tūvalu canoes and are noteworthy because they are the only canoes from those islands with an indirect type of outrigger attachment. Previously published works on Tūvalu canoes have not mentioned the existence of these Nui sailing canoes. 2

The main points of interest in the design and construction of Nui sailing canoes are as follows:

  • 1. Although the hull is “dugout” in these large sailing canoes it is hollowed from a single large tree, so that the hull is of one piece and does not have planked-up sides as do all other Tūvalu canoes.
  • 2. Unlike those of all other Tūvalu canoes, the hull is double-ended, with no distinct bow and stern.
  • 3. The outrigger booms do not curve downwards to make a direct attachment to the float as in the normal Tūvalu canoe style, but project horizontally out from the hull and terminate above the float. The outrigger float is connected
Cross-section comparison Ellice Canoes; (a) Nui Sailing Canoe; (b) Common reef-canoe design
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  • to the booms by Y-shaped stanchions, lashed to the distal ends of each outrigger boom. These Y-stanchions extend vertically downwards to the float, the lower ends are lashed by taking turns around the float (see Plate 1).
  • 4. To faciliate sailing, the outrigger is placed well away from the hull for stability, much further away than for a paddling canoe and further than any other type of Tūvalu canoe yet reported (see Fig. 1).
  • 5. The hull is more broad-beamed and flat-bottomed than other types of Tūvalu canoe (Fig. 1a).
  • 6. There are no covers at the bow or stern.
Indirect outrigger attachment of Nui sailing canoe.

From the foregoing it can be seen that Nui sailing canoes are designed specifically as sailing craft, whereas all other canoes of Tūvalu follow the basic design of the reef-type or paddled canoe. Large canoes of southern Tūvalu, although used under sail, do not deviate far from the basic Tūvalu style. 3 Because the outrigger is distant from the hull, Nui sailing canoes are inherently more stable under sail than any other types of Tūvalu canoe. When sailing on a reach they can be sailed with the hull heeled over and the outrigger float clear of the water. They can also carry more sail (see Plate 2).

- 545
Rigged sail of Nui sailing canoe.

These sailing canoes are larger than the common reef-type fishing canoes, 4 and are used for carrying passengers and cargo across Nui lagoon. The use of straight outrigger booms and vertical stanchions enables the craft to carry heavy loads with less strain on the booms than does the direct attachment method of other Tūvalu canoes (see Fig. 1). It also allows the carrying platform, above the outrigger booms, to extend from gunwale to directly above the float. This allows the total area between the outrigger booms, from hull to float, to be used. This is not possible with the conventional Tūvalu construction. Nui sailing - 546 canoes have three outrigger booms, the proximal ends of which are lashed above the gunwales, the method of attachment used in all Tūvalu canoes.

The largest sailing canoe seen by the author at Nui was built and owned by Setonga. It measured eight metres length overall, with a 56 cm beam to its hull. This particular canoe has been known to carry a load of over one and one-half tons which is considerably more than even the largest of the reef-type Tuvalu canoes could support.

Except in the northernmost Tūvalu island, Nanumea, the reef-type canoes of all the Tūvalu islands including Nui are made from the wood of the Puka tree (Hernandia peltata). Puka is a soft wood and is easily worked but it is not durable. Canoes made from Puka will sometimes last a dozen years or more if well maintained, but not much longer than this.

Nui sailing canoes are invariably made from Fetau (Callophyllum inophyllum) which is much harder and more durable than Puka. A Nui sailing canoe owned by Makapi and his brother Taumanu was built by their grandfather more than 70 years ago and is still in excellent condition (see Plate 3). It is only in recent years that enamel paint has been used to protect the hull. For more than 50 years the timber was left bare, although carefully shaded from the sun when not in use. Canoes made from Puka are always painted with coal-tar to help to preserve the soft wood.

Makapi's sailing canoe.
Rigging and Sailing

Rigged and sailed in a manner very similar to that of canoes in other Pacific islands, the Nui sailing canoe uses a single triangular sail, with a gaff. The rig is a reversible cat-rig, so that the outrigger is at all times kept to windward. When it becomes necessary to change tack, the sail and steering oar exchange ends and the canoe reverses direction. Because Nui sailing canoes are double-ended and symmetrical they will sail equally well either end acting as bow or stern. With all other Tūvalu canoes the craft must at times be moving “backwards” when used under sail.

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The Nui sailing canoes do not use an especially made steering oar. A canoe paddle is positioned behind the aftermost outrigger boom, close to the hull. Hand-held in this position it does not allow a great deal of control as it is placed not far enough astern. Consequently the trim of the sail plays an important role in steering.

Although Nui is in a Polynesian area, the island is known to have had an influx of Micronesian people from the Gilbert Islands, some 400 miles to the north of the Tūvalu group. Indeed, the Nui people speak the Gilbertese language. Because the indirect method of outrigger attachment used on Nui sailing canoes is very similar to that of the Gilbertese canoes, 5 it might be considered as an example of Gilbertese influence on the island. But this is by no means certain for the people of Nui adhere closely to traditional Tūvalu customs and it is very difficult to find any other examples which would hint at Gilbertese influence in their material culture. In addition to their sailing canoes they also build and use the reef-type canoes in the true traditional manner.

Whether the Nui sailing canoe is a result of Gilbertese influence, or a local development on the island, it is the only well-designed, true sailing craft of Tūvalu, in modern times.

Table of Dimensions of Typical Nui Sailing Canoe
Length overall: 6.5 metres.
Maximum Beam of Hull: 66 centimetres.
Length of Outrigger Float: 2.1 metres.
Maximum Diameter of Float: 15.5 centimetres.
Lateral Distance Float to Keel: 2.4 metres.
Depth of Hull at Centre: 35.8 centimetres.
Length of Mast: 4.6 metres.
  • GRIMBLE, Rosemary, 1972. Migrations, Myth and Magic from the Gilbert Islands. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • HADDON, A. C. and J. HORNELL, 1936-38. Canoes of Oceania, Vol. 1. Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Special Publication 27-29.
  • KENNEDY, Donald Gilbert, 1931. Field Notes on the Culture of Vaitupu, Ellice Islands. New Plymouth, Memoirs of the Polynesian Society, Volume 9.
  • KOCH, Gerd, 1961. Die Material Kultur, der Ellice Inseln. Berlin, Museum für Völkerkunde.

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1   The Ellice Islands were formerly part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. On the January 1, 1976, they separated from the Gilberts—they are now known as Tūvalu.
2   Haddon and Hornell 1936-38:302; Kennedy 1931:71-101; Koch 1961:131-46.
3   Koch 1961:132-3.
4   See Appendix for table of typical dimensions.
5   Grimble 1972:168.