Building the Not-so-traditional Traditional Canoe

Fulaga, Lau Group, Fiji

By: Kerry

Fiji 2015-00903

Traditional canoes on Suva Harbour, on the wall of the King’s suite, Grand Colonial hotel, Suva

Alifereti’s earliest memory is of riding in a hollowed-out log that would become the hull of a new canoe, as it was hauled through the forest from where the tree was felled to the water’s edge.

Growing up on Fulaga, the sturdy outrigger canoes were essential to island life.

“My mother was a nurse,” he said. “When a woman on Ogea was having a baby, they’d send a canoe to bring my mother to the island. I’d go along, clinging to the mast.”

Ogea is 10 nautical miles away across open water, which is testament to the sturdiness of the little outriggers: apparently they’ve been sailed as far as Suva. But one hasn’t been built on the island for seven years, and the art is dying.

At least it was until a year ago, when Alifereti’s older brother, Meli began a new canoe. He felled a massive nao nao hardwood tree deep in the forest and, using a chain saw and hand adze, hollowed it out. Our friends, Graham and Di (Maunie) were there the day the 26ft-long canoe was hauled out of the forest, a mile or more to the lagoon, using log rollers and the brute strength of almost every able-bodied man in the village.

Sadly, a few months later, Meli died of cancer (he hadn’t known he had it) and the canoe hull sat abandoned on the beach. Alifereti (aka Lutu) and his younger brother, Mini, who are both renowned wood carvers, were reluctant to continue the project: neither had actually built a canoe from scratch before and were daunted by taking on Meli’s dream.

A year later, Graham and Di returned and helped to coax Lutu and Mini into resurrecting the project. When we arrived, our bigger-than-average dinghy was quickly employed as cargo barge.

We, along with Graham and Di, Colin and Ana (Ithaka), Lutu, and Mini dinghied across the lagoon, through the mangroves, and hiked a mile through the jungle to where Meli had rough-cut the first deck (tau) of his canoe. Using chain saw and adze (it was too heavy to lift as solid timber), the tau was honed and then hefted on shoulders and lugged through the forest to the waiting dinghy.

It was the first step in a project that gathered momentum over the weeks we stayed in Fulaga. One of the biggest challenges was that the canoe design is not documented: it’s carried in the head of the boat builder, so Mini and Lutu had to figure it out as they went along.

A few days later, it was back to the forest to fell another enormous hardwood for the remaining deck, steering oar and the side planks, or sao. Watching Mini, Lutu and fellow carver, Pito wielding the chain saw was breathtaking. OH&S would have had conniptions as Pito stood on the fallen log, wearing no protection, and drew the chip-spitting, ear-splitting chainsaw along the log towards him and his bare feet!

It was chainsaw art: we watched in awe as the boys cut three parallel, 10ft long, 15 inch wide and ¾ inch thick planks with practiced ease. They cut the steering oar by eye and we carried them all back through the forest and ferried them aboard the Sel Citron cargo barge to the village anchorage.

Construction took place on the beach. After Ithaka left, Damian and Graham worked with Mini, Lutu, Pito and Jio, using a combination of hand tools – planes, adzes and chisels – and cordless drills borrowed from Maunie and Sel Citron. Meanwhile Di, Salote (Mini’s wife), Bale (Lutu’s wife) and I kept the workers supplied with hot tea, banana bread and other sustenance.

One day Lutu took it upon himself to teach Graham how to prepare a lovo, or underground oven. The Fijians had a good old laugh at Lutu ordering the kapalangi around: dig the hole, light a fire with coconut husks and pile pieces of coral rock on top. Once they’re hot, cover them with a protective layer of sticks, lay the food on top (in this case balls of cassava and coconut that we’d rolled and then twisted into little palm-leaf baskets), cover with coconut fronds, wet sacks and sand.

An hour or so later, he ordered Graham to dig out the food, which was cooked to perfection.

The pace quickened as Lutu and Mini got the bit between their teeth and determined to finish the canoe before we cruisers left the island. As the weather turned blustery and chilly, we dug out and donated beanies for the local boys who were working – along with Damian and Graham – from early morning to dark.

The topside planks, or sau were fitted, the solid outrigger secured with fresh-cut timbers and lashings, and a mast and spars were cut and honed. Lutu and Mini carved the groove that will act as a footing for the ‘boom’, and fashioned the steering oar, which has to be heavy enough not to pop out of the water, but light enough to be lifted from one end of the canoe to the other when it goes about.

We donated some not-quite-traditional technology in the form of five sausages of black marine sealant (left over when we re-sealed our saloon windows), which was warmly received as an alternative to the traditional coconut-husk-and-putty method of sealing deck seams. Between Sel Citron and Maunie, we were also cleaned out of stainless steel screws and I don’t suppose too many island outriggers can claim to have high-tech spectra ropes for all their sheets and running rigging! (One bonus of losing our mast: we have a LOT of spare rope on board).

The modern technology may detract from the canoe’s rustic-ness but will undoubtedly improve its seaworthiness and reduce the need for constant bailing, which is the ‘traditional’ requirement.

Finally, a sail was fashioned from a blue tarpaulin we had on board (other cruisers are bringing an old sail from Suva, which will be re-cut and replace it in due course).

With our on-board supply of fresh veggies almost exhausted after five weeks, and a departure weather window imminent, launch day arrived.

The morning saw finishing touches applied: Graham painting the decks with spare grey bilge paint (which didn’t quite dry in time. “Oh well,” said Lutu. “We won’t slip off!”); me painting motifs on the bows and Lutu carving the names of the three yachts (Maunie, Ithaka and Sel Citron) and five boat builders (Meli, Mini, Alifereti, Pito and Jio) along the gunwale of the canoe.

A mixed crowd of locals and yachties gathered to watch. The canoe was launched and – with a huge cheer – Pito, Mini and Lutu hoisted the mast, set the sail and took off, skimming with surprising speed across the lagoon.

The canoe is double-ended, so that the outrigger is always to windward. To tack or turn, the crew releases the mainsheet, bundles up the sail and spas and manhandles the foot of the ‘boom’ to the other end of the canoe where Mini had fashioned a slot to receive it. The steering oar also swaps ends. Then you just unfurl the sail and head off in the opposite direction, It’s simple, but ingenious.

We ‘helpers’ had a turn next. First Graham and Damian (who was bailing constantly: after a year sitting on the beach, the canoe was already full of worm holes. Hopefully another visiting yachtie will have some resin on board with which to seal it). Then Di and me.

What a special experience for us. Apart from helping to keep a tradition alive and to work side by side with such lovely people, it’s great to know that the canoe is actually a practical addition to the village. With limited fuel for the motorised long boats, the canoe will be used every day for fishing and food-gathering trips.

But the best thing was seeing Mini’s smile: normally a shy man, he was grinning from ear to ear. His big brother would have been so proud.

Later, Lutu was in tears explaining to Graham how much it meant to him that they’d come back to help this year and admitted that he’d begun to think that Meli’s canoe would never sail. Jio presented us with carved bowls in the shape of our boats, with Sel Citron and Maunie engraved on the sides.

Of course, the canoe launch was a fine excuse (any will do) for a kava party. All our friends from the village gathered in the shed on the beach, along with friends from Blinder and Obsession. The men broke out the guitars and ‘drums’ and Salote led the dancing. It was an emotional farewell.

After we’d left the island, we heard that the new canoe had inspired much talk around the tanoas. Graham produced a fantastic short film of the build (see it here), which got Chief Taniel very excited. There is talk about building more canoes to race on the lagoon (the last race was in 2000) – possibly providing a source of income from visiting yachties.

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

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