To me the perfect icon for Oceania's tropical island people would be the common canoe, crafted from a single log and fitted with an outrigger for balance. This ubiquitous little boat typifies not only the craftsmanship of island people, but is a world-class example of environmental sustainability at its very best. The canoe of today, virtually identical to those described by Captain Cook, is still constructed of local natural materials and recycled when its journeys are finished. These boats are the family wheelbarrow, the easiest way to visit grandmother, the fishing platform, the traditional village workboat, as well as the local hot rod for competition-hungry young boys.
Village craftsmen, their skills little changed over thousands of years, handmake every canoe. Each builder fashions, with no other tool but an adz, time-honored seaworthy designs, that with the tweak of an angle can change a boat from an open-ocean vessel to a lagoon-based cargo boat.
The majority of the outriggers we see on the islands are dugouts 10 to 22 feet in length. There are, however, much larger canoes. These, while few in number, are so magnificent they dominate the beach view. One place to see them is gorgeous Kitava Island, which we will visit on Faces of Melanesia. Be on deck as we approach because we will be greeted by an incredible display of many approaching war canoes, each paddled by dozens of powerful men. The image is one of strength and speed.
As you stroll through the village, look closely. No two canoes are the same. Long or short, stocky or slim, tall or low to the water, curved or straight-bottomed, each is a product of the carver's culture, tradition, training, experience, and log availability. Sliver-thin boats are easily paddled in calm lagoons, while stocky canoes plug along the lagoon shore to the next village, hauling heavy or bulky cargo such as food, firewood, or the occasional pig.
The part of the boat called the "outrigger" is a lesson in utility, grace, simplicity, and strength. Each outrigger is a long, buoyant, tiny trunk of a tall forest tree. Neatly shaped, each is attached parallel to the hull by booms, rigged slightly bow-high to make the canoe climb a swell instead ?of diving through it.
Understanding the function of the outrigger is easy; it keeps the canoe from rolling over. How and where the outrigger attaches to the canoe depends on the island culture. Some societies tuck the outriggers in close to the canoe, while some push them out fairly far. Likewise, depending on the island, the two or more booms may be covered by sticks to haul light cargo, or left open. The rowers may paddle off either side of the canoe if the opening has enough space, but more likely the paddling is done only on the side of the canoe away from the outrigger. The most common fastening material is quarter-inch twisted rope made by village men out of coconut husk fibers.
While the outrigger resolves the stability issue, it poses a problem of forward control. The drag of the outrigger continually pulls the bow of the canoe towards the outrigger, forcing the boat to travel in circles. The common trick used to compensate for the drag is by a quick and powerful outward twist of the paddle at the end of the long power-stroke. I learned this well when a fisherman invited me to take his 12-foot ("or so") canoe out for a paddle. A small crowd gathered to watch the fun. With my first proud, powerful stroke, the little bullet beneath me shot forward and then went into a stubborn turn. Correcting the turn with the paddle, I came to nearly a dead stop. To the tune of much sidesplitting laughter from the crowd, I repeated this forward-turn-correction-stop motion until the kind fisherman successfully showed me the little wrist-twist at the end of the stroke that was needed to keep the boat on track.
The adaptability and stability of the finished outrigger canoe was made clear one day when I met a disabled islander. Paddling past, he had stopped by for a mutually curious chat. He had returned to his home island only five years before, the victim of a car accident in Guam. Now he gladly spent much of every day in his boat rather than holed up in the village. The function of his canoe was much more than that of a walker or wheelchair (both impossible in the village). Here he was, a young father able to get around on his own, enjoy nature, teach and play with his children, socialize, play taxi, help other villagers haul stuff, fish for his family, and, he laughed, "get plenty of exercise in a beautiful place!"
What thrills me when I see these beautiful boats is that each is proudly owned and appreciated for its inexpensive village utility. Each is admired for its graceful lines and craftsmanship as we might admire a new car. Each is carefully housed in its thatch canoe house, and each is the keystone of a family's function and value in the community. They are also safe and fun to just paddle--once you learn that little wrist-twist at the end of the paddle stroke.