The Return of Lata: Building an Authentic Polynesian Voyaging Canoe

by Mimi George, Ph.D. for Sea History Magazine, Spring 1998

How were stone-age Polynesian craft built and how did they perform at sea?  What motivated Polynesians to voyage, and how did they find their way.   Until Paramount Chief Kruso Kaveia of Taumako, a Polynesian island in the southeast Solomons, asked me to help his people document the building and sailing of a Te Puke, it seemed that we had missed our chance to answer these questions.  Renowned maritime scholars swore that there was no one left who could make one or show us how to sail in the full traditional way.  Even David Lewis, an expert in traditional Polynesian navigation and author of We, the Navigators, believed that there were no more authentic Polynesian vessels to be found, and that the last navigator who knew the old methods had died in 1970.

Until 1972, it was widely held that Polynesians colonized a third of the earth’s surface by accident. When Lewis’ book, We the Navigators, was published, several centuries of European misapprehension and speculation ended.  The efficacy of traditional Polynesian navigation became a scientifically verified fact.

From 1972 to 1994 several modern replicas of Polynesian voyaging canoes were built in California, Kiribati, Hawaii, the Cooks, the Marshalls, the Societies, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, and most were sailed long distances.  But these were not authentic Polynesian canoes.  The builders thought that both the experiential knowledge and the natural resources needed were no longer available to them.   Also, they were loath to risk the lives of the crew by experimenting with sennit or other natural fiber lashing at sea.

All the replicas built since the late 1960’s have featured modern materials and designs, such as depending on nylon cordage for structural lashings, epoxy and modern fasteners, plywoods, and caulking materials to hold together hull and members and make them watertight.  Each of these vessels used Dacron sailcloth instead of woven Pandanus mats (except perhaps for ceremonial occasions such as launching) and Marconi or modified lateen rigs, meant to look as much like Cook’s artist’s images of Tahitian “crabclaw” sails as possible without committing to the crabclaw form.

Nor was Polynesian navigational knowledge relied upon.  In the 1970’s the new voyagers did not think it was possible to learn much more about the non-instrument navigation practiced by ancient Polynesians.   Researchers studied traditional navigational lore from written sources and living elders.   But the information was insufficient and modern data from satellite weather coverage and piloting charts were used freely.  In the case of the new Hawaiian effort, study of the stars was made with the help of an astronomer, and a system of star navigation was figured out. This synthesis of modern and traditional knowledge resulted in non-instrumental methods that did work.  But these non-instrumental methods are not the same as ancient methods … though they may be adequate for what the new voyagers want to do.

Suddenly Another Chance
In 1993 we were shocked to learn that that was not the case.  An experienced Polynesian navigator of Taumako let it be known that he wanted to build a new voyaging canoe that would not be just a replica.  In 1996 he and his community – the Polynesian heirs to an unbroken chain of experiential knowledge – began construction, using only ancient materials, tools, and methods.

On 12 September, 1997, the people of Taumako launched an authentic Polynesian voyaging canoe (vaka).   The name of the type of vaka is Te Puke.  The name of the Te Puke is Vaka Taumako – “a voyaging canoe for Taumako.”

The Vaka Taumako is 6 fathoms long – the shortest possible length for the design called Te Puke. Te Puke serve as seagoing, heavy cargo and passenger carrying vessels.  They are a proa designs,  with a windward outrigger and two front ends (manu). The mast is stepped between the carved wings of the carving of a Te Ube bird that sits atop the manu. When a Te Puke must tack, the mast, with the sail, is carried to the other manu and restepped.  Then that manu is steered to windward as the new bow.

The sails are not the asymmetrical shape known as “crab-claw,” but the perfectly symmetrical long-tipped shape that jet aircraft are known for.  Actually the shape is more elaborated than the delta wing of a jet.  It is fully a crescent with long, curved tips. Long panels of mat woven from Pandanus (fauhala) are sewn together with bark and sennit cordage (kaha).

In wind tunnel tests a crab-claw (asymmetrical) shaped sail captured 50 to 150% more wind force, as defined by C.A. Marchaj in Sail Performance (1996), than a Bermudan sail of the same area when reaching or running.  At a 40% angle of incidence the crabclaw captured 90% of what the Bermuda sail did.  The crab-claw sail generatess more lift than the Bermudan when heading at angles from 40% to 180% from the wind.  It is a slender foil, the tips of which remove the dead air from the platform when it is sailing both on and off the wind.  Theoretically, this creates both potential and vortex lift.  The vortex lift increases with the angle of incidence.  The startling fact is that the crab-claw is not limited by drag when sailing off the wind, as is the case with Bermuda and most other sail types.

According to basic aerodynamics, the slender foil shape of Taumako sail must be aerodynamically superior to a crab-claw shape.  Someday the Taumako sail should be tested in a wind tunnel.

A Kamani (Tamanu) tree is cut for the hull, and several other types of hardwoods for various structural pieces are harvested from the unlogged bounty at Taumako.  The parts of the massively outrigged canoe are lashed together with over 400 fathoms of sennit or coconut fiber cordage and over 200 fathoms of bark cordage, as well as several windlasses made with twisted rattan.  The main hull is made watertight and, ideally, is trimmed with ballast to be 85% submarine.  Thus it cuts through or avoids much of the wave-making drag.

The watertight hull covers (tetau) and the main lashings that hold the outrigger risers and the crosspieces (lakahalava) to the main hull are caulked with coconut fiber. Then seaweed paste (lumu) is applied as a protective paint.

Light and buoyant floats (ama) are attached to the outrigger members with a variety of lashings that have both shock-absorbing and self-fastening qualities.  If there is more cargo than anticipated, more ama floats will be added. The house on the main hull platform (haehale) is constructed of sego palm leaves on a lashed and shock-absorbing frame.  A breakaway lattice is constructed on the windward, ama-side platform, so as to improve the chances that the canoe might be righted in the event of capsize.  Smaller canoes, that may be taken as cargo, are lashed to the leeward edge of the platform adjoining the ama, where they served as a safety ama in case the canoe were knocked down.

There is still at least one old person who can show the younger people how to sail and navigate this Te Puke to islands both near and far, in both fine and cyclonic conditions.  There are a few very old persons, including at least two women, who experienced many inter-island voyages and can advise the young how to do it.

Paramount Chief Kruso Kaveia explained to David Lewis and me that their main method of navigation is Te Nohoanga Te Matangi – various diagrams of which are known in Pacific literature as the “wind compass.”  But the literature explains nothing about how to use these diagrams, or the concepts they may represent, and nothing about this method that was told to David Lewis when he was researching Polynesian navigation in the SE Solomon Islands in 1968-69,.  Perhaps this was because he expressed great interest in star and swell navigation, and because he was only in Santa Cruz Islands for a short time and did not speak local languages or pidgin. According to Kaveia, Te Nohoanga Te Matangi is a “system” that organizes and clarifies information already documented about Polynesian navigation, including use of swell patterns, stars, seasons, weather, birds, and sea signs.  Because Kaveia believed the mysterious light that can be seen streaking from islands into the deep sea (te lapa) was correlated with certain swell patterns.

The Heirs of Lata: A traditional Polynesian Community of Shipwrights and Wayfinders
The people of Taumako say that they have made voyaging canoes (vaka) since the time that their ancestor Lata first did it.  They describe themselves as the heirs of Lata, the first person to build a Te Puke, the most seaworthy and cargo carrying type of vaka they know how to make.

Across the Pacific today Polynesian people still tell different versions of the Story of Lata.  At Taumako lata is best known both as the first person to build and sail a voyaging canoe and as a controller of the wind. The story descries how the fir tree was felled for making the main hull.  Lata learned that if he did not get permission from the landowner, Sina (also known as Hina or Hinora) to cut down the tree, it would be rebuilt at night when he was asleep.  But once he apologized, and asked Sina for permission to cut it, she gave it to him and he had no more problems.  The Lata of Taumako also befriended a forest bird (te ube), who advised him through the process of building the vaka, step by step.

According to the traditional story, while Lata was building the Te Puke everyone was well fed and happy at Taumako. But after the vaka was launched, Lata sailed away and never came back.  He wanted to return but he could not.  Lata had given Sina a conch shell to blow in answer to his own, when he departed the reef pass. But when Sina tried to blow it, it did not work.  So she threw coconut trees across the entrance to the lagoon and they turned to stone, thus preventing Lata from returning.

People have lived on Taumako for at least 2,500 years.   It is among the remotest of the far-flung islands of Temotu Province in the Solomons.   Taumako was the shipbuilding center of Temotu an beyond for a very long time.  In 1606 when the pilot of Mendana, Pedro Quirós, visited the island, he described it as “little Venice.”  At sea they saw a twenty meter vaka with 50 people on board.  In the 1920’s it was reported that there were 200 vaka in Temotu.  According to Chief Kaveia, most of them were built on Taumako. Te Puke were photographed in 1898, 1907, and were filmed in 1937 and 1957 by the crew of the Yankee Pacific.  In the early 1960’s the last old Te Puke broke up at sea after a crew from demonstrated how it was sailed for a visiting yacht.

In 1996 only a handful of octogenarians had enough experience to adequately teach others how to build and sail Te Puke.  These were the last heirs of Lata.  They knew that if they did not pass on their knowledge to the youth, there would be no more heirs of Lata.

Since Lata left Taumako, Taumakans say that that have been having hard times and behaving badly.  But now they want their lives to become peaceful and productive again.  They want to return to the idyllic existence they knew when Lata was among them, and they ahave been wairting anxiously for Lata’s return.  It is their most important story, defining their cultural identity and heritage to build and sail voyaging canoes.

Lata returned on 2 January, 1997, when a 25 meter Tamanu tree was felled for the main hull of the Vaka Taumako and the people of Taumako finally started to build another Te Puke.  For the previous year many hands made coconut fiber cordage, because over 600 fathoms of it is required for the building of one vessel.  Every day  for 18 months they told and followed the Story of Lata.  The story tells how to do every step, and every participant in the work is a character in the story.  All 15 “tribes” and 450 people in Taumako, men, women, and children, were compelled to cooperate and share whatever they knew or had.  There were great debates and controversies about how to cut the holes and tie some lashings called fau loi mata, that hold the massive risers and crossbeams of the outrigger to the hull.

The whole community followed the example and directions of the oldest people, the ones who had actually built and voyaged on Te Puke.  The children drove the process with their unbounded enthusiasm and the long hours of tedious and dangerous work they contributed to the effort.

In the end, two Te Puke and one working model were built.  One of the Te Puke and the model are privately controlled.  But the Vaka Taumako, unlike another they were ordered to build in 1979 for display at the Pacific Arts Festival, will remain at Taumako to be owned and used by the people of Taumako.  It’s mission is to sail on traditional voyages, using traditional Polynesian navigation methods.  In this way, the people of Taumako plan to return to their place, as shipbuilders and voyagers, in a world that has forgotten how, and perhaps why, to do these things.  It was build as an educational tool for the youth of Taumako and to show outsiders tha there are still Polynesians who know their most culturally definitive of arts.

Looking to the Future
Through the Vaka Taumako Project the crucial skills to build a true Polynesian vaka have been demonstrated and documented.  The next step is voyaging.  Throughout 1998 the Taumako elders will teach the younger generations how to sail and navigate this craft.  They plan to begin with interisland voyages of 60 to 200 miles in length within Temotu Province during the first year or so. They aspire to go further into Polynesia, perhaps to New Zealand to show their craft at the America’s Cup gathering.  And they dream of eventually building a larger Te Puke and sailing to Hawaii.

When the trade winds return to Taumako in May or June, the sail training and navigation apprenticeship process can begin.  That is when documentation of knowledge can begin.  This will happen if there is funding for video equipment and transport for the research and documentation crew, most of whom will be people from Taumako, .  The Vaka Taumako Project also needs funding to edit and narrate the valuable footage taken in 1997 during the building of the vessel.  If key people die before we can do the work, the traditional knowledge they hold will truly be lost forever.  The work must begin immediately if we are not to lose this last chance.

Dr. George is a cultural anthropologist and sailor specializing in voyaging cultures, including Austronesians and Siberian Yupik.

Revised Article in SEA HISTORY, a published quarterly by the National Maritime Historical Society, Spring, 1998, pp 40 – 42