Canoe Sailing in the Solomon Islands

You haven’t seen me on the river since the end of August. The reason is that I’ve been on Taumako, a remote island in the Solomon Islands, learning about voyaging canoes, their construction, operation, and systems of non-instrument navigation. I’ve just returned to Ohio for a few months before going back to Taumako to continue the project.

The eastern Solomons is still as isolated from the outside world as any place on earth, and for most of the past three-and-a-half months I couldn’t even receive the most basic news. The trade-off is that I got to live on a stunning tropical island; swim in clear, warm water over a beautiful reef; watch the preparation of two canoes for inter-island voyaging; and talk with accomplished traditional navigators about how they find their way between islands over dozens-and sometimes hundreds-of miles of open sea. I learned enough of the Taumako language to hold brief conversations without resorting to Pijin, the Solomons’ version of Melanesian Pidgin English. And my Pijin also improved, although it’s not what it should be for someone who has spent as much time as I have in that part of the world.

The Vaka Taumako Project involves some introduction of resources into the community, and that means competition for control of those resources. As a result, I learned as much about political processes as navigation and sailing. It wasn’t exactly what I’d gone there to do, but it was no less interesting for that. The most frustrating part of the past few months is that it took a long time for the canoes to be properly fixed up, so I actually did very little sailing. My colleagues and I were hoping to sail about seventy miles, from Taumako to Nifiloli in the Outer Reef Islands in October. However, the canoes weren’t ready until the end of the month, and by that time the easterly trades had given way to unstable monsoon winds. I managed to get out on the reef one night for a crayfish hunt (they’re actually more like tropical lobster), did a little spear fishing in the open sea, and had a wild ride in a small dugout (as opposed to one of the large voyaging canoes). To give you a little flavor of the experience, here’s an account of the later outing:

Today was my first opportunity since diving for crayfish to engage in participant observation of some maritime activity-great sailing on the reef flat with Basil Tavake.

The morning broke grey and windy, with storm clouds on the horizon, occasional rain, and a generally threatening appearance. The wind was swirling all around, but coming mostly from the north (te palapu). The surf line was white with spray whipped up by winds of 20 knots and gusts to 35 or more. I was surprised to see a couple of canoes heading past Kahula village-one powered by an outboard, the other with a person poling. I was even more surprised, around 10 AM, to see someone I recognized from a distance as Tavake in a small canoe, raising a blue plastic sail. With the swirling wind he had trouble keeping the sail upright, and three times it collapsed on him. Finally the mast snapped, and he paddled back to the beach in front of his house. I walked over to ask what he was up to; he said he was just sailing for fun and adventure. But the wind was too strong for the small sail and little dugout. He got out a larger sail and found a fresh stick to replace the old boom, which he figured was too weathered to endure the stress. Then, after a few moments of reflection, he asked me if I’d like to sail with him.

It was chilly even before getting wet, so I put on a long-sleeved polyester shirt and kayaking dry top. I also figured that the greatest danger was swamping and having to walk on sharp coral with a strong wind and current while trying to retrieve the canoe. So I put on my wet suit booties. It turned out that they weren’t needed, but it felt good to have them just in case.

While I got out my gear, Tavake cut the new boom to appropriate length and lashed the long pole to a forked stick. He got a second, smaller pole and lashed it to another forked stick which would hold up the point at the top center portion of the sail. We got out a slightly larger dugout, one I’d estimated at fifteen feet in length. It had many rotting spots, and the one thwart, which also supported the mast, was coming out on one side. Strips of metal were nailed to various spots on the outside of the hull, seemingly to patch leaks and perhaps to reinforce the hull’s structural integrity . to the extent that such terminology can be applied.

At first, Tavake had me sit in the bow facing him, and he didn’t expect me to do anything more than help him counterbalance the force of the wind. The canoe was long and narrow, with no outrigger, and probably not more than six inches of freeboard. We sailed out toward the surf line with the wind coming hard to port. The tide was high, which meant that there were two- and three-foot waves even on the reef flat. Each time there was a strong gust or a large wave hit the canoe, sea water would wash over the gunwales, and before long before we’d taken on enough water to be in danger of foundering. My companion had neglected to bring a bailer, so there wasn’t much we could do except try to stay more or less upright until we got back to shore. It was especially exciting as we approached the surf line and plowed through some breakers. Then we turned toward the beach and surfed some fairly large waves back. Tavake held the steering paddle and sheet, so except for balance he was in complete control of the canoe.

 

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When we got to shore, he paddled us back to the beach in front of his house and got a pole (tokotoko) to add to the paddle for propulsion, as well as a plastic bottle with the bottom cut off to serve as a bailer. He asked if I’d like to hold the steering paddle, to which I readily agreed. He poled us to the point between Kahula and Niukkili valleys; we bailed the water that had accumulated in the bilge; and we positioned ourselves with me in the stern and him a few feet in front of me. He handed me the paddle, while he grabbed the bailer and sheet; and we started back, working our way clockwise around the island and toward the surf line.

At first we had a little trouble catching much wind, since we were in a large shadow cast by the point between the two valleys and by Tohua, a small island a hundred yards from the beach. But once we passed Tohua, we caught the full force of the wind. It took all my strength and leverage, bracing the paddle against the gunwale, to keep us going straight, with the wind coming from port and my paddle to starboard. I was impressed at how well the canoe tracked and how little leeway there was, considering that we had neither a keel nor an outrigger. And with both of us sitting toward the stern, the bow rode higher, which meant we didn’t ship as much water. Tavake did a great job of handling the sheet and helping to steer from his position; but he also gave me pretty clear instructions about where he wanted me to direct the canoe and when to turn. We sailed past Te Veni (a huge hole in the reef, perhaps 100 yards in diameter) and reached the edge of the surf line. This was definitely the scariest part of the trip, since it wouldn’t have taken long to allow ourselves to get blown into the meat of the surf, where we would certainly have swamped in the powerful four- to six-foot breakers. But at the last minute he had me jibe to starboard and switch the paddle to the port side. Although I use a left-handed kayak paddle, my right side is a little stronger, and my left shoulder is still sore from an old biking injury; so it took a while to find a position where I could comfortably steer with the paddle to port. Once I got that sorted out, we maintained a course pretty much straight toward the next point-Miango-which juts out onto the reef, then headed up onto the beach. There we bailed the water that Tavake was unable to get while we were underway, and he poled us back to Lokakehu at the north end of Kahula, where we made one more pass. We didn’t go around the point to Niukkili because the waves were too big on that side of the island, and we didn’t go around Miango point to Ngauta because that would have put us in the shadow of the island and made it difficult to catch a good wind. So we had three wild rides along the southeastern coast, from Lokakehu to the end of Hapapa. Although we were constantly in danger of swamping and always had some water accumulated in the bilge, it never interfered with our ability to handle the canoe. At one point, as we were approaching the beach, Tavake leaned the wrong way while the wind changed, and we had about three inches in the vessel when we reached shore; but by that time we were over a sandy bottom, close to land, and out of the strongest winds. The wettest we got was actually pulling the canoe onto the beach back at Vangahala (the section of Kahula where I was living), when a breaker crashed over the canoe and into my face. This was the most exhilarating day I’ve had since paddling the New River Gorge at two feet back in August!

More relevant to my ostensible reason for being here: I learned some useful lessons about Taumako sailing. Obviously, we were not in a voyaging canoe-or anything even close. And this was not an inter-island voyage. In fact, we didn’t even get outside of the fringing reef. But many of the attitudes and skills that Tavake demonstrated are the same ones that have enabled his ancestors to develop their fine canoes and become renowned sailors and navigators. This can be seen in Tavake’s interest in testing his skills under challenging and potentially even risky conditions, loving every minute of it; and his understanding the behavior of the wind and the reaction of the boat and sail to different wind conditions. His ability to deal with wind that was swirling and not coming steadily from one direction is something a skilled navigator and captain must have in dealing with emergencies caused by suddenly-inclement weather on the high seas-as was his understanding of how to modify the sail to handle changing wind conditions. His ability to deal with one of the prongs breaking on the fork that connected the boom to the mast and not let it interfere with the canoe’s performance is an indication of the resourcefulness that would be important on an inter-island voyage. And his ability to remain enthusiastic but under control should serve him well under a variety of circumstances. He has never made an inter-island journey on a voyaging canoe but loves to fish and to be at sea. He sees it as a challenge and almost a game, although it is a game with potentially large stakes-whether putting food on the table (actually on the floor mat) or safely reaching the destination island. He indicated that he would like to make a voyage sometime on a proper voyaging canoe (te puke or te alo lili). But until that happens, he’s content to enjoy himself with more local challenges, sailing his canoe around Taumako and learning the skills that may, one day, put him on the same path as his namesake, Basil Tavake, the great Pileni navigator of the middle portion of the past century.

At least one of the large canoes is now ready for a lengthy voyage, and another is suitable for local voyages in the vicinity of Taumako, so I’m optimistic about getting some quality time at sea when I go back. In the meantime, I hope to hear from-and maybe see-many of you over the coming months while I’m in the US.


Richard Feinberg is Professor of Anthropology at Kent State University.  Rick Feinberg, Ben Finney, Professor Emeritis at the University of Hawaii, and Mimi George of the Vaka Taumako Project are conducting research in the Solomon Islands that is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

This article was first published in “Keel Haulers Kanews” January. 2008 – Pp. 1-4. See  Keel-haulers Canoe Club