Garvan Laing - Te waka Maori




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In the early stages of the exploration of the Pacific, the Polynesians used relatively small canoes, either single-hulled or fitted with an outrigger for stability. These could carry about 20 people, plus some provisions, and were suitable only for relatively short distances and tropical (or sub-tropical) waters. The sizes of these vessels were limited, largely, by the timber available. Construction was frequently that of a dugout (suitable only for inshore work) with the addition of planks to increase the leeboard for open waters. Those leeboards were lashed to the dugout hull with woven sennit fibre, and the seams were caulked.

Later, about 900 AD, more prolonged voyages of exploration were made, in the course of which they discovered a large island, fertile, with a long daylight (Aotearoa, now more commonly known as New Zealand). They also voyaged into the fringe of the Antarctic pack ice and encountered icebergs.

Over the next 400 years, those canoes became larger and more elaborate until, at their peak of development, they were large double-hulled craft with a single claw-shaped sail to supplement the efforts of the paddlers. The hulls were connected by a platform, on top of which a deckhouse provided shelter from the elements. Those large ocean-going craft could carry as many as 120 or more people and provisions sufficient for a voyage of some months (and being a maritime people, fish, also, played a large part in their diet). The first of the south-western Polynesian migrations to New Zealand was in about the year 1350 AD and was in a dozen large canoes. Each canoe had a name which was given to the tribe which grew from the people on that canoe; the names of the principal people on each canoe became part of the oral history, and each individual Maori is usually, today, able to trace his descent back to the immigration canoe and its occupants, and even further back in time, to ancestors in the homeland of Hawaiki.

By the time the first modern Europeans reached these shores (names include James Cook, Abel Tasman and Dumont d'Urville), the Maori (as they had then become) had developed the art and craft of canoe-building to a high degree and their navigational skills using their knowledge of ocean currents, meteorology and astronomy are now legendary.

Today, we see two principal types of canoe. There are the large and highly decorated war canoes (the famed "waka taua") able to carry as many as 180 men with 90 or 100 of them paddling at a time to the synchronising calls of a captain. The non-paddlers would take over paddling as required to relieve the others. The construction was that of a large dugout, making use of the majestic forest trees found around the land, notably the long-lasting totara (podocarpus totara) which grows to 30 metres in height. Once the hull was hollowed out using stone adzes and fire, the thwarts were fitted (seats for the paddlers) and the strakes or planks to increase the leeboard were carefully fitted and lashed to the hull with flax fibre. A prow is fitted, usually decoratively carved, but the most distinctive feature is the tall, highly carved stern-piece which was often further adorned by a trailing "pennant" of flax fibre.

The other type of Maori canoe seen today (the waka noa) is much smaller than the waka taua and is a simple dugout, sometimes fitted with an outrigger, and they could carry from one to as many as four or five people. Such canoes today are primarily for sporting and recreational uses.

There is an annual sporting and cultural festival at Ngaruawahia, the site of the Maori Queen's residence. Part of the sporting events are the canoe races, some of which include hurdles, in which the paddlers are required to power their canoes over a hurdle some 20 or 30 cm. above the river level.

Garvan Laing, May 2002

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