One of eight vaka sails into the harbor of San Francisco’s Treasure Island
Last week I attended the welcoming ceremony for a fleet of vaka moana that had just crossed the Pacific from New Zealand, where the eight craft were built. Using traditional sailing rigs supplemented by solar-powered electric motors, the craft and crew made the voyage in about three months using celestial navigation. The project is called Pacific Voyagers and is intended to raise awareness of the health of our oceans while honoring and preserving the culture of Oceana where the vaka originate.
The vaka are essentially giant, sea-going canoes, or catamarans, consisting of two canoe-like hulls joined together by a partially enclosed deck, steered by a huge counter-weighted oar that can also propel the boat at harbor when necessary, like a gondola. These modern boats are clearly an adaptation of the original catamaran that, like the culture of the Pacific Islands, is thought to have originated in Taiwan. I had been aware of the innovative catamaran designs emerging from Southern California’s surf culture in the 1940’s, but this was my first encounter with the real deal, and I was blown away by their speed, agility, and the simplicity of their rigging and power stream, not to mention the ease of movement among the crew on deck.
I got to thinking about the girth and length of the logs that must have been harvested to make the original canoes thousands of years ago, and how both mono-hulls and catamarans share common ancestors in the dugout canoe. As a woodworker, I’m always aware of how things are made using either an additive or subtractive strategy, one involving the assembly of individual parts and the other the removal of material, and how most wooden structures involve a hybrid of the two. A dugout canoe is a prime example of a subtractive technique, and most likely represents the original boat type common to all cultures.
I see the vaka as the Eastern equivalent to the Viking longboat in both its influence on boat design and on the dissemination of cultural values, and am fascinated by how each hull type evolved the dugout concept in different ways, probably at least partially in response to different oceanic conditions and materials available for construction. The Viking innovation was to transition the dugout hull into something more like a shaped keel, adding ribs and planking sides to make a vessel capable of navigating open ocean. The Pacific Islanders’ innovation was to optimize the scale of the dugout and lash two together for maximal seaworthiness.