Canoes and Conservation

July/Aug 2004

Being a long-time sailor (since the age of 10), as well as having trained as a yacht designer, I�m reasonably confident of my sailing skills. I learned a thing or two in the Louisades.

The sailing canoes in these islands are Pacific proas, with outriggers that are always kept to windward. This means that to come about, they shunt (trade bow for stern) rather than tack. Sailing canoes are used here as basic transportation, so they�re constantly in use, and as we cruised the islands, I had ample opportunities to study how they were rigged and sailed. I photographed; I sketched; I made notes. Finally, I thought I knew their secrets.

Some local boys were kind enough to take me sailing, so I could practice what I thought I�d learned. So much for professional expertise. My crew howled � though not unkindly � with laughter at my less than stellar efforts, and proceeded to give me some pointers.

For example, these proas are steered with a paddle, but to turn the canoe, the paddle isn�t turned or angled, but rather shifted vertically (moving the center of lateral plane, thus altering the canoe�s balance). I also learned that the canoes can fly an outrigger, but it isn�t really recommended practice. And I discovered that our own 35-foot sloop, Nomad (which is no slouch), can just stay ahead of a small canoe, in light airs, hard to windward. On a reach, in a breeze, forget it.

I discovered that the canoe builders, who live primarily on Panaeati Island, are consummate craftsmen. They build the canoes using a curved, hollow keel log as a base. The upper edges of the keel log are rabetted, and two lapstrake planks are added on each side. The keel log and the planks are full length (some canoes are 35 feet long), and they are hewn and shaped using axes and adzes. There are no chain saws, power tools or even saws (save for a small crosscut saw) in evidence. Yet the planks are as smooth as if they�d been finished with a thickness planer.

There are minor concessions to modernity: a few copper nails serve to backup the lashings that join planks to keel and frames, and poly sheeting that has replaced pandanus for the sails. A few fortunate sailors have sails recut from old yacht sails, and scrounged Dacron and polypropylene line is also seen. These sensible adaptations are simply the latest refinements to some truly superb watercraft, the product of many generations of cumulative effort and skill.

For more on the changes underway in the Louisiades, and efforts to protect the environment of these islands, see Canoes, subsistence and conservation in the Louisiade Archipelago of Papua New Guinea, available at:“>


By Ocean Navigator