What is an Outrigger Canoe?

Canoeing is an activity that I have grown up doing; my family always enjoyed the basic leisure canoe that you think of when you picture a canoe. Surprisingly, there are a few different types of canoes out there, each made or designed for a specific purpose. One of which is an outrigger canoe.

An outrigger canoe is a racing canoe that has lateral floats which are fastened to the hull, or the main body, and can either be on one or both sides.

This canoe has evolved from ancient times and what once was used as a means of travel is now used for racing in Hawaii. This sport has become so popular it is now the official state team sport.

The Purpose of an Outrigger

The purpose of the Outrigger canoe is to improve the vessels stability and to power it. There are both ancient and modern versions of the outrigger canoe.

Today, they are mainly used by Hawaiians for sport and have been racing since around the 1700s. Due to the way they have been built, they are faster than typical canoes and can withstand more harsh waters because of the lateral floats on the side.

Typically, the racing outriggers only have one lateral float, instead of two.

This special canoe was originally designed to be able to handle the rough sea conditions for those having to travel in the Pacific ocean and they have mostly been used by islanders like Hawaiians, Tahitians, Fijians, or people living in New Zealand.

Since this was one of the only ways of travel among these islands, these outrigger canoes had to be designed in the best way possible.

They were built in a way they could be paddled or they could be sailed.

They would use the sail if they needed to travel a far distance, like to different islands. If they were paddling the canoe, it would be just used for fishing close to their island.

This made it much more convenient so they could use it for the different purposes they needed it for.

The sides that hold the flotations are the most important part of this canoe, they are what makes the boat the best possible. Ancient canoes would have two floats, one on both sides and this is what helped to create the more stable canoe.

This is because the floats are at the same angle as the water which helps to make the boat go faster and smoother so the hull does not have to do all the work.

Although they are mainly used for racing in today’s time, they still can be used for things such as fishing. People will buy the outrigger to help set up fishing lines or to help stabilize their vessel when out in rough or choppy waters.

Islands also still use it today because of the convenience of them and because of how reliable they are.

In Zanzibar, Tanzania I was able to see first hand how they are still used. There, they are still made of trees and many of these would be in the water with people in them catching fish or doing other things.

They can also be used as leisure. Today, people will also buy modernized outriggers, which is just the flotations themselves, and attach them to kayaks or different small boats like that. Or they will just buy an outrigger canoe and enjoy canoeing on their own.

It is also what helps to go over the rough sea. The lateral floats are essentially sitting on the water so it could go over most of the bigs waves that came their way. If it was just like a normal canoe there would be a drag since the canoe hull is sitting more in the water than the floats are.

Since most of the people who used these canoes lived in the Pacific, where storms can make the waters difficult to navigate on. These lateral floats help so that the canoe does not turn over or fall as easily as regular canoes would.

The History

Around 5,000 years ago, the first outrigger canoe was recorded and thought to be created by the Austronesian’s. These vessels were a mean of transportation for people to get from one place to another. The canoe could hold up to 80 people.

This was perfect for traveling to different islands or for searching for new land.

These types of canoes first arrived in Hawaii around 200 A.D carrying important things like plants, food, animals and people. Upon arrival, they realized that the terrain was harsh having volcanic rock, steep cliffs, and hard winds and waves.

From this, they knew that the outrigger canoes would become necessary for the fishing and traveling they would be doing. However, they needed to be built well and not out of poor material.

When the islanders discovered the Koa tree, they knew that would be perfect to build the canoes, especially because they could build an entire canoe hull from one piece.

These canoes were nearly sacred to the people who used and built them.

In Hawaii, they had to have a Hawaiian priest make sure the tree was good enough to use. Typically, the priest would go out and search the forest for the proper one. If a bird appeared pecking at the tree then it could not be used because that meant the tree was not solid enough.

After finding the perfect one, the tree would then have to be blessed through prayers.

Transporting the tree back to the islands shore was very difficult and sometimes even required hundreds of men to do so. But once there, they would finish making the canoe, including carving and making a waterproof paint so the wood would not fall apart as easy.

By the 1700s canoeing had turned to a sport and a way to have fun on the island, aside from the practical aspects of the boat.

Captain Cook arrived at the Hawaiian islands in 1779 and reported seeing over 1500 outrigger canoes.

From then on, the sport of racing grew into what it is today in Hawaii. It is so popular that it has been named the official state team sport of Hawaii.

Ancient Compared to Modern

The outrigger canoes from ancient times look different now because of their materials as well as the purposes they serve.

In ancient times, the canoe was made out of trees, mostly the Koa tree trunks. Also, they were designed to be able to paddle the canoe or sail it.

Today, they are mostly made out of glass-reinforced plastic. This helps keep the canoes a float for much longer than the Koa tree ones. Although the ancient canoes could probably keep for a long time, today’s modern technology secures the lifetime and integrity of this canoe.

The purpose today is for racing and some fishing, while back then it was for everything. Fishing, transportation of people and goods and to search for new lands.

Different Types of Outriggers

The different types of outriggers are mainly for the different types of racing that there is.

Topend sports explains the different types of outriggers the best.

“There are different types of outrigger canoes based on, the number of hulls (single or double), the number of paddlers (1, 2, 3, 4, 6 or 12), and whether there is a rudder used or not. The most common type of canoes used for competitive racing are the six-peddler single-hull outriggers referred to as OC6 and the single-paddler outriggers referred to as OC1.

So depending on what you are racing, like how many meters, and how many people you are racing with is what outrigger canoe would be best to use.

“OC” refers to “outrigger canoe” and then the number next to it is the number of people that are racing in the same canoe.

A single outrigger is just the one-sided flotation and the double outrigger is with the lateral flotations on both sides.

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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