Sailing Canoes

Today's aerodynamic engineers are in awe of the design technology of the outrigger canoes still sailing today in the Marshall Islands. These are the designs which plied the waves and have evolved through and survived for 50 generations.

Marshallese voyagers sailed in the open ocean up to 500 miles as a matter of necessity. With very limited land area and a vast amount of ocean surrounding their islands, it is easy to understand why Marshallese have had to become so familiar with the sea.

Rather than a vast emptiness surrounding them, for the Marshallese sailors, the sparkling blue ocean has been a dynamic network of continuous pathways, enabling the voyagers to reach near and distant destinations. And it has been the all-important outrigger sailing canoe that has made their survival possible.

In 1817 Adelbert von Chamisso, the naturalist aboard the European fact finding RURIK, gave the first detailed description of the Marshallese outrigger:

"We admired the rapidity with which their boats sailed close to the wind. It had one disproportionately large sail, of fine woven mats, which was in the shape of an acute angled triangle. The skill with which they put about their boat in tacking deserved the admiration of every seaman. I immediately ordered to lay-to and admired the ingenious construction of it; and the surprising skill more.

The remarkable skill of the Marshallese seafarers to evolve their swift outrigger combined three inventions of the utmost utility in sailing. First the masters designed a watercraft that always keeps its main hull to leeward and its small outrigger counter-balance up on the windward side. Always keeping the main hull to leeward is possible as the canoe tacks because the sailors pivot their mast and move their sail from one end to the other. Thus the canoe is able to sail with either end forward, thereby keeping the outrigger on the weather side."(Kotzbue O.von,1821)

With these reversible ends in mind, the Marshallese were able to further evolve their sailing craft. A second notable design invention is an asymmetrical main hull which helps lift their craft to windward, much as a bird’s wing lifts its weight into the sky. This asymmetrical main hull’s two sides differ: the lee side (or side away from the wind) is flattened, while the hull’s side which stays to windward is more shapely for lift like the top of a bird’s wing. The flattened lee side of the main hull helps pull the vessel up to windward reducing the need for a deep keel, centerboard or leeboards.

And a third notable design characteristic of the Marshallese canoe is the use of a lee platform. This extension lashed out to leeward of the main hull extends over nothing but the ocean. This seemingly precarious lee platform enables the voyagers to carry a greater quantity of cargo. Most voyaging canoes had small thatch houses built up for women and children. There is a sophisticated balance to these wide outriggers designed for ultimate windward speed and cargo carrying capacity!

The engineering of these well-designed craft were equally matched by a brilliant navigating system. The ancient landfinders developed their system of navigation by incorporating knowledge of directional stars, by keeping track of their course through dead reckoning methods, by an extensive knowledge of underlying local reefs and bird flight patterns. Also, the Marshallese specialized in a keen awareness of current and wave patterns that reflect off their islands. A knowledge of these specific wave patterns can help a navigator to pinpoint their canoe’s whereabouts. Lessons to learn these wave patterns have been captured in the famous Marshallese “Stick Charts”, their traditional teaching tool for future mariners (and a whole other story).

With this combined excellence of watercraft design and navigational skill the Marshallese traveled as far as the Hawaiian Islands to the east, Pohnpei to the west, Wake (Eneen-Kio) to the north and Kiribati to the south (Nakayama & Ramp 1974:Pp.6,26,84). Geoff Irwin exclaimed that “Once Micronesian navigation methods were perfected, voyages were restricted only by supply and spirit.” (Aug 30, 1996)

Learn more about ancient Marshallese canoe construction and navigation at the Waan Aelon in Majol (“Canoes of the Marshall Islands”) canoe house, where you’ll find canoe builders hard at work and ready to guide you on a lagoon cruise aboard these magnificent vessels from the past. And for information on upcoming canoe races, visit their website at Also follow them on their facebook page.