Traditional Canoes

All Marshallese outrigger canoes in the islands are made from mā (breadfruit tree) or lukwej (Calophyllum inophyllum – a large tree). The wood pieces are tied together with kkwal (coconut sennit) with no nails being used. The sails were traditionally made from maan̄ but today cloth is used. Traditionally the trees were chopped down with an ūlūl (axe-like instrument) and carved to the proper shape with different sizes of māāls (carving tools). The boats of today are still made in the traditional manner, except that more modern tools are used for carving and shaping of the wood. Boat houses are made for the kōrkōr and tipn̄ōl to protect them from the sun, although they are becoming less common today. The walap was protected by wrapping mats and coconut fronds around it. Three types of outrigger canoes are made by the Marshallese.

  1. Kōrkōr — Outrigger Paddle Canoe
    This is an outrigger paddle canoe that is usually about ten to fifteen feet long. It is used for fishing or sailing to other islands within the same atoll. It is too small for long voyages and distances. Often a sail is added which makes the canoe very fast. It can carry one to three people, sometimes as many as five people if it is a large kōrkōr. It can be identified by the number of apets, which are the curved pieces of wood that connect the outrigger part of the hull to the canoe. A kōrkōr has three of these. Today the kōrkōr is commonly found throughout the Marshall Islands.
  2. Tipn̄ōl — Sailing Canoe
    This is the large sailing canoe used for sailing between atolls, for fishing especially in the ocean, or for sailing across lagoons of big atolls. This type of canoe is very fast and efficient, and can carry from ten to forty people depending on its size. It always has a large sail. The tipn̄ōl is now rare in the islands but there still may be a few in the outer islands. The tipn̄ōl has four apet connecting the hull of the canoe and the outrigger.
  3. Walap — Large Sailing Canoe
    This was a very large outrigger canoe used for traveling long distances. It is believed to be the type of canoe that brought the original Marshallese to these islands. This large outrigger canoe could carry up to a hundred people plus all supplies for voyages lasting several months. Today this type of boat exists only as model canoes although the old people still know how to make them. The boats of ancient times were extremely slow, partly because the caulking was poor, and because they had no covering on the decks to prevent the waves from washing water into the hull, which made them all the heavier and slower. The more recent walaps were much faster for they were better made. All walaps had very large sails. These canoes had five or more apet.

Wōjlā — Sail

This is the traditional type of sail used on the outriggers. The sails were woven by the women from maan̄ (pandanus leaves). Only the leaves from the kinum type of pandanus tree were used for they are the strongest. If this species did not exist on a certain atoll, the people would sail to the atolls where it was available. In the Rālik Chain (western chain) of the Marshalls it exists on Lae, Ujae, and Ronglap, which meant long sailing voyages for the people living in places such as Ebon, just to obtain the material for a new sail.

In weaving the sail a mōnakjān in wōjlā was used. This was a piece of wood about one-foot-wide by one and one half feet long which the woman placed on her lap. She would then place the maan̄ on the mōnakjān and begin to weave the sail. The sail was made by weaving several separate strips that were later sewn together. These separate strips were called baken and usually six to twelve inches wide. It took about thirty to forty baken to make a sail for a large canoe. The baken were sewn together with maan̄ of the same type as used for weaving, and the iie (needle) was made from certain fish bones. They were sewn together again and again to make them strong. Today woven sails can be seen only on model canoes. Although all sails used on the outrigger canoes of today are made from canvas or other cloth, these sails are still made by sewing together several baken.

Lem — Bailer

The lem is used to bail water from inside the canoe. It is carved from one large black shaped piece of wood and a handle is attached by kkwal (coconut rope). The body part is rounded and scoop shaped so it can easily fit into the bottom of the canoe. The shape also enables a person to bail water in one continuous movement from gathering the water to throwing it overboard. These are still commonly made and used in the Marshalls.

Written by Carol Curtis