Wakas: Part 2

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Tahitian sail types

Society Islands sails, 1770’s

During Cooks first Pacific voyage in 1769, Joseph Banks recorded in detail an ocean-going vessel he saw. In particular he noted the raised bow and high stern, and also the nature of the sail arrangement. In this description he distinguished between boats used for fishing – ‘ivahas’ and those used for ocean travel or fighting – ‘Paheis’.

While describing these canoes he also said ‘when fitted for sailing’, implying that this could be a temporary arrangement; that the same vessels could be rigged both with, and without sails. It appears to have been normal practice that the hulls might be used singly for coastal work, but then paired for voyaging. When a hull was used singly, and with sail, then an outrigger was added for stability.

In this extract from ‘The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks’, under the heading ‘Manners and Customs of South Sea Islands’, he described the sail on a 10m long double canoe.

“When fitted for sailing they have either one or two Masts fitted to a frame which is above the canoe; they are made of a single stick; in one that I measurd of 32 feet in lengh the mast was 25 ft high which seems to me to be about the common proportion. To this is fastned a sail of about one third longer but narrow, of a triangular shape, pointed at the top and the outside curvd; it is borderd all round with a frame of wood and has no contrivance either for reefing or furling, so that in case of bad weather it must be intirely cut away, but I fancy in these moderate climates they are seldom brought to this necessity; the material of which it is made is universaly Matting. With these sails their Canoes go at a very good rate and lay very near the wind, probably on account of their sail being borderd with wood which makes them stand better than any bowlines could possible do. On the top of this sail they carry an ornament which in taste resembles much our Pennants, it is made of feathers and reaches down to the very water so that when blown out by the wind it makes no inconsiderable shew.”

Rig details

Details from various paintings showing the style of sail rig described by Joseph Banks

Tahitian sail photograph

Photograph of the Society Islands sail of the 1770’s in the British Museum

Tahitian sail rigging

1770’s society Islands sail rigging

Joseph Banks describes a rig that has an upright fixed mast. This is quite different to what Shouten and Tasman saw, and different to what Clevely painted in 1777. The illustrations in ‘Waka’s Pt 1’ showed no mast; instead, the sail was supported by a prop. The sail itself was a ‘lateen’; a triangular sail with spars along two of the three edges. The prop supported the uppermost sail spar. The point of the sail where the two spars were joined was the ‘leading edge’, or most upwind, part of the sail.

The alternate type of rig described above by Banks is also shown in many illustrations of the period. In addition to illustrations there exists a solitary example of one of these sails in the British Museum. The sail is 9.5 metres high, and is pictured here lying on the ground, looking away from the foot. The adjoining drawing shows the sail in its true shape, and how it was mounted.

Odd to our eyes, these sails were fixed to the mast at their trailing edge; as is shown in the engravings. These pictures clearly show the wind direction, identified by the direction in which the pennants are flying, and that the mast is behind the sail in terms of wind flow.

The leading edge of the sail was restrained in a bent wooden frame. Ropes from this frame allowed the sails to be trimmed to different angles. In the engravings above the ropes from the frame are shown secured to the front of the boat, and drawn tight. This would allow the boats to sail very close to the wind, as Banks mentioned. These sails will also tack very easily; the two steersmen would simply steer the boat through the eye of the wind to change from one tack to the other.

To sail downwind, the ropes securing the leading edge would be secured behind the mast, holding the sails perpendicular to the centreline of the boat.

Boats with this sail arrangement would be much easier to manoeuvre than the types drawn by Schouten and Tasman, and they would sail higher to the wind. Joseph Banks however makes an important additional observation, that this sail form has “no contrivance either for reefing or furling, so that in case of bad weather it must be intirely cut away”. This is a major hazard for ocean voyaging, where stormy conditions must be expected, and accommodated.

Regarding the hulls, both Cook and Banks give us detailed descriptions, which the engravings also support. This extract from Cook’s Journal describes the shape of the hulls on the voyaging vessels.

“They have some few other Canoes, Pahees as they call them, which differ from those above discribed, but of these I saw but 6 upon the whole Island, and was told they were not built here. “The 2 largest was each 76 feet long, and when they had been in use had been fastned together. These are built Sharp and Narrow at both Ends and broad in the Middle; the bottom is likewise Sharp, inclining to a Wedge, yet Buldges out very much and rounds in again very quick just below the Gunwale. They are built of several pieces of thick plank and put together as the others are, only these have timbers in the inside, which the others have not. They have high Curved Sterns, the head also Curves a little, and both are ornamented with the image of a man carved in wood, very little inferior work of the like kind done by common Ship Carvers in England.”

The ‘ivahas’, the working boats and inshore vessels have rounded bottoms, suited for repeated landing on beaches, however the ‘pahees’ come to a sharp edge along the bottom. This makes them less suited to being dragged up and down a beach every day, but have superior performance under sail. The sharp wedge shape running the whole length reduces leeway (sideways slippage through the water) acting just like the keel on Cooks ship, or the centre-board in a modern dingy.

Among the illustrations in Cooks Journal of his second voyage is this remarkable measured drawing of a “war canoe” from Tahiti. The legend on the drawing describes the vessel as being 33 metres long and having places for 168 rowers (though I can only see 84 plus the two steering oarsmen). A person standing beside this boat would have the top of their head level with the main deck. This drawing illustrates just how big these Polynesian vessels were.

Brittania War Canoe

Society Islands war canoe

This drawing, precise at it is, does not unfortunately tell us what the voyaging vessels looked like. This boat was a fighting boat. It carried no sail, and was always paddled. Also, the width that the deck extends beyond the hulls makes it unsuited to anything but relatively calm seas. Furthermore, an another reference, Joseph Banks stated that these longer boats were not used for voyaging… “the middling sizd ones are said to be the best and least liable to accidents in stormy weather”.

The striking point across all the illustrations of vessels of a suitable size for ocean-going, is that they were all different. Many had a hut of some sort on them, but they were variously constructed, and occurred in different places on the hulls; rear, front, centre, left and right. Some had masts and upright sails, some had lateen sails and props. Some had outriggers to stay the masts or props, but on others the stays were fastened to rails on the deck. Some were very ornate, others plain. Some had high sterns, others didn’t… and so on.

There was no set size, and no single design. The exact form of the vessel was decided by the individual that made it, to suit to his precise need, the resources that he had available and his personal preferences.

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