Menu Close

Wakas: Part 3

the Heems banner

Schouten waka

The vessel sighted mid-Pacific by Schouten in 1616

What do we know of the type of vessels used to first explore and settle New Zealand?

We can’t be entirely certain, but some things are well understood. We know the general size, appearance, and construction of these ocean-going vessels, but we do not know absolutely; the bow and stern shape of the hulls, or the type of sail rig.

They were large catamarans. The hulls were long and narrow and for ocean going a length of about 25 metres was preferred. The hulls were joined by spars, over which a deck was laid. The vessels could carry up to sixty people or more.

There is no written description of these vessels, and there are no contemporary pictures. By the time the European first recorded these Polynesian ocean going vessels, voyaging to new Zealand had been long ceased.

Tongan waka

The waka seen by Abel Tasman in Tonga, in 1643.

The first illustration is from Schouten’s journal, 1616. It was drawn somewhere mid-Pacific, to the North-West of the Society Islands. The next picture is from Abel Tasman’s journal, 1643, in Tonga.

From these pictures, and subsequent details recorded in the Journals of James Cook and Joseph Banks, we glean details of the Polynesian voyaging vessels that may allow us to re-construct their complete appearance.

These vessels were catamaran style (double hull) sailing boats, and they were steered from the back with two long and broad oars. A flat deck spanned the hulls for more than half of their length, and this deck protruded somewhat over the sides of the hulls. The hulls were covered to keep the water out, and the deck was constructed above these.

The larger vessels seen in the Society Islands were 30 metres or more long, but slightly shorter ones were preferred for open ocean work. Joseph Banks wasn’t specific when he described the length of the voyaging vessels, he only said “the middling sizd ones are said to be the best”. We do however, have more specific information regarding the length of the Tainui waka.

Maketu marker stones

The stone pillars marking the bow and stern of the Tainui

The Tainui waka sailed to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia, and ended up in Kawhia Harbour on the West Coast of the North Island. There it was separated into two hulls. The longer of the two (the hull named ‘Tainui’) was finally buried on a hillside at the harbour’s edge.

A marker stone was placed at the bow and stern, and they are still there today. The distance between the stones is “86 feet”, and since the Tainui lies “between” these pillars we might estimate its length to be about 22 metres.

There was some sort of shelter indicated on the deck of the voyaging boats as well as a fire. The two earliest illustrations (at the top) show thatch over a frame of bent timbers, and this appears to have been quite common. Others had timber huts on them, though this might not have been the norm. It is known that royalty had small houses on their boats. These huts would normally be used on land, but placed on the boats while the royals were travelling.

Of the shape of the hulls, we can be less certain. In the Society Islands, both Banks and Cook described vessels with very high bows. This was also shown in the measured drawing of the “War Canoe”. Yet neither of the earliest drawings of Schouten or Tasman show particularly raised ends, either bow or stern.

Maori waka seen by Tasman

A Maori double hulled boat seen by Abel Tasman, 1642

We are not much helped by the fact that there are very few eye witness accounts of double hulled vessels in New Zealand.

The settlers brought with them technical knowledge and practice as it existed in Eastern Polynesian at the time they left… about five hundred years before Cook visited the Society Islands. The only earlier illustration of Maori waka is one drawing by Isaac Gilsemans on Abel Tasman’s voyage. It is included in Tasman’s journal, and shows in close-up, a double hulled vessel. Unfortunately this waka was not equipped with sail… just paddlers.

This drawing however does not help us resolve the question of how the hulls were terminated. It clearly shows the left hand end of the boat (as we look at it) is raised higher than the other end, but this is not conclusive. There is a problem with this drawing… the steersman is facing the wrong way… When Gilsemans drew this, he showed the steersman forward of the rowers. This is incorrect, the steersmen were always on the stern. The question is, did he draw the steersman facing the wrong way, or the rowers? We can’t be certain in this drawing which is the bow, and which is the stern.

modern wakas

Waka’s assemble at Waitangi Day celebrations in Wellington

The Maori, unlike the Tahitians, raised the stern of their boats, not the prow. There are many engravings of large waka, from Cook’s visit onward, and they uniformly show the stern raised high. It remains the normal pattern to this day.

In the Maori oral tradition there is little to inform us about the precise shape of the vessels sailed by their ancestors, but there is one very clear reference. When the Tainui was being built, an old seer gave the advice “look at the new moon, and build the waka in its likeness, with a raised stern and bow”. She was recommending the shape of a thin crescent.

Maori canoe with sail

Maori waka with sail

This drawing by Miss E Richardson, a wonderful chronicler of South Sea’s boat construction, shows a waka with sail in the Marlborough Sounds. By the position of the sail (forward of the mid-point of the boat) we know that it is the stern that is raised.

There are extremely few references to sails on waka. Most of the instances of waka under sail take the form illustrated above by Miss Richardson; a single upright sail on a single hull. This type of sail has only one use on a waka; it can only aid the vessel downwind. No waka is ever depicted with an outrigger, and waka have no keel. If a sail like this were to be used on a waka in any way except directly downwind, then the boat would be overturned. This is not the type of rig, or vessel that was used to cross the Pacific.

When Cook first visited New Zealand, he recorded sighting double hulled canoes only three times. Off the coast of the Bay of Plenty, on Nov 2nd 1642, he was followed by one and noted “At 7 was close under the first Island, from whence a large double Canoe full of People came off to us. This was the first double Canoe we had seen in this Country.”

He had been on the coast of New Zealand for over three weeks, yet despite seeing canoes most days, this was the first time he had seen a double canoe.

Cook saw the same boat the next day… “The double Canoe which we saw last night follow’d us to-day under Sail, and keept abreast of the Ship near an hour talking to Tupia, but at last they began to pelt us with stones”

Unfortunately, Cook did not describe the nature of the sails. However, we learn from this account that the waka did not have a permanent mast rigged; rather that the sail arrangement could be added or removed.

Cook circumnavigated both the main islands of New Zealand, yet he saw double hulled canoes only once more here. He did not record another instance of a double canoe with sail. By the time Cook had arrived in New Zealand, there were clearly few double hulled vessels in use.

There is one account however that pre-dates Cook’s, and that was from Abel Tasman’s visit, 127 years earlier.

On December 19th 1642, after an altercation with the locals, Abel Tasman made off and was chased by a number of boats. He fired on them to discourage their pursuit. This is a line from his journal entry for that day.

“As soon as they had got this shot they returned to shore with great speed two of them hoisting a sort of tingang sails”

Sail detail from murderers bay engraving

Sail detail blow-up from the Gilsemans drawing, 19th December, 1642

Isaac Gilsemans drew a picture describing the events of that day, and in one tiny part of that drawing he showed a native boat with a sail on it.

The boat illustrated had a sail, but no mast. The sail is shown propped up by a forked spar. The journal mention of “tingang” refers to a type of small boat that Tasman was familiar with from Java.

The Maori inherited the sailing technology that was brought from Eastern Polynesia. By the time Tasman visited in 1642 they had been in New Zealand about 300 years, and had adapted their vessels and sailing techniques to suit local conditions.

There was no sighting of any very large or ocean-capable vessels during Tasman’s voyage, and only two boats were mentioned under sail. However, the type of sail they carried was the same type seen by Schouten in 1616, this detail was captured in Gilsemans’ drawing.

It is therefore suggested that the voyaging Polynesians brought this sail technology to New Zealand, not the later Tahitian style rig described by Joseph Banks.

Model Polynesian voyaging vessel

Model Polynesian voyaging vessel, styled on the Schouten engraving

We can’t know for certain exactly what those voyaging vessels looked like, but based on the information available, this model built by Alex Kennedy, is most likely representative of a smaller ocean vessel.

The Polynesian vessels used to settle New Zealand were very like this, but longer. This is a rugged vessel, able to survive the demands of ocean sailing. It carried a big sail, and would be fast in comparison to European square rigged vessels. The form of the sail and the way it is mounted allowed this vessel to sail in most directions to the wind; far outperforming European capability. The cross bar mounted on top of the deck allowed the sail and the prop to be secured firmly, and at various angles; close, wide and high. The sail could be lowered completely in bad weather, and for landing (when the vessel was maneuvered by paddle).


As pictured here, the sail is trimmed to head upwind on a starboard tack. To change to the other tack, the sail would be lowered to the deck, lifted over the hut, and re-positioned with the sail foot on the opposite hull. The prop would be used to raise the sail, and the ropes drawn tight to secure the prop and sail. To sail off the wind, the windward ropes securing the prop and boom would be eased to allow the sail to swing wider. To sail downwind, the sail would be secured in a more upright position.

From about 1250 onward, many vessels like this journeyed to New Zealand; a few made the return trip. Then, these Pacific crossings stopped.

It is most likely that the Maori simply lost the skills required to navigate safely across huge ocean expanses. In New Zealand, the maritime skills required were those of coastal navigation. Rarely was there ever a need to be out of sight of land for long. Thus, the Maori had no need for the ocean navigation skills and therefore lacked practice in them. The skills were lost, and New Zealand lay in isolation from the rest of the world until the arrival of the Europeans.

And New Zealand then remained in isolation until the arrival of the Europeans.


Posted in Kurahaupo, Mataatua, Matawhaorua, Tainui, The Wakas

1 Comment

  1. Aaron

    The talk of high sterns etc in regards to the Tahitian wakadesigns as illustrated in cooks voyage is misleading. These are designed to sail in both directions, but the high vee shaped upturned hulls end is always facing upwind, into the waves and weather. Thus it is the stern when sailing downwind, but the bow when sailing to windward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *