The ancient craft that carried the first settlers to New Zealand were probably double-hulled – rather like two canoes side by side. They are called waka hourua.
In the 1970s, the Polynesians began to develop double-hulled canoes to sail in the rough waters of the open Pacific. Spurred by this interest, Hekenukumai Busby built New Zealand’s first waka hourua, Te Aurere, in 1991–1992 and completed the second, Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, in 2011.
Te Aurere was the first waka hourua in modern times to sail back from Aotearoa-New Zealand to the Cook Islands (1992) – a key link in the migration path of the Polynesian settlers who came here about 800 years ago. This voyage – which had the support of Mau Piailug of Satawal and Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society – was instrumental in the revival of traditional navigation in New Zealand. Te Aurerea and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti also sailed together in the most recent voyage to Rapanui (Easter Island) in 2012–2013.
Both Te Aurerea and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti were built along traditional lines.
Each waka was built using two hulls (hollowed-out logs of giant kauri from the Herekino State Forest) with a substantial platform between them. The main structure consists of the two hulls and six main crossbeams lashed together. The mast steps and decking are also lashed to the crossbeams, adding to the structural strength of the waka. Not one nail or bolt was used in the construction. Each waka was lashed together in an age-old manner, although for safety and durability, modern fibres were used in the lashing. Lashing the waka with fibres meant that, in heavy seas, the waka could flex with the waves, absorbing the pressure.
Each waka is 18 m long and 5 m wide and weighs 8 tonnes. Each waka has two masts and can rig a jib. The main and mizzen sails (aft of the main mast) are a spritsail design (triangular) and are tied to the spar (mast pole) and boom (horizontal pole at the bottom of the sail) with reef knots.
Gear on board
Navigation of the waka hourua is through wayfinding – using the stars, Moon, Sun, wind, wave patterns and birds. Although modern navigation equipment is not used, a GPS tracker is also set up on board so the progress of voyages can be seen via the internet.
Modern safety equipment is carried on board in case of disaster. The waka have full maritime safety equipment including life jackets and radios. Both waka are fully certified in Maritime New Zealand’s Safe Ship Management programme.
There is a 40-horsepower 4-stroke motor on each waka. This enables the waka to move around easily in confined spaces and to get in and out of ports without the need for a support vessel. They can also berth if the wind drops.
There are seven bunks – planks with thin rubber mats on top – in the hulls. The crew use these when they are off watch. For food preparation, there is a two-burner gas stove on the foredeck – but cooking has to wait if conditions are too rough as there is no shelter for the cook!
The waka also have marine toilets with holding tanks.
People on board
Each waka is licensed to carry 20 people plus four crew members. However, for the voyage to Rapanui and back, each waka typically carried 10 sailors including the captain and navigator at any one time. Overall, 60 people – aged 18–67 years and representing many different iwi – participated in the expedition.
When we think about waka, we usually imagine people rowing using paddles. The waka hourua weigh 8 tonnes each, and their decks are over a metre above the waterline – so paddling is impractical. They are ocean-going sailing canoes.
The sails work by ‘catching the wind’ only when the boat is sailing directly downwind. The rest of the time, a sail works the same way as an airplane wing standing on end. The steering paddle is used to counteract the tendency of the waka to turn up into the wind that results from the balance of the sails and hulls. There are no winches or other mechanical aids, so sailing the waka is a combination of skill with some brute force
On voyages, the waka sail 24 hours per day with the crew working 6-hour watches. The average speed for the Rapanui journey was 5 knots (9.26 km/h), but they can go as fast as 12 knots.
Watch a slideshow of the construction of Te Aurere
Construct your own model waka. Make sure it’s stable in water.
If you want to explore floating and sinking to test materials, try this activity.
This activity explores the forces that are acting on a waka.
Read the story of the Hōkūle’a and the beginnings of the wayfinding voyages of rediscovery. Explore the site for voyage tracking maps, learning journeys, videos, teaching activities and more related to the art and science of Polynesian voyaging.
This video clip, Papa Mau, documents the legacy of master navigator Mau Pialiug who revived the art of traditional voyaging and reawakened cultural pride throughout Polynesia.