Paopao (canoe)

A paopao (from the Samoan language, meaning a small fishing-canoe made from a single log), is the name used by the Polynesian-speaking inhabitants of the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu) for their single-outrigger canoes, of which the largest could carry four to six adults. The large double-hulled sailing-canoes (lualua and foulua) had ceased to be constructed in the Ellice Islands some time before contact with Europeans.[1]

Donald Gilbert Kennedy, the resident District Officer in the administration of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony from 1932 to 1938, describe the construction of paopao and of the variations of single-outrigger canoes that had been developed on Vaitupu and Nanumea.[2] Gerd Koch, an anthropologist, Koch visited the atolls of Nanumaga, Nukufetau and Niutao, in 1960-61, and published a book on the material culture of the Ellice Islands, which also described the canoes of those islands.[3]

The variations of single-outrigger canoes that had been developed on Vaitupu and Nanumea were reef-type or paddled canoes; that is, they were designed for carrying over the reef and being paddled, rather than being sailed. Outrigger canoes from Nui were constructed with an indirect type of outrigger attachment and the hull is double-ended, with no distinct bow and stern. These canoes were designed to be sailed over the Nui lagoon.[4] The booms of the outrigger are longer than those found in other designs of canoes from the Ellice Islands. This made the Nui canoe more stable when used with a sail than the other designs.[4]

The skilled woodworker (tufunga)

An outrigger canoe would be constructed by a skilled woodworker (tufunga) of the family, on whose land was a suitable tree. The canoe builder would call on the assistance of the tufunga of other families.[2] The ideal shape the canoe was that of the body of a whale (tafola), while some tufunga shaped the canoe to reflect the body of a bonito (atu). Before steel tools became available, the tufunga used shell and stone adzes, which were rapidly blunted when used. With a group of up to ten tufunga building a canoe, one or two would work on the canoe, while others were engaged in sharpening the edge of one adze after another. Each morning, the tufunga would conduct a religious ceremony (lotu-a-toki) over the adzes before the commencement of work. When steel tools became available, two tufunga would be sufficient to build a canoe.[2]

Variations in the design of the single outrigger canoe

There were differences between the designs used on each island for outrigger canoes that were built in the 19th and 20th centuries. Kennedy described the canoes of Vaitupu as being of 3 types:[2]

  • The Vaitupu type - described as the traditional design of the southern islands of the Ellice Islands, which had lengths of 19 feet (5.8 m) to 29 feet (8.8 m);
  • The Nanumea type – described as the traditional design of Nanumea, one of the northern islands, which had lengths of 13 feet (4.0 m) to 29 feet (8.8 m);
  • The general paopao, referring to a small canoe of any type, which had lengths of 14 feet (4.3 m) to 17 feet (5.2 m).

The main differences between the Vaitupu type and the Nanumea type are in the superstructure – the bow-cover (puke mua) and stern-cover (puke tua) – that were added to the dug-out canoe.[2] For example, the stern-cover of the Nanumea type did not have a tokoulu, or built-up rest for carrying the bonito fishing-rod at a trolling-angle while hunting for a shoal of bonito. The Nanumea type had in place of the tokoulu, a cross-piece (lango kofe) set immediately in front of the inner edge of the stern-cover. The bonito fishing-rod was placed in a groove in the centre of the crosspiece.[2]

The traditional Nanumea type, also had a different design for the lifting-grip (saunga) and the platform on the booms (kaufuatanga) on the port (ama or outrigger side) of the canoe.[2] The design of the traditional Nanumea type, made it impossible for the paddlers occupying the seats on the after and central booms to use their paddles on the outrigger side, which meant they were more liable to fatigue when paddling long distances only on the starboard (katea) side.[2]

Construction materials

On Vaitupu, the wood used was from the broadleaf forest of the Tuvaluan atolls. A log of te fetau, (Calophyllum inophyllum) or te puka (Hernandia peltata) was dug out to form the canoe. The boom (kiato), and the boom-leg (tapuvae) that braced the booms, which were attached to the float for the outrigger, were made from a branch of pua (Guettarda speciosa) or tausunu (Heliotropium foertherianum). The outrigger-float (ama) was usually made of te puka.[2]

The float had a diameter of 5 inches (130 mm) to 9 inches (230 mm), depending on the size of the canoe. The float usually had a length in relation to the canoe such that the forward end of the float was laterally opposite the feet of the bow-paddler (tino i mua), and the after end opposite those of the steersman (tautai) in the stern of the canoe.[2]

The hull of the canoe, the booms, boom-legs, and the float were attached together using the strong three-plait sennit (tuli kafa). The less durable two-ply twist sennit (kolokolo) was only used for unimportant parts of the construction.[2]

Two distinct types of paddle were used: the common type of paddle; and a large type used by steersmen.[2] The woods used for paddles were pua, te puka, tausunu, fetau (Calophyllum inophyllum), milo or miro (Thespesia populnea), kanava (Cordia subcordata) and fau or fo fafini, or woman's fibre tree (Hibiscus tiliaceus).[2]

All bailers had a shovel shape. Kennedy note that the same phrase - o ta te liu – applies “to bail out” a canoe and “to hollow out the interior”, when building a canoe.[2]

A canoe, when on a fishing expedition, carried a club (te siki). This is usually a branch of any heavy wood roughly trimmed and 8 feet (2.4 m) in length, and about 2 inches (51 mm) in diameter, which was used to kill a large fish before it is hauled into the canoe.[2]

Fishing and inter-island voyaging by canoe

During the day canoes would be taken out to the bonito grounds or for deep-line fishing for albacore (takua), and at night, torch-fishing for Flying fish or fishing for palu (ruvettus pretiosus).

Each canoe would be given its proper name and was an important asset of the family. The larger canoes could be used to travel between the Ellice Islands. The discovery of Niulakita is claimed by travellers from Nui, led by Kaunatu who was taking people home to Vaitupu, however their canoe drifted off course to the south and they arrived at Niulakita, before returning home.[5]


  1. Simati Faaniu, Hugh Laracy (ed.) (1983). "Chapter 16 – Travellers and Workers". Tuvalu: A History. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific and Government of Tuvalu. p. 121.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. Kennedy, Donald (1931). The Ellice Islands Canoe Journal of the Polynesian Society Memoir no. 9. Journal of the Polynesian Society. pp. 71–100.
  3. Gerd Koch (translated by Guy Slater) (1981). The Material Culture of Tuvalu. Suva: University of the South Pacific. ASIN B0000EE805.
  4. McQuarrie, Peter (1976). "Nui Island sailing canoes". Journal of the Polynesian Society. 85 (4): 543–548.
  5. Sotaga Pape, Hugh Laracy (ed.) (1983). "Chapter 10 – Nui". Tuvalu: A History. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific and Government of Tuvalu. p. 77.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
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