Revival Of Sailing Culture In Remote Island Communities - The Lapita Voyage

Home Articles Revival Of Sailing Culture In Remote Island Communities - The Lapita Voyage
By James Wharram and Hanneke Boon

The second of two papers, delivered by James Wharram at the 'Early Man and the Ocean' conference, held at Norwegian Maritime Museum & Kontiki Museum, Oslo.

In 2008 the Kontiki Museum organised the first 'Early Man and the Ocean' Film Festival and Conference on maritime experimental archaeology. At this first conference, my design partner, Hanneke Boon, and I gave a paper on our proposed Lapita Voyage, in which we would be following the Lapita migration route into the Pacific on two traditional Pacific double canoes.

I am pleased to report back to this conference in 2010 that between Nov. 2008 and March 2009 we successfully completed this 4000Nm voyage.

Last Oct 2009 I should have been giving a presentation about the Lapita Voyage at ISBSA12 in Istanbul, unfortunately on that day I was being operated on for bowel cancer.

In haste we assembled our ideas, photos and film shot on the voyage into a DVD, which was shown at the ISBSA conference in Turkey, since then it has been through some further editing and it will be shown at this film festival.

It is from our experience of the Lapita Voyage and from other of our earlier experimental voyages that I will try to answer some of the many interesting issues raised by the organisers of this 2010 conference.

They wrote: "This conference is dedicated to how historical or experimental voyages influenced the society they were a part of, or the society with which they came in contact".

Following their suggestion, we have taken the social significance of Captain Cook's voyages in the Pacific as a starting point. This led us on an interesting journey to the Western women's sexual liberation movement of the 20th Century and why the Pacific canoe form craft were denigrated in the 19th Century by the missionaries and in the 20th Century by the New Zealander Andrew Sharp.

Depiction of Captain Cook
Captain Cook
Map showing Captain Cook's voyages
Captain Cook's Voyages

An important social aspect of Captain Cook's voyages was that he and his crews were Christians. As Christians, their social relationships and moral code were guided by 'the BOOK', i.e. the Bible including the Old Testament.

A prominent moral issue in the Old Testament (as well as in the Jewish the Torah and the Muslim Koran) is that a woman's sexuality and sight of her body, is in total control of her nearest male relative.

With this moral attitude accepted as the norm, on arrival in Tahiti, Cook and his crew were overwhelmed at finding a happy society where women were in control of their sexuality and bodies. In this society female nakedness was not a sin. When reports about this reached Europe, this concept worked like yeast in our Western Society.

Gauguin's art

The French Captain Bougainville, voyaging the Pacific at around the same time as Cook, not only commented on the freedom of women, but on having discovered 'Natural Man' living in a Golden Age. These ideas fed directly into the ideas of 'freedom' at the time of the French revolution, into French art - Gauguin, and later into the Green philosophy of present day Westerners. Nearly 200 years later when Thor Heyerdahl sailed his Kontiki voyage across the Pacific, the aspect of sexual freedom in Polynesian society still had a social impact. After the voyage, two of the crew members of the KonTiki again drew attention to the freedom of Pacific Island women.

Eric Hesselberg in his book of drawings 'KonTiki and I', published in 1950, showed bare breasted women taking the initiative in dance.

Bengt Danielson's widely read book 'Love in the South Seas' published in 1956, gave impetus to the women's liberation movement of that time. It described attitudes to female freedom, as previously reported by Captain Cook. These women's freedoms are now an accepted part of life for modern Western women.

In 1840 the London Missionary society, concerned over the 'nakedness and sex habits' of the people of the Pacific went out to the Pacific to 'convert the natives to Godly ways'. They found the canoe culture of the Polynesians was at the centre of the 'ungodly ways'. To destroy the root of the immoral society, they had to denigrate and destroy their boats.

It was through the missionaries that the concept that canoe craft were not seaworthy, began.

This attitude to the unseaworthiness of the Pacific Canoe Form Craft was still upheld a 100 years later by Andrew Sharp, a retired New Zealand civil servant, who in the mid 1950s wrote the book 'Ancient voyagers in the Pacific'.

Ancient voyagers in the Pacific book by Andrew Sharp

In this book he wrote that the Pacific canoe craft could not sail to windward, waves would wash over the decks and the craft would break up in storm conditions. He also denied there was any evidence they could navigate over long distances. His opinion was that all migrations in the Pacific had been drift voyages.

In the same book he also denigrated the Viking voyages to Iceland, Greenland, claiming they could have been no more than accidental and that the Vinland voyage was a Myth.

So influential were the negative writings of Sharp that the book 'Polynesian Seafarers' by Edward Dodd, published in 1972, has nine references to Andrew Sharp's theories, which some people were still taking seriously.

In 1979 Ben Finney in his book 'Hokule'a, the Way to Tahiti' describes how in the late 1950s Andrew Sharp's theories spurred him on to try and prove him wrong.

What Dodd and Finney either did not realise, or failed to mention, is that the theories of Sharp in relation to sea-going canoe craft had already been refuted, before they were even written!

In 1937-39 a Frenchman, Eric de Bisschop, built a 38ft double canoe on Waikiki beach in Hawaii with hull lines based on a Tuamotuan voyaging canoe and sailed her successfully across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans back to France, an incredible voyage of experimental archaeology, proving the seaworthiness and sailing abilities of the Polynesian double canoe. His book 'The voyage of the Kaimiloa' was published in England in 1940.

Eric De Bisschop's double canoe Kaimiloa

In 1943 the US Hydrographic Department published the widely distributed 'Raft Book' by Harold Gatty for downed wartime airmen in the Pacific. In this book he explains clearly how Polynesians navigated without instruments and how airmen afloat on a raft could trust this method to guide them to safety. He gained this information from Pacific islanders who still had this knowledge. Indeed this navigational knowledge is still there as can be seen in the Lapita Voyage film.

The Raft Book
The Raft Book by Harold Gatty

These two books, published more than 10 years before Sharp, refuted all his negative claims.

To many of you it is known that I was inspired by the voyages of Eric de Bisschop and Thor Heyerdahl, and myself made two experimental Atlantic voyages on double canoes from 1955 to 1959 to show to Western sailors that the Pacific canoe form craft was safe and seaworthy, and could become a suitable cruising craft for modern sailors. My voyages also refuted Andrew Sharp's theories.

My pioneering work in the offshore sailing capabilities of the Pacific double canoe, contributed to the development of the now widely accepted modern sailing craft - the catamaran.

The organisers of this conference have asked: "Could experimental voyages have influenced the technological choices for the future?" The development of the modern catamaran is proof that they have.

As a result of my pioneering Atlantic voyages on Canoe craft, I became a designer of such craft for Western people. Where I was unique from the other upcoming catamaran designers, was that I recognised the importance on the Stone Age design principles that made the Pacific canoe form craft so seaworthy, i.e. hullshapes that had innate windward ability without using keels or centreboards, flexibility in hull connections and low, flexible but windward rigs. The Lapita Voyage boats show how these principles actually worked.

Thousands of my designs have been self-built all over the world and many have made long ocean voyages, again and again proving the seaworthy design features of the canoe form craft of the Pacific.

Wharram Oro sailing
46' Wharram Oro 'Kiskadee' at end of round the world voyage (1977-1982)

These voyages also showed the innate wish of some of Mankind to lead a Nomadic lifestyle on the Sea. These modern 'Sea Nomads' and the voyages they achieved are an indication of how the early migration voyages in the Pacific could have been achieved by small family groups on moderate size boats. By the mid 1970s half a dozen had sailed across the Pacific and many more across the Atlantic.

While these first Western 'Sea Nomads' were crossing oceans on their Polynesian double canoes, a separate revival of Polynesian ships began in Hawaii in 1974.

The 'Polynesian Voyaging Society' was formed to give the Polynesian people of Hawaii a cultural heritage.

On the big island group of Hawaii the destructive influence of the missionaries and American Western culture had been the greatest and by the 1970s the original Polynesian population was a small minority and very little remained of their Polynesian culture.

The ships that had been there in Cook's days were gone, so was the knowledge of how they worked and sailed. The only canoes remaining were those used for paddling competitions and tourists.

To the people that joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society the double canoe was the heroic 'symbol' of their cultural heritage. Ben Finney has called this sailing development 'Cultural Identity Voyaging' and will be discussing it later.

However, the Pacific Ocean is not only inhabited by the Polynesians, who suffered the worst destruction of culture; there are the huge areas inhabited by Filipinos, Indonesians, Melanesians and Micronesians. Most of these people are still using canoe form craft for fishing or local transport and still carry the memories of their fathers or grandfather's sailing days.

Measuring a canoe in the Maskelyne islands in Vanuatu

We experienced this when we sailed through the Melanesian islands of Vanuatu on our 63ft double canoe Spirit of Gaia in 1996. We had many discussions with canoe-using people. We would sit under a sun shelter and discuss sail design, windward ability etc. with groups of old men, scratching drawings in the sand.

james and others sat under a thatched roof with a sandy floor
We would sit under a sun shelter with the old men discussing design

This voyage led to two things. First, a paper on our studies of the Canoe form craft of the Stone Age Sailors of the Indo Pacific Ocean continuum, published in 1997. It also led to a practical project, the design of a small and simple 16ft outrigger canoe (Melanesia) that could be built from 2 sheets of plywood, the first of a new range of 'Ethnic' designs.

Outrigger canoe
Wharram designed Melanesia outrigger canoe, built from two sheets of ply

We designed it for one particular island in the Maskelynes, where the elders approached us with their dilemma that good sized 'canoe trees' were getting scarce and they would have to consider building in plywood.

We sent them the design and for 10 years heard no more. However hundreds of Western sailors worldwide, started building it.

Then 3 years ago, we were approached by a New Zealander, who was helping people in Vanuatu to set up a boatbuilding school. It turned out this was on the same island where we had discussed the plywood boatbuilding issue. The sending of the outrigger design had acted as a catalyst.

To help them, we donated one of our existing 28ft double canoe designs, they built it in just 6 weeks from a kit of materials prepared in New Zealand and immediately after launching set off with 20 people aboard!

20 people on a Wharram double canoe sailing
20 people aboard our donated double canoe design in Vanuatu

In 2008, on our Lapita Voyage through the Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea and the Solomons, the people we met easily identified with the Lapita Voyage expedition canoes. They saw canoes without engines, with simple rigging, a simple lifestyle, i.e. we cooked on deck on kerosene stoves as used by the locals, and above all we had no accompanying Western escort yacht to supply Western comforts & goodies and/or towing facilities.

Cooking on deck
Aboard Lapita Anuta during the Lapita Voyage
Lapita Tikopia
Lapita Tikopia sailing into Raboul, New Guinea

This simplicity of the Lapita Voyage canoes always led to instant communication with people we met on the way, to discuss canoes and canoe sailing.

For example: On arrival in small Mono Island in the Solomons, in a discussion with a man called Roy (it turned out he had been a former Governor of the Western Province), he asked the question: "Could we help them with the design of an offshore sailing double canoe, smaller than the Lapita boats, to carry smoked tuna, for sale, across the 70Nm open sea to Bougainville?"

It had to be bigger than their traditional 18ft, open single outrigger paddling canoes and of course be able to sail. The people were well aware of the rising cost of oil and the problems associated with outboard motors.

James Wharram meets Roy in Mono Island
Pacific people using canoe form craft
18' traditional canoe built by Roy in Mono island

We offered to develop such a design, adapting the simple house building materials and techniques we saw them using on the island. Importing Western boatbuilding materials is too costly for people living in remote islands, unless they are offered outside financial assistance.

In November 2009, the English yacht magazine Classic Boat, who under my urging have begun to feature Scandinavian boats, including the Seastallion, announced a design competition for an Eco fishing boat, under 10m length, no engine, so it would not fall under complex European rules for fishing craft.

Mindful of the promise to Roy of Mono Island, we designed a 27ft double canoe, which we call the Amatasi. Here is a model of the design. In July this year (2010) Classic Boat published the winner of their design competition, describing the winning boat, based on Stone Age design principles, as 'surprisingly radical'. They had chosen our Amatasi design.

Amatasi model
Model of eco fishing boat Amatasi

We will build the prototype in Cornwall beginning in November. The building materials for this craft will cost around £3500 to £4000. The Cornwall Marine Network is supporting the project and Classic Boat will report its building progress.

With its wide deck area, shallow draft and simplicity this design is also suitable for youth groups, to build and go exploring with, or as a low cost family cruiser. Back in the Pacific the Tongan government department for fishing in Va'vau, on viewing the design are interested in its use for fishing expeditions of around 3 days.

From Micronesia we received an impassioned plea for the design in these words:

"We are interested in the Amatasi 27 as a starter project to reintroduce sailing into much of the outer islands of the Federal States of Micronesia. The inter-island transportation system is almost non-existent and we are losing people due to many, many reasons, but basically lack of transport, HELP by responding."

I hope, with the Lapita Voyage film being shown and this spoken presentation, we have contributed to the wishes of the organisers of this conference 'for the discussion on the social significance of experimental ocean voyages and could experimental voyages have influenced technological choices for the future.

Further Reading