Essays on the Marshallese Past

Marshallese Canoes

The canoes could reach up to 100 feet in overall length and were capable of transporting up to 40 people. There are considered three specific types of the outrigger canoes in the Marshall Islands:

The Walap, a large sailing canoe measuring up to 30m (100 feet) and capable of carrying as many as 40 people. The Walap were built specifically for travelling in the open sea.

The Tipnol, a mid-sized sailing canoe capable of carrying up to 10 people and built specifically for rapid transportation and fishing inside the lagoons as well as in the open sea.

The Korkor, a small rowing canoe, many times rigged with a sail, capable of carrying one or two people, was specifically designed for fishing and travel inside the protected waters of the lagoon.

Traditionally, within these three types of canoes, there are five recognised designs, the main difference of which is the bottom the profile of the main hull (wa), having a bearing on the canoes speed and cargo-carrying capacity. These designs are: Mwijitbok, Taburbur, Malmel, Tojeik and Jekad.

The canoes were made entirely from locally available materials, the main requirement being breadfruit (Artocarpus spp.) for hull and outrigger, and an assortment of other trees for the remaining parts.

Top:Canoe Building in Progress. The Aelon Kein, the R.M.I. entry to the 6th Pacific Arts Festival 1992. Bottom: Detail of the outrigger platform.

A Marshallese tipnol under sail in Majuro Lagoon.

Given that every family unit had at least one medium-sized canoe, along with a number of small paddling canoes, the wood resources needed for canoe construction and maintenance were planted and tended. Knowledge of traditional canoe construction, though formally held by certain families, was wide-spread throughout all atolls of the Marshall Islands. Traditional canoe building was common and well practised at the end of World War II and has since declined dramatically. The reasons for this decline can be found in the overall perception that any western development, any western goods are intrinsically superior, and by implication, everything traditional is bad or backward, and impeding the individuals "progress". Therefore an outboard motor boat must be better than a sailing canoe.

Today, the Waan Aelon Kein Project documents traditional canoe building by building actual canoes with master boatbuilders. The aim of the project is to foster these skills in order to show that traditional outrigger canoes are a modern fishing vessel.

A make-shift canoe made from a Solomon Islands (?) canoe hull which floated into Mile Atoll.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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