Sailing canoe: Peter Worsley

This description of a large sailing canoe was requested by Dr Michael McCarthy during his research prior to writing his book Ships’ Fastenings: From Sewn Boat to Steamship. Texas A&M University Press, 2005.

In November 1961, I accompanied Dr Andre Becker of the Department of Public Health of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea on a patrol of the Siassi Islands. The object of the patrol was for Dr Becker to carry out a TB survey, and my job was to act as interpreter. The Siassi Islands are a group of islands in the Vitiaz Straits, between the Huon Peninsula of the mainland of New Guinea and the western end of the island of New Britain. The group consists of one main island, Umboi or Rooke Island, and dozens of smaller islands. The people, who are Melanesian, were noted for their sailing ability and traded in their canoes over fairly long distances. The patrol was carried out in the government owned, ex-Army coastal motor vessel Morobe, skippered by Geoff Hall. This vessel was 66 feet long and had a cargo capacity of 50 tons. On board was a portable X-ray unit and generating plant, and my job was to go ashore at each village and explain to the people all about TB and X-rays.

While motoring towards the island of Tuam at 10 knots, the Morobe was overtaken and passed by a very large sailing canoe that the skipper estimated was doing at least 12 knots. The canoe had two masts, each with one crab-claw sail on it. The sails were made from either woven pandanus or palm leaf and steering was by a large oar held vertically over the side towards the stern of the canoe. There were about 8 or 9 adults on the canoe, and what appeared to be a dozen or so kids keeping the outrigger down. The outrigger was always on the windward side when sailing, and the fastest sailing was when it was kept just above the surface of the sea.

On arrival at Tuam Island, the Morobe anchored alongside this canoe, which was one foot longer than the Morobe, or 67 feet. Later the canoe was dragged ashore and I had a chance to examine it in detail. It was carved from a single log, hollowed out and then built up with planks sewn to the hull with sennit. The sennit was made from coir (the fibre from around coconuts), first rolled on the thigh to make string then a number of the strings plaited to make sennit. Sennit is plaited, as distinct from rope, cable, etc. which are twisted. I could walk upright under the beams joining the hull to the outrigger and these just brushed my hair. I am 172 centimetres tall. The hull was resting on rollers made from round tree trunks used to help pull it up onto the beach. These rollers would have been about 150-175 mm in diameter and made from mangrove trees.

The outrigger was a single shaped log about 30 feet long joined to the canoe hull by (I think) four beams. The outrigger had two pairs of hardwood timbers let into it at each position where a beam came. Each pair of timbers was set at an angle to form an X as they projected upwards towards the beam. Sennit lashings were used to tie the beams to these angled timbers, which I think were made from black palm, the same wood from which bows and some arrow points are made. I was told the hollowing out of the log for the hull was carried out using alternating adze and fire. The opening left in the top was narrower than the space inside.

The sennit used to join planks and hull was woven through holes, and there was a caulking of some sort of leaves or coir between the timber edges. The holes in the timber where the sennit passed through were stopped with some sort of vegetable gum or resin. The sennit was woven two or three times through two adjacent holes, then taken diagonally across to the next pair of holes and again woven through two or three times. I cannot recall whether the sennit was let into the timber in grooves, or whether it lay on the timber surface. I think that there had been a pad of timber left in the bottom of the canoe at each mast position to act as a mast step. Regarding decoration, I think that there was some painting on the planks but little or no carving.

The main island of the Siassi Islands, Umboi or Rooke, is about 48 kilometres long and 24 kilometres wide and rises to a height of 5,430 feet (1,655 m) at its highest point. At the time it was thickly forested and could possibly have provided the tree for the canoe hull. However, it is more likely that the log came from either the western end of New Britain or the Huon Peninsula area of the mainland, both of which are fairly close.

Offloading x-ray equipment at Siassi Islands, 1961

Siassi men at Lae Show 1962

Constable Oiufa No 8336 RPNGC 1964

Bamboo Bridge between Sapmanga and Boksawin, early 1960s

Photos from Peter Worsley


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