Racing Hand-carved Canoes in Micronesia
Story by Tom Koppel

In a region where small dots of land are separated by expanses of water, some have revived the art of turning logs into fast sailing canoes. An adapted excerpt from the book Mystery Islands

canoe race

"A decade ago, canoe-making was dying," said master builder Tim Clement, a tall man with rippling muscles and a dazzling smile. He stood outside an open-sided, barn-like boat shed at Majuro, the most populated atoll in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia. Nearby, towering coconut palms leaned out over the shore of a vast, sheltered lagoon. He explained that he had learned how to build canoes from his grandfather on smaller, outlying Namorik atoll. "Several families on Namorik still had the knowledge," he added, noting that each had its own distinctive style. "The different designs were like signatures," he said. Clement moved to Majuro to share that knowledge and preserve a proud heritage.

A few paces away, a lithe teenager axed notches in a long log of breadfruit wood. Another youth used short, controlled swings of his adze to smooth out the rough cuts. Once the sides and bottom of the log were fully shaped and most of the inside wood removed, the dug-out hull would have a much smaller pontoon-like outrigger attached to it, and a sailing rig added as well.

I had flown to Majuro to observe the annual outrigger sailing races. These included canoes from two dozen atolls, each an irregular necklace of coral islands and reefs surrounding a lagoon. On the eve of the competition, a torchlight procession of boats made its way to a central landing, where a small crowd greeted crews with the blowing of the conch and bestowing of leis. Island chieftains and government officials gave speeches.

On race day, hundreds of cheering islanders thronged the shore at the starting line, which was adjacent to the atoll's paved airstrip. A 737 jet, which was making a refueling stop, could be seen through the trees.

Micronesia travel

A media boat broadcast a minute-by-minute account of the races, which enabled thousands more to follow the events live on radio. Cash prizes and bragging rights were at stake. One race was for small single-handed canoes, the other for larger ones carrying two men. Riding in the press boat, I got to see dozens of the sleek craft with brightly colored sails careen at amazing speed around the markers. When hit by gusts of wind, some heeled so far over that their outriggers lifted right out of the water. A few tipped over and swamped, costing their crews so much time that they had no chance in the competition. The single-handed race ended in an exciting finish, with only a boat's length separating the runner-up from the winner, a guy from Jaluit atoll who had also been victorious the previous year.

Riding the Wind on an Outrigger Canoe
The sails of these nimble boats were of modern, synthetic fabrics, but in every other way they were just like the sailing outriggers that had so impressed Western mariners centuries ago. As the captain of the American schooner Dolphin noted in 1824, "Their canoes display the greatest ingenuity, and I have no doubt that in a 'civilized' country they would be ranked amongst the rarest specimens of human industry....They move through the water with astonishing velocity, and in turning to windward, no boats can surpass them."

When the weekend of race mania died down, I had the opportunity to go for a sail on one of the larger canoes along with three fellow visitors. On the beach below the boat shed, two teenagers readied a spindly 23 foot-long vessel with a triangular sail and a hull that tapered to a point at each end. We waded into the shallows and climbed onto a slatted platform that extended out from the hull to the shorter wooden outrigger. The skipper, a wiry little man named Hanej Helbi, was the last to board. The kids pushed us off as Helbi raised the sail and barked out orders. Instantly we accelerated in the brisk trade wind.

canoe sailing

Churning a frothy white wake, our craft skimmed across the turquoise water, going so fast it felt like we were flying. One of the kids stood precariously on the stern, his toes gripping the edge of the deck. Leaning on the long steering oar, he focused intently ahead. We flitted past Taiwanese, Russian, and Panamanian factory ships anchored among tuna seiners with clipper bows and scouting helicopters. The low shores of the 30 mile-long lagoon faded into the tropical haze. Occasionally Helbi gestured to us to shift our weight and keep the boat in proper trim. Like many islanders, he spoke no English.

Not that Micronesians have lacked contact with the outside world. Lying north of the Equator in the western Pacific, the region was first colonized by Spain and then Germany. Missionaries brought Christianity and modest clothing, and many people still attend church regularly. After the First World War, Japan took over. Following the Second World War, the U.S. tested nuclear weapons at Bikini atoll, forcing that island's residents to move, mainly to Majuro, and leaving a legacy of radiation poisoning. There is still a U.S. missile-testing facility at Kwajalein atoll, and the U.S. dollar is the legal tender.

Flickr photo by mrlins

For all that baggage, the locals are warm and welcoming to foreigners. The commercial area of Majuro has a gritty, cash-strapped Third World feeling, with fuel-storage tanks, warehouses, and decaying wharves. The rest of the atoll, though, comes close to being an unspoiled tropical paradise. On the outer islands, people still subsist largely on fish, coconuts, and a little cultivated taro. A jet from Hawaii or Guam flies to Majuro almost every day, but there are few tourists.

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Lost World

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