What is an Outrigger Canoe? Everything You Need to Know

Outrigger canoes are quintessential reminders of Austronesian roots- purposed to navigate through rough ocean conditions. Over the years, outriggers have evolved from a means of ancient sea travel into adrenaline-packed racing vessels.

A Way To Sea Life

A Way To Sea Life

With a hot beverage in hand, I sometimes reflect on all the commodities of life, realizing that our generation is undoubtedly the most fortunate throughout history in terms of access and privilege.

So, next time you find yourself walking to your local corner store or driving to your favorite wholesale department store, take a second to imagine what life must have looked like thousands of years ago.

Separated from the mainland by at least 2,000 miles exist thousands of islands spread out amidst the vast blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. And this is why you would have a hard time convincing me that another culture could respect the ocean as much as the inhabitants of these islands.

For the Austronesians that lived 5,000 years ago, it became evident that a well-constructed vessel would be necessary for transporting people and goods amongst the vast expanse of the various groups of archipelagos.

Making Of The Ancient Outrigger Canoe

Making Of The Ancient Outrigger Canoe

Interwoven with a culture of brave explorers, innovative builders, and exquisite cuisine is a spiritual realm only understood by the land’s indigenous peoples.

Both curiosity and necessity demanded extended sea voyages, so ancient fabricators tasked themselves with numerous structural construction and design variations to meet the operational requirements of their fleet.

The outrigger canoe first docked on Hawaiian turf just shy of two millennia ago when early explorers trailed the migratory patterns of birds. As of 1986, outrigger canoeing has been Hawaii’s official state team sport- still recognizing the earliest ancient traditions.



Outrigger canoes come in smaller and larger configurations depending on their primary purpose- fishing, island hopping, or longer voyages. As you can imagine, crafting a boat out of a single tree log was no easy task.

The building process of the wa’a (Hawaiian for canoe) intertwined practicality, ceremony, and careful engineering every step of the way. From the initial selection of a tree to its first launching, the experience and sensibility of the kahuna kalai wa’a (canoe-building specialist) were essential.

If revelation granted the approval of a particular tree to the kahuna, then the building process could begin. Early settlers and Hawaiians alike found that the island’s native koa trees would become the preferred wood for the boat’s hull.

Crafted from a single tree trunk, it would take months, if not years, to complete a sea-worthy vessel. A finished product, depending on size, could weigh between hundreds to thousands of pounds.

In addition to the koa tree, artisans relied on wood from the kukui (candlenut) and ulu (breadfruit) trees. A mix of softer and harder woods would ultimately make up the various parts of the build.

Workers utilized various handmade tools, including chisels, drills, and hammering stones; however, the adze was the most valuable asset for the cutting, chipping, and shaping the traditional outrigger canoe.

Banana and pandanus leaf, cordage from coconut fibers, feathers, roots, and oils carefully bound together, caulked, and even waterproofed these vessels for a safe voyage.

The Modern-Day Outrigger

The Modern-Day Outrigger

I can certainly envision the early Austronesians competing for bragging rights amongst their villages for having the fastest outrigger canoe. The sport suffered many ups and downs; however, modern outrigger canoe racing experienced a revival once Hawaii’s earliest racing club formed in 1908.

Outrigger canoe racing has become one of the leading intramural school activities within the Hawaiian school system, but the sport has reached international acclaim at the professional level.

Types Of Outrigger Canoe

Types Of Outrigger Canoe

Though modern outriggers have turned to contemporary materials such as fiberglass, molded plastic, Kevlar, and aluminum- its design is reminiscent of ancient times.

The purpose behind the outrigger, or lateral float, is to provide stability to the canoe. Furthermore, ancient and modern versions may host either a single or double outrigger.

While the single outrigger is an essential stability mechanism for short travel and net fishing, the larger double outrigger configurations are more robust for handling deep-sea voyages.

Outrigger Canoe Parts

Outrigger Canoe Parts

Another similarity between past and present is the versatility of the outrigger canoe. These dynamic vessels can be paddled or sailed depending on the length and conditions of the journey ahead.

Besides this, the main parts of the outrigger canoe closely follow its ancient design. Therefore, you must ensure proper rigging of the three main features of the outrigger canoe, which include the hull, boom, and float for optimal buoyancy and stability on the water.

While terms may differ slightly due to the various cultural transformations dating from the earliest Austronesian influences to the modern-day Hawaiian language, here is a list outlining the anatomy of the outrigger canoe:

  • Ka ‘Ele: hull
  • ‘Lako: boom
  • Muku: outboard portion of the boom (where you rig it to the canoe)
  • Manu O Ka ‘Lako: knobs on the float where lashing is tied
  • Ama: float
  • Aha: lashing (rope)
  • Pale: gunwale (top piece of hull’s sides)
  • Manu Ihu: bow end piece (front)
  • Manu Hope: stern end piece (back)
  • Lupe: forward portion of the float
  • Kanaka: aft portion of the float
  • Noho Ana Wa’a: seat
  • Hoe: paddle
  • Pe’a: sail
  • Kia: mast
  • Paepae: the sail’s boom

Please note that I sourced these terms from two places: a Hawaiian Canoe-Building Traditions and a Hawaiian Paddle Sports article focusing on the history of the outrigger canoe.

Paddling An Outrigger Canoe

Paddling an outrigger canoe is quite different from typical rowing or kayaking. Without the proper technique, form and function are in jeopardy.

Often the payload carried medicinal plants, animals, food, and other goods from one island to the next. So besides sturdy construction, each member had a particular function and responsibility for the efficient operation of the canoe.

Outrigger canoes range from individual use or teams of up to six persons in the racing world. Each tea.0m member fulfills a specific role and must be attentive to the call-and-response commandeering of the canoes steersperson.

Suppose you are interested in learning more about outrigger canoe racing or would like to experience a guided tour. In that case, I recommend that you first watch Nappy Napoleon’s Paddling Instructional For Outrigger Canoe’s.

Outrigger Canoe Racing

The official Hawaiian state sport has spread rapidly across the worldwide aquatic community. So chances are, if you find yourself near the water, you may see an outrigger canoe.

The primary purpose of an outrigger canoe association is to preserve the ancient traditions of the wa’a along with promoting the sport. In addition, organized races foster new friendships, competition, fitness, and camaraderie.

For more information about outrigger canoe racing, please request information from one of the following:

  • Northern California Outrigger Canoe Association
  • The American Canoe Association
  • East Coast Outrigger Racing Association
  • International Va’a Federation

Outrigger Canoe Tours

Outrigger Canoe Tours

One of my dreams, yet to be fulfilled, is to explore the natural beauty of the Hawaiian archipelago. Although, one trip to Hawaii may not be enough to master an outrigger canoe’s complete art and skill or become a racing professional.

However, borrowing from the experience of a trusted guide, you have the opportunity to enjoy snorkeling with green sea turtles, whale watching, canoe surfing, and more with one of these fantastic outrigger canoe tour operators:

  1. Maui Outrigger Canoe Tours: Owned and operated tours hosted by Hawaiian Paddle Sports offer an exciting balance of history, culture, wildlife, and adventure.
  2. Hawaiian Ocean Sports: Ancestral knowledge passed down through generations is what culture is all about. When you book an outrigger canoe tour with this company, you are signing up for a lot more than just a thrilling ride upon the water. You and your family will indeed walk away with an unforgettable experience marked by traditional Hawaiian values.
  3. Blue Soul Maui Exclusive Tours: If your definition of fun is getting splashed by a breaching humpback whale, learning the history of the wa’a (Hawaiian for canoe), meeting sea turtles, and enjoying a cool beverage with traditional ukelele music in the background, then head on over to Blue Soul to book your tour.

Outrigger Canoe Manufacturers

Outrigger Canoe Manufacturers

If containing your excitement about outrigger canoeing is as hard for you as it is for me, then you can plan to splurge a little on yourself this upcoming tax season.

Here are some outstanding manufacturers of outrigger canoe’s that understand the true blessings that the ocean gives to us:

  1. Holopuni Canoes: With over fifty years of experience in hand-crafting outrigger canoes, Owner Nick Beck found that a three-manned thirty-foot hull delivered the best configuration in lightness and ruggedness to handle both light and more extreme conditions on the water. Whether you prefer leisurely paddling, more extreme sailing out to sea, or desire your canoe to be retrofit with a small outboard motor for fishing, this native Hawaiian family company does it all.
  2. Kamanu Composites: Born in 2007, this friendly group of composite technicians, artists, paddlers are focused on providing their passionate customers with locally sourced and sustainable outrigger canoes. This lively crew offers various build options and whether you desire a custom-build or purchase an off-the-shelf canoe, rest assured that you will be hitting the waves with precision style.
  3. Puakea Designs: Founded by world-renowned technical coach Johny Puakea, the Puakea Designs company combines his paddling experience with his father’s traditional crafting techniques to produce world-class outrigger canoes built for speed.


Once you recognize yourself as a man or woman of the water, you have a deeply endowed connection with nature- that in return is so happy to call you a son or daughter.

Remember, you do not need to be a member of an exclusive canoe club or participate in a racing competition to enjoy outrigger canoes. You can experience leisure, fishing, wildlife exploration, surfing, and more in the wa’a.

If you would like to know more about the outrigger canoe, please leave your questions or concerns in the comment section below.

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