Guam – Men on the remote Pacific Atoll of Lamotrek are hard at work, carving and shaping a massive sailing canoe. In addition to preserving their native traditions, they may be carving their way into the record books as they work under a tarp by the open-air mens’ house on the beach.
Voyaging canoes in the Caroline Islands (modern day “Micronesia”) are made from hollowed-out tree trunks for the keel. Planks are then fitted and tied in with rope made from coconut fibers to complete the sides. These graceful crafts appear symmetrical. Both sternposts and stems protrude up from the keel in forks that shoot up like lizard tongues. An outrigger is used to steady the canoe and the mast and sail are adjustable, rather than fixed. Remarkably, this allows for sailing to windward up to 75 degrees off the wind. The design used today is identical to that detailed by Spanish missionaries in the early 1700s who called the Carolinian canoes “flying proas.”
Canoes produced on the Outer Islands – those small islands and atolls that stretch between the Micronesian state capitals of Yap Proper and the Chuuk Lagoon – are limited in size. Trees growing in the rough soil of the remote atolls don’t reach the height and width require for very large canoe keels. In this case, the men and boys of Lamotrek received a massive tree from Yap Proper to serve as the canoe’s hull. That hull, roughly 40 feet in length, could make the new canoe a record breaker.
[Adzes are used to slowly remove wood forming the hull]
The project was envisioned and coordinated by Waa’gey, a community based organization headquartered on Yap Proper that serves Outer Islanders across Micronesia.
Waa’gey collaborated with the Lamotrek Youth and with master carvers Xavier Yarofaliyango and Brono Tharngan. Young Outer Island men on Yap Proper cut the tree down and prepared it for delivery to Lamotrek aboard the State Supply Vessel. The US-based Habele organization provided financial support to compensate the landowner, provide tools, and ship the canoe aboard the state vessel.
The canoe is historic for reasons beyond it mammoth size. It may be the first canoe ever that was cut down by Outer Islanders in Yap proper, carved down to reduce weight and sent out to an Outer Island for final construction. Voyaging canoes of this type made regular trips between islands across the Carolines until the Japanese ordered an end to the practice in the 1920s.
Carvers on Lamotrek plan to donate the canoe to the community at large, ensuring the craft will see regular use through travel within the lagoon. The length and width will also be a major asset for men on community fishing trips during preparation for traditional ceremonies and parties. Unlike fiberglass hulled boats with outboard engines, fuel and spare parts shortages won’t be an issue.
Carvers hope to complete and launch the historic canoe this summer. Volunteers and supporters from both Waa’gey and Habele plan to attend. Once the traditional vessel has completed its sea trials, plans will be made for longer-distance sailing. “I’ve heard rumors and rumblings about an eventual open ocean voyage from Lamotrek to Saipan,” reported one source close to the project. “Just the fact that such a journey would be possible is a big deal!” Such a trip would serve to reenact a well-documented voyage in 1787 when three chiefs from Lamotrek arrived in the Marianas after ten days at sea.