Waan Aelon Kein

WAAN AELON KEIN is a walap, a voyaging canoe, from Enewetak, one of 
the Marshall Islands.  He (the large voyaging canoes are all male unlike 
European female ships and boats) is about 52 foot long over the stems and 
the beam overall is 25 feet. 

An Analysis of the Walap's Performance
by Dennis Alessio

The design of the Marshallese canoe, especially the Enewetak canoe in this
instance, does not only encompass the rigging and sail.  Nor is it with the
relationship which the major components have with each other. In fact, it
would not even be the direct relationship which the hull has with the sail
and rigging, although all of these design characteristics are very impor-
tant.   The most significant design feature is the shape or the hull itself.
The first thing to notice on this canoe is the asymmetric shape of the
hull, which by Micronesian standards, is extreme.  This fact holds true
even comparing her to other Marshallese canoes. In addition to this, the
extreme narrowness of the hull is radical compared to other canoes of the
Marshall Islands.    

Because this was probably the first canoe of its size to be built in Majuro
since World War II, it quickly became a major topic of conversation and
controversy. Many builders from around the Marshall Islands came to see the
progress. The major issue was that of the extremely narrow hull. Although
the general shape and parts of the outrigger is common within the design
and style guidelines of outriggers in other parts of the Manhall Islands,
still the builders were not ready for such a radical variation. It over-
whelmed many of them into claiming that the canoe would not sail. In fact,
I overheard more than one builder saying that because it was so much like a
knife, it would probably not even float, but sink right to the bottom.  At
a waterline length of 12m(40'), the average width is 32.2cm(12.6”). Compare
this with the average width of the Ailuk canoe of 35.5cm(14”) with a water-
line length of only 5.4m(l7.75’) (Alessio, D.F.,1991c). This hull is indeed
a knife by any standard. Much of this skepticism is due to the fact that
Enéwetak Atoll is now, and has traditionally been, the most isolated atoll
in the Marshall Islands. Most people have never seen one of these canoes
and are therefore very unfamiliar with this peculiarity. It it not easy to
change an opinion of that of a boatbuilder, especially a traditional boat-
builder who has learned the ways of his ancestors dating back for more than
two thousand years.

Because the Marshallese hull is asymmetric, with the leeward side being
flat to sometimes concave, and the windward side rounded, leaving the hull
symmetric from end to end, the tacking of the canoe is made from end to end
keeping the outrigger float always to the wind. The hull was copied from
the shape of a birds wing, which the builders, over the two and a half odd
thousand years designed this canoe with the idea of flying in mind. The
sail was also originally designed after the wing of a bird, but today this
design feature in slowly being lost for the somewhat quicker way of build—
ing as well as the time it takes to shape the boom end the yard this way.
It can be seen in section 5.4,2., that although the boom and yard are
straight, the sail has been shaped aerodynamically, like the wing of a
bird, so when there is a strong breeze against the sail, the boom and the
yard will actually bend slightly to the shape of the sail stretching to its

Another important design feature seen because of the asymmetric hull is
that when the canoe is moving forward, the asymmetry actually creates
“lift” toward the outrigger float. Together with the force of the outrigger
wanting to pull the canoe into the wind and the “lift”, decreasing lateral
drift, the need for a deep keel is obviated. During the many times and
under many conditions while sailing the canoe, I observed that the shape of
the hull not only created lateral lift, but also after watching the water-
line of the hull lift with the force of the wind, I decided to place a mark
along the waterline to see if in fact the canoe was lifting vertically
while gaining wind speed (now might be a good time to take a look at. the
lines drawings).

I was able to test the performance of the canoe under many different wind
speed conditions. Because our canoe was beached next to the National Weath--
er Station which had very sophisticated wind gauging equipment,  I was able
to get very accurate readings of maintained wind speeds.

The wind speed for the tests ranged from 6 to 20 knots. I did not have the
advantage of a hand held wind gauge which could further acknowledge any
changes in the wind speed, although since there were many speed trials
taken when the wind stayed relatively steady,  I was able to ascertain the
average speed performance of the hull.  Since I had read that Thomas Gladwin
did this exact experiment on Puluwat Atoll in the Caroline Islands back in
early 1967, 1 decided to follow his process exactly with the only differ—
ence being that we had the weather station and he had a hand held wind
gauge (Gladwin T. pp.99)  Beginning at 180 degrees downwind, we made runs
of approximately one mile of which the speed was timed and measured using a
chip log. The formula we used was to divide the number of seconds it took
a piece of crumbIed paper to float the length of the waterline into
27.27.  For example; if it took six seconds for the paper to get from point A to
point L the hull speed would be 4.5 knots. We repeated these runs at 15 degree
intervals until we were sailing as close into the wind as the canoe would go.
Because we had no sophisticated equipment (very expensive) to determine the
exact wind direction versus the forward movement of ths canoe, I could only
estimate that when the wind was seen and felt at 60-75 degrees, that it must be
coming directly off of the beam, if it were properly adjusted. I came to this conclusion
after many speed runs where the best times for the canoe was when the wind
was between 60 and 75 degrees. It might very well be that the faster times
were when the wind was at the forequarter, but there was no way to prove
this without the equipment.

The wave conditions were fairly regular as most of the speed trials were
done in the lagoon. Even with the wind speed at 20 knots, the wave condi-
tions were slight and the canoe showed incredible speed. With the wind at
75 degrees, the canoe made 22.2 knots.  Directly off the beam the canoe made
20.5 knots. It seemed that the canoe consistently slowed in both directions
from the beam, but consistently was faster into the wind than off the wind.
For instance, at 45 degrees, 18.7 knots and at 135 degrees, l7.6 knots,
nonetheless close in comparison. The canoe consistently sailed faster then
the wind,

At an even wind speed of 8 knots with flat seas and the wind at 75 degrees
the canoe made 10.1 knots. Directly off the beam the canoe made 9.3 knots.
It seemed that the canoe consistently slowed in both directions from the beam,
but consistently was faster into the wind than off the wind. For
instance, at 45 degrees 7.7 knots and at 135 degree,  7.0 knots.  At l50
degrees, 6.6 knots and between 160 and 180 degrees, 5.5 knots.

I found that the canoe made better speed with the wind in the forequarter
then after the beam. She sailed so close to the wind, I thought at times
we were sailing directly into the wind. Of course this could be deceiving
as l've mentioned before about the forward speed and the wind deviance.
Because of the "pocket" shape at the clue of the sail,  the wind
always seemed to “roll” into that area the closer to the wind the canoe
sailed. On many occasions, the point of sail was between 30 and 45 degrees.
I am afraid to claim she sailed any closer, because at times I thought. she
did, but could not believe what I was experiencing.  Even looking at the
telltale,  the wind seemed to be coming directly off of the bow of the canoe
before the sail began to backfill.

During an open ocean voyage between Aitutaki and Rarotonga in the Cook
Islands, a distance of 141 nautical miles, the walap averaged 5.03 knots.  It
should be fair to say that this would not be a very good repreeentabion of
what the canoes’ performance could have actually been considering that she
was sailing in company of three other traditional canoes as well as four
escort vessels for the canoes. It was mentioned in a pre-sailing meeting
that because we were entering into the hurricane season in that part of the
Pacific, and that we had actually waited for over a week for the winds and
sea to slow before departrng,  that all of the canoes were to sail together
for safety reasons as a canoe from one of the other islands flipped over
because of the extreme weather conditions. The other canoes were of the
double hulled Polynesian style and were already slower by design.  As it
turned out, the canoe and her escort vessel stayed in sight of the other
canoes for the first five or six hours. During this time, our canoe would
sail her course and then fell off a bit so that our escort vessel could
catch up. This was the criterion during the entire voyage. Keeping this in
mind as well as the canoe being in rather large seas and on two separate
occasions, hoving to off and on for a total of six hours with very little
forward movement, to lower the sail and repair a broken mast, the speed was
still impressive.

Tacking (diak) begins with one of the sailors going forward and untying the
stay to loosen the foot of the sail. He then reties the stay to a mark
whipped in the line so that the mast can go no further than to the vertical
position. At the same time a second sailor stands ready at the other end
of the canoe. When the canoe has begun coming around to face the wind, the
sailor holding the sheet lets it go, freeing the sail to spill all of the
wind. The man at the back of the canoe then leans hard on the stay so that
all of the weight of the sail is transferred to the foot of the mast, and
sailor number one picks up the sail and begins walking it to the center of
the canoe.  As the first sailor takes the sail to the center of the canoe
other sailors take the sail and pass it around the mast to the second
sailor who holds the sail in position while the wind comes into the sail to
turn the canoe to sail on the same course, only this time from the opposite
end of the canoe.   A third sailor readies the sheet as the first sailor
returns to his end of the canoe and loosens the knot in the stay and stands
ready to help steady the mast and position it in its forward tilt while
the second sailor continues to the end of the canoe. It is not until the
second sailer has the sail almost to his end of the canoe until the first
sailor positions the mast to its forward tilt, by slacking the stay on one
end, and the boom and yard is tied to its final resting place on the other
end. Sailor number three adjusts the sheet and continues sailing (Fig,
7.1-7)  At the beginning of this process, sailor number one kicks the
steering paddle off of the side of the canoe, it is tied to the center of
the canoe with a line half the length of the canoe, and when the tacking is
complete, the paddle has drifted to the other end of the canoe where sailor
number two simply picks it out of the water and continues to steer.

Probably 80% of the time the steering paddle was never used as the canoe
was steered by adjusting the sail.

To sail directly downwind, which this canoe does exceptionally well, the
mast is brought to a vertical position and the end of the halyard is tied
to the tack of the sail so that it is “floating" a couple of feet. off of
the deck and a couple of feet forward of the mast. The two mainsail sheets
are tied to each end of the hull, keeping the sail in position for a com-
fortable ride (fig 7,8-9.). On one occasion, one of’ the paddles fell off of
the canoe and instead of tacking around, the mast was brought to a vertical
position and the yard was held tight to the inside of the mast and only one
sheet was held, similar to what was just explained, to direct the sail
against the wind. The steering paddle was brought to the forward end of the
canoe and the canoe was positioned so that the wind caught the sail and
slowly moved the canoe backwards as the steersman directed the canoe to the
drifting paddle. After picking up the paddle the sail was brought forward
again and off we went.

On one occasion, as we were tacking in the lagoon close to one of the small
islands, the windi began to back the sail. This is very dangerous if the
sail is allowed to back completely since it would cause the heavy and
cumbersome rig to come crashing down.  What happened next was so fast and in
my mind performed so gracefully and with such immediate and natural reflex,
that I thought it was planned just to scare me. All at the same time, two
sailors went forward to the sail where one loosened the stay as the other
took the sail to the center of the canoe.  Simultaneously, while this was in
motion,  the sailor at the other end of the canoe pulled the weight at the
sail onto the foot of the mast, pulling it to its vertical position. As all
of this was going on, another two sailors hoisted the spiller lines so that
all of the wind went out of the sail. The canoe stopped immediately. With-
out missing a beat,  the sailors worked the wind back into the sail posi-
tioning the canoe back on course. I can’t even remember if one word as
spoken through this entire ordeal.

When a man falls overboard, two sailors immediately hoist the spiller lines
and a third walks out to the end of the outrigger and sinks the outrigger
float;  the canoe immediately stops. I tested the sailors a number of times
in many different wind conditions, and in winds of about 20 knots, the
canoe drifted no more than l5m(5O’) from the man overboard before it
stopped.  On the occasion of a slight wind, the canoe drifted only about
3m(10’) before stopping.

On many occasions we sailed to the pass of Majuro Lagoon where the sea is
very confused, with short and very steep wave conditions. I was continually
impressed with the capability of the hull and outrigger to flex independently
of each other while maneuvering through these waves. The main reason,
at mentioned in the construction section (5.1.1.), and the outrigger float
section (5.2.1.) is the addition of the secondary outrigger booms which
soften the shock of the movement between the hull and outrigger. This ad-
vancement in design, with these additional “springs”, as compared to other
canoes in Micronesia and the entire Pacific for that matter, aids to the
easier forward movement through rougher wave conditions. As we sailed
through these steep waves and the outrigger would come full out of the
water and then dip through the waves, flexing radically all the time, the
main hull seemed to ride smoothly compared to if we were on a monohull (not
a very good comparison). An small outboard motor boat would have simply
been to dangerous to be in these conditions, and probably would have swamped

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