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Types of Hawaiian Canoes

Unlike the canoes of Tahiti, Samoa, and Tonga which had multiple canoe hull designs for different operational needs, Hawaiians had only one hull design.  The size of the canoe was all that distinguished the coastal fishing canoe from the interisland sailing canoe.  Not included in these discussions are Voyaging Canoes designed and used to sail between Hawai'i and the other Pacific islands to the south. Voyaging between Hawai'i and the islands to the south ceased around the 1300's.   In their isolation, the Hawaiians developed a canoe specifically designed for Hawaiian Waters.  This is the canoe we discuss in this presentation.

Wa'a Kaukahi

Sailing canoe by Webber

Single Hull, Single Outrigger

Consisting of a single hull with an outrigger stabilizer extending off the left side of the hull, the Wa'a Kaukahi was the most common and most abundant type of canoe.  There is no known cultural reason as to why the ama or float was  almost always placed on the left side of the hull. Most Wa'a Kaukahi were between 12 and 30 feet long with longer canoes reserved for the Ali'i (Chiefs).  The general  number of seats in these single  hulled canoes ranged  between 2 and 6. Used for fishing and general transportation most Wa'a Kaukahi were equipped with a Pe'a. (Sail)

Wa'a Kaulua

double canoe.JPG

Double Hulled Canoe

There was no difference in the hull design of the Wa'a Kaukahi and the Wa'a Kaulua.  In many instances a single hull canoe was lashed to a second hull to create a double canoe.  Early Western explorers described  observing over 100 people on a 60 foot double canoe. While double canoes averaged between 30 to 70 feet, the longest canoe hull measured by a Western Explorer was 107 feet. Used for transporting large amounts of cargo, for extended inter island trips or far off-shore fishing trips, the double canoe also served as troop transports in war.


Six Canoe Construction Styles  by David Kaho'okele (1958)

It should be noted that the names of canoe types listed here were not universally used throughout the Hawaiian islands. This list is provided to demonstrate that while the traditonal Hawaiian canoe had one basic hull design, there were modifications  to that design that provided specilized performance charactoristics for addressing specific operational needs.

David K. Kahookele was chaplain, vice-president, and on the Music Committee during the founding years of the Maui Historical Society and Hale Hoikeike. In those early years members wrote papers on Hawaiian history and presented reports at the meetings. The Kahookele family was from Nahiku. David's father built the model canoe on display in the canoe house for Dr. Jim Fleming.  All terminology is from the original text.



This canoe was made for high speed, fishing and locating fishing grounds, racing, taking messages from island to island and getting to inaccessible places.  Two Kakaka canoes were often hitched together to make a double canoe.  This was used by high chiefs in time of war.


The Kakaka had a natural curve, which started narrowing at the stern and about two-thirds larger than the bow.  The stern and the bow were shallow as compared to the hull.  The koa log for the Kakaka was found in the forest with its natural curve.  These logs ranged from eight to ten feet in circumference and twenty to forty feet in length. This type of log was quite scarce. Because of this the canoe sometimes made from straight logs.  The curved log was preferred because it cut down the labor on the canoe.



This canoe was good for fishing and racing when the sea was calm.  She was also good with sails because she rode high in the water. She was not good with paddles when approaching a strong wind.


A Kialoa carried more people than a Kakaka.  Double canoes were made for traveling from island to island.  The Kialoa canoe was big all the way and very long. Except that the sern was deep and much shorter.  The body was deeper than the sern and ran about the same depth to about four feet from the bow.  From here the curve turned up to the top. This type of canoe was easy to work on.  Kialoa canoes were the longest canoes of all the six groups mentioned.



Pumai’a was one of the largest canoes but was not as long as the Kialoa.  This canoe was high for stern to bow. She was made for carrying passengers and freight but not for speed. The Pumai’a was good with sails and hard to paddle when approaching a strong wind.



The finished canoe looked like a lizard with a narrow head, large stomach and narrow at the other end.  It was made for racing chasing schools of fish.  She was a medium sized canoe and was selected by the builders for her individual or unusual shape.  The Opuamo’o was almost like the Kakaka except that the center was larger, the stern shallower and bow even more shallow.



The Kupahoa canoe was mde from a log with three sides.  It had the oval shape of an egg.  It was made from a straight or curved log and built similar to the Kakaka.  This type of canoe was very fast and was used for chasing or running away from enemies. 


The Kupahoa and the Opuamoo were alike in size and speed.  The Kapahoa could be handled by one man.  When a one man canoe was built it was usually about fourteen feet long.  For two or three men, an eighteen or twenty foot canoe was needed.



The Koele canoe was built for one man and could be handled anytime without the help of others.  It was built the same as the Kakaka only it was much smaller. It was easily handled on the high seas and with approaching  wind.  It was easy to find the logs for these canoes as they did not have to be too large.  The Koele was simple to make.



For more details on Hawaiian Canoe Design click here to see a more detail presentation done by Tommy Holems in is book The Hawaiian Canoe

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