top of page

Unique Construction

Hawaiian Historian and artist, Herb Kawainui Kāne said "The Wa'a shaped the Hawaiian people physically, intellectually and spiritually as much as the Hawaiians shaped the logs that became their canoes".

Each Island Society developed a unique canoe design

We do not know exactly  what the original voyaging canoes that brought the first settlers to Hawaiʻi looked like but we know from both ethnographic and archeological evidence that voyaging between Hawaiʻi and the islands to the south was active between 1100 and 1300 AD.  Then for unknown reasons, the two way voyaging stopped.  It was in this isolation that the Hawaiian canoe evolved into the unique shape we know today.

Not all oceanic islands are alike.  Each island group has a unique eco-system which is shaped by the age of the island, how the island was created and the latitude on which the island is located.


Each Island Society has created a canoe that is specifically adapted to the  natural resources and the uniquie ocean and shoreline conditions that exist in each  island group.


The Hawaiian Canoe is a canoe designed to be paddled with a sail used as auxillary power.   This is compared to many other Pacific Canoes that are designed for sailing as their primary means of propullsion.





Having no barrier reefs, the Hawaiian Islands are exposed to the direct force of the North Pacific's relentless ocean swells.

 The Hawaiian canoe was designed specifically to handle these conditions. 

Unique Hawaiian Design Features

Early European explorers described the Hawaiian canoe as lacking  the ornamentation that was common in the canoes of the South Pacific. They marveled at the workmanship on the Hawaiian canoes describing them to "rival the best wood workers of Europe".   Below are the unique characteristics that distinguish the Hawaiian canoe from other Pacific Island canoes. While each characteristic is not neccessarily in and of itself unique to Hawaii, collectively they create a design found nowhere else. 

The up turned Manu is unique to Hawai'i

Ka'ele: The Hull

The traditional hull was made of one piece hollowed out from a large log. The Hull is U shaped lacking any real keel. The bow and stern are tapered, narrow and generally rounded. The hull is widest just to the rear of the center of the hull.  There is frequently a bulge in the lower section of the hull giving the hull a calabash shape. The rounded hull is designed to glide over rough choppy seas and for launching and landing through breaking surf.



The Mua (bow) and Hope (stern) of all canoes were covered over with a finely carved end piece called the Kupe. The Kupe prevents water from spilling into the hull of the canoe while underway.  The  end of the Kupe is finished with an up turned end  called the Manu. The Manu is designed to break through on coming waves and allow the canoe to rise up and out of rough seas.

Kupe: Bow and Stern End Covers

back to kaele kupe

More on the Ka'ele

More on the Kupe

direct attatchment of both front and rear outrigger booms is unique to Hawai'i
The curved outrigger float is unique to Hawai'i

.The Ama was traditionally constructed out of a single piece of wood. The Hawaiian ama is gently curved with both the Lupe (forend) and the Kanaka (rear end) rising out of the water. This curved shape along with  the uniquely shaped "Lupe"  makes the Hawaiian ama peculiar to Hawaii. The Lupe  is carved to form a cut water which reduced drag when traveling in heavy seas. The Kanaka is usually flattened on the top and left round on the underside.   

'Iako are the booms of the outrigger that connect the ama (float) to the ka'ele (hull) The 'Iako are also the booms that connect the two hulls of a Wa'a Kaulua, or double canoe.   The 'iako for the Wa'a Kaukahi,single canoe, are made out of Hau and extend out on the left side of the Ka'ele.  The ideally shaped 'iako is arched as it extends out from the hull then curves down to where it connects directly to the ama.  Hawaii is the only place in Polynisia where both 'iako attached directly to the ama. 


In other island groups  the 'iako were indirectly connected to the ama by a series of smaller sticks. 

In all other  Pacific canoes the ama is attached to the 'iako by a series of smaller sticks


Outrigger Float


Outrigger Booms

back to ama iako

More on the Ama

More on the "iako

The Hawaiian sail is a specialized oceanic sprit sail called a "crab claw".  Being thee sided with the apex at the bottom of the mast, the upper section of the sail had a U shape to it.  This U in the sail   serves as kind of a safety valve allowing wind to escape over the top of the sail thus reducing the force that could capsize a canoe.

The wae is unique to Hawai'i
The wae is unique to Hawai'i

The Wae are U-shaped or V-shaped blocks that span the inside of the hull and are used as tie down points for lashing the 'iako to the hull. The wae also provides strength to the sides of the hull and allowes the torque forces encountered when traveling in rough seas to be dissipated throughout the hull rather than focused on the lashing holes located in the gunwales. 

Wae: Spreader

Pe'a: Sail

More on the Pe'a

back pe's
The Moamoa located at the stern is unique to Hawai'i
back moamoa


The Moamoa is part of the Ka'ele and is a pointed protrusion that extends out beyond the end of the Kupe Hope (stern cover). It was considered the place where the guardian spirit ('Aumakua) rode when the canoe put out to sea.  When the canoe log was first cut down, a knob "maku'u" was cut into the back and front ends of the Ka'ele for the attachment of hauling ropes.  In the construction of the hull, the bow knob was removed but the stern Knob was refined to a point and became the Moamoa.


'Iako for a Wa'a Kaulua


The 'iako for double canoes (more formally called Kūanueneu) are arched which allowed the Pola or platform between the hulls to ride high above the waves.  Often made of 'Ōhi'a, the 'iako are finely carved and fitted to the wae of the canoe.  Smaller double canoes would have  two of these 'iako while larger canoe could have upwards of eight.


back moo

Mo'o: Gunwale

The Mo'o are planks attached to the upper edge of the Ka'ele. This gunwale increases the freeboard of the canoe and also protects the upper edge of the Ka'ele (called Niau) of the canoe from daily wear and tear.  The mo'o was seldom made out of Koa (the wood for constructed the hull) but made of other woods that tended to be denser and more resistent to wear and tear than Koa.

The Koa Tree Influenced Hawaiian Design

Many  South Pacific canoes  are constructed by means of sewing planks together with natural fibers to form the Hull of the canoe.







In Hawaii, the Koa Tree provided the Hawaiians with a large enough log so that this planking method was not necessary.  The log was hollowed to form a one piece canoe hull.  While most canoes were between 20 feet and 30 feet long, early explores describe many canoes being upwards of 60 feet long.

Click here for more in-depth explanation on this section 
bottom of page