Adventures of a Boat Ranger
As a 2007 Watson Fellow, Dan Hammer '07 is studying, building, and racing outrigger canoes in the South Pacific. A Lang Scholar and Honors economics major at Swarthmore and a firefighter and EMT with the local fire company, he spent two summers in Bolivia working for RescueCorps, a nonprofit organization founded by Kevin O'Neil '01 during his own Watson year to provide emergency medical, fire/rescue, and disaster response services to communities in need around the world. Write to him at email@example.com
- John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat
ohn Steinbeck built a sort of kayak while he wrote East of Eden. Timber and tools, packed in tightly with yellow pads and pencils, chock-filled the writing room of his New York brownstone. It figures. Every aspect of this book resonates deeply in me; and it just makes sense that every aspect of its production should resonate as well. Knowing now that East of Eden, my all-time favorite book, was built together with a boat gives me a new literary energy, which I'll surf to the completion of this report.
My own writing room, of sorts, is also framed with timber, tools, and boats in every stage of production. I write these words in a plywood building shed, set deep in New Zealand bushland. The warmth of the morning sun cuts the late spring chill, heralding the coming summer. I'm still damp from an early paddle - energized, but happy to be sitting. It'll be a good day. A damn good day.
Sitiveni rough shapes the manu (prow, literally 'bird') with a small chainsaw. He shaped the stern deck with a three-foot chainsaw. Another project he is working on leans against the wall in the background: a whalebone carving that will hang in the National Cultural Center when it is finished.
This Watson year began in the Kingdom of Tonga. The idea, here, was to build a traditional outrigger canoe alongside Sitiveni Fehoko, one of the few remaining canoe carvers in the Tongan islands. Sitiveni is the last of a long line of carvers from Ha'apai, a major island group in Tonga known for its craftsmen. Three generations of men before him were master carvers, with canoecraft at the center of their trade. He built his first popao (canoe) at the age of 10 out of the slat-wood from discarded banana crates. Canoe carving in Tonga was once a family affair; and in an island group as small as Ha'apai, this means it involved the entire community. "In Tonga," Sitiveni announces, "everyone you like is your brother. But if you do not like them, they are your cousin. My brothers helped me build my popao." Sitiveni has only one birthright sibling: a twin sister.
And yet Tonga has forgotten its canoes. The Kingdom was once known and feared throughout Western Polynesia for its ocean-going armies, which repeatedly conquered neighboring islands for canoe-worthy timber. The Tongan kalia (voyaging canoe) was the product of centuries of wars and voyages - it is the very height of Polynesian canoe design. It's no wonder, then, that canoe carvers were so well respected in the islands: they created the vessels that carried Tonga to greatness. More than that, though: they built the boats that were used in daily life - for fishing, racing, and inter-island travel. "Polynesians are people of the outrigger canoe," says former Cook Island president Tom Davis - and the archeological evidence is there to back him up. Sometime between the early 1830s and late 1930s, however, outrigger canoes faded from the Tongan consciousness. And no one knows exactly why.
Most of Tongan history has been passed down through song and story, orally; and academics are now conducted in English. With this language impasse, written history outside of the European frame of reference is almost non-existent. My outrigger enquiry, then, was a matter of finding the oldest elder and talking story. Enter Sione: a lecherous and good-humored old man that would often sit in Sitiveni's open-air living room and laugh without restraint at, well, nothing in particular.
"Dani! Do you have a wife?" he asked once, smiling a toothless smile.
"Then you come with me to Vava'u for a wife. The girls from Vava'u make for a good wife. They do not wear underwear."
Here, I attempt to use the adze, an indigenous tool, on the rough hollow. Kaponi (left) is my age and has worked for Sitiveni for over 11 years. He never went to school (no one could keep him there) and so speaks very little English - and I speak even less Tongan. We became fast friends, though, despite the language barrier. Wild gesticulations and pictures in the dust worked well enough.
Sione explained that Tongans don't paddle anymore because they were already the best watermen - voyagers, racers, fishermen - once, long ago. Tongans, he says, don't need to paddle because they have already done it. I don't buy it, despite the golden authenticity of this man. I kept at it, asking anyone who might know. But each story on the loss of canoe culture conflicted with every other story; there is nothing concrete about hearsay. And so, I turned to the books, as well as shameless conjecture - and this is what I found:
There are three main causes of the canoe decline in Tonga after 1830. The first, and most direct, is the outboard motor, which displaced the canoe as a fishing vessel. Local fishermen told me that it would be an hour's paddle to high-yield waters. It's too far, they say; motorized dinghies are "betta." The second reason: missionaries swarmed Tonga in the 1840s to work out the religious wrinkles. With their theologies, they also brought their idea of decent living; canoe culture was straight dropkicked by English sensibility. Now, shirts must be worn at all times, even by men; it is illegal to work or play on Sundays; and there is an unspoken competition among old ladies for how many church services can be attended in a single day. Canoes had no place in this new order, apparently, to the extent that the church was known to decry the watercraft as heretical - a throwback to old and ungodly ways. Plus, it's damn hard and no fun to paddle or swim with your shirt on, sneaking out between church services. Between missionary work and outboard motors, outrigger canoes declined precipitously in Tonga. And yet, other island groups where outrigger still thrives 0 Tahiti, Hawai'i, Andamans, among others - were subjected to the same technological and cultural onslaught. The difference, here, and the third cause of the local canoe decline, is the overwhelming popularity of rugby in Tonga.
Most of the shaping was done with a chainsaw, even a healthy measure of the detail work.
Rugby was introduced to Tonga in the early 1900s by Australian ex-patriots, and quickly took off as the local sport of choice; it was a natural fit. Not only do Union rules reward heft over agility and speed - which is perfect for these big, big Tongans - but the game is also undeniably physical. And Tongans, too, are extremely physical. Not violent - just physical.
These days, the hard contact in the culture only turns injurious when mixed with heavy drinking and a dry tap. It's the same brand of physicality that is encouraged in sport, which makes boxing and rugby so appealing as modern sporting events. For centuries (at least) before European contact, the islanders played games that seem inordinately violent, like club-fighting and a water sport that looks very similar to rugby.
"Tongans invented rugby," the current president of Tonga's rugby association tells me.
"But I thought it was a European game," I respectfully proposed, only beginning to see that all good things come from Tonga, and all bad things come from Samoa or Fiji or Somewhere Else - according to the Tongans. Samoans would probably say otherwise.
"Yes, but we had a sport like it before the English. We played it in the water. But it was the same - same thing. Rugby is Tongan."
"Do you paddle?"
"No. I play rugby."
As the practical uses of Tongan canoes were chipped away by imported culture and technology, only sport racing could have saved the boats from being outmoded entirely. But rugby had its way, and canoes were pushed to the wayside. This is not to say, however, that rugby is a bad thing for Tonga; just that the sport was imported, like an ever-increasing proportion of Tongan culture. (On the streets of Nuku'alofa, the capital city, the image of Tupac is more common than that of Tupou, Tonga's lionized monarch.) Canoes are Tongan, and always have been. The islanders were built to paddle. One of the top teams in the world right now, actually, is Tui Tonga, a crew of Tongans living in Hawai'i. But the sport was lost in Tonga - and with it, a chance at establishing canoes as an organic element of modern Tongan culture, something from and for the islands. Island tradition is being swamped, mostly by relocated islanders: nearly half of all Tongans live abroad today, sending money and new social conception from New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. Remittances are never just money orders.
Originally, the idea behind the construction of the popao was to build it purely out of endemic materials. We decided, however, to use marine grade glue for the gunnels and standard craft varnish for the exterior. With modern glue and varnish, the canoe will last much longer, without imposing undue work on Sitiveni.
To an extent, then, my interest in traditional canoecraft must have been seen as something of a reprieve by the Popua village elders - their overwhelmed culture would last another day. The constant inflow of Los Angeles street culture was temporarily countered by me, a palangi (foreigner) interested in the Tongan popao. This is why, I think, I was so well received in the village, especially by the older folk. For two months, I lived as part of the community - as a canoe builder and a welcomed member of the Fehoko household.
Under the close guidance of Sitiveni, I built a traditional Tongan popao. It is a beautiful boat - a hearty boat. It is rounded and stocky, built for fishing and fighting and mild surf. Every aspect of the canoe corresponds exactly to the description of the Tongan popao documented in Haddon and Hornell's Canoes of Oceania (1938). The final product was indeed a traditional design, although the 'carving' techniques were certainly modern. We used chainsaws for nearly everything - from lengthwise ripping to delicate shape-work. Sitiveni gently carved the canoe's prow with a monstrous three-foot chainsaw. Carving indeed. But the building process would have taken four times as long with indigenous tools. Sitiveni showed me how to carve with the adze, and I gave it a whole-hearted effort - but it is slow and physical work. I lasted 30 minutes, and promptly went back to a chainsaw. Sitiveni thought it was hilarious that I'd even try. He figures that it would take two men a full month of working non-stop to build our boat with only an adze and honest sweat - without chainsaws, planers, sanders, and grinders. It took us about three weeks of only scattered work.
Each day was a marathon - mostly fixing broken equipment, with carving for the in- between time. Chainsaws always needed fixing; pencils always needed finding; and none of this was ever done beforehand. That is, there was no cup for sharpened pencils. I asked why, once, while we sat waiting for one of Sitiveni's boys to come back with a pencil.
"Do you have to go someplace?" Sitiveni asked, honestly.
"No." And I shut up. Tonga runs on island time. I learned, by necessity, the art of patient waiting. And I learned to enjoy it, actually. Plus, private property is for the palangi, not for Tongans. Everything is communal. Taking a pencil and not returning it isn't seen as stealing, just borrowing - with no need to return. A pencil cup would be useless; it's not even a consideration. This idea of whole-sharing seems to reflect the days of plentiful food and no refrigeration. Food would have to be eaten as soon as it was gathered, and so it was shared without regard to original ownership. The holdovers of this conception can be inconvenient, but oddly comforting. Flip-flops or 'slippahs' for example, are never private property; you wear what fits, no matter who bought them. At first, Sitiveni's family was careful to leave my slippahs alone. Palangi slippahs are private slippahs. I felt like part of the family when, three weeks in, I couldn't find my shoes.
We finished the boat, and before it touched water, Sitiveni called in his uncle (or so called) from Ha'apai to proceed over a launching ceremony. He was a grizzled old man; big and bear-like. His hands were enormous. His forearms were even bigger by scale. In his old age, he had lost the use of his legs, so he walked with crutches. But he wanted to make sure I knew that he was once a feared boxer - a champion fighter.
'Dani. Are you afraid of me?
'No, sir; you are too kind.'
'I AM A CHAMPION!'
The final product, dressed for the launching ceremony. The dugout hull is Red Cedar and the ama (outrigger) is carved from Willi-Willi wood, which is much lighter but has to be replaced fairly often. The canoe is extremely heavy, probably over 300 pounds. The white cowry shells hanging from the iako (cross booms) signify a 'canoe of circumstance' - one that is not to be tampered with.
We went through this maybe three or four times before the ceremony, and once after. But this interchange nearly exhausted his knowledge of English, and so the ceremony was conducted in Tongan. Nearly 50 local kids and elders packed into Sitiveni's large fale, a long panadus hut. The old man growled for silence in Tongan: his words came out, and rolled along, in low rumbles. He had me sit to his right, and meticulously laid out a single cigarette and lighter in front of him, perfectly in line. This man would have order. No one spoke; although, stifled giggles were barely audible from the forced-silent kids. He began to chant, and in the lulls, Sitiveni would quickly try to explain in English what was going on. As the old man progressed, he became louder, his words faster, until he called for the kava - a gentle narcotic drink, made from ground kava root. I had my half-coconut worth of kava, and he turned to me and declared: "Uhiua." I nodded respectfully - and blankly.
After the ceremony, Sitiveni explained that I had been given the Ha'apai title of "talking chief" - likely one of the few palangi to ever receive this honor. Tribal chiefs will not talk directly to common folk, and so village elders appoint advisers to act as a go-between: hence the talking chief. These days, the title is mostly used to determine rank at a kava circle, that is, the drinking order. Sitiveni informed me that 'it is a good name,' and that I'll be able to 'drink early in many kava circles.' He smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and stole my slippahs.
From Tonga, I flew to Sydney for the World Dragonboat Championships. The regatta was held at the Sydney International Regatta Center, the site of the 2000 Olympic watersport events. The Premier Open U.S. crew (my team) did exceptionally well this year, winning three gold medals in the 500, 1000, and 2000 meter events. And in the 500-meter final, we set a world record. A home video of the final is posted on YouTube.
Crossing the finish line of the 500-meter final at the Sydney International Regatta Center. The time of 1:48.74 was fast enough to win gold and secure a world record. Team USA is in Lane 4, with the Philippines in Lane 3 following closely behind. Watch the race here.
I am on the left side of the boat, the port side, and so I am not visible from the viewing stands as we come down the course. During the victory lap, though, at the very end of the video, I am the shaggy blonde paddler three seats from the back.
Now, I am in the New Zealand bush, building and racing modern (fiberglass) canoes. I am living with Kris Kjeldsen, creator of the region's most common canoes - the Surfrigger and the Mahi Mahi - and a living legend in the outrigger community. He is accredited with reviving waka ama (outrigger canoe racing) in New Zealand; although, recently, he has taken a step back from racing because it has fallen into bogs of 'paddletics' (politics for paddlers).
Kris has no time or patience for 'ignorant chatter' - and I don't blame him. The outrigger racing association in New Zealand is now dominated by petty quarrels and conflicting agendas. But I'm racing anyway. I'll be competing in the national qualifiers in early December, and so I am spending a lot of time in the Surfrigger, trolling a fishing line - for dinner, fun, and extra resistance.
In the off-time, I am working in Kris' workshop, building a six-man outrigger with his workers. Here, with Kris, I'll be able to address the questions I set out to answer. Namely: How are modern builders incorporating traditional design elements? How are they preserving the ancestral ties while trying to build faster and more efficient boats?
Kris calls himself 'green at heart' and claims that he would only make slat wood canoes if it weren't so expensive; he has a deep respect for the way things were. But the sport demands faster boats, and he is forced to make fiberglass canoes in order to make a living. Perhaps this material and subsequent design innovation is alright, though; "perhaps unchanging things only pass," as Steinbeck wonders in To A God Unknown. The sport is now alive and well - and changing - in New Zealand. Waka ama has been reclaimed by the Maori community thanks, in part, to Kris.