The Polynesian Society – Gauging the performance of an ancient Polynesian sail

MARIANNE GEORGE – Vaka Taumako Project of the Pacific Traditions Society

We know that Austronesian and Polynesian voyagers made many types of sailing craft (Clunie 2015; Dodd 1972; Haddon and Hornell 1997; Howe 2006; Lewis 1972; Neyret 1974; Rieth 1993), but we know very little about what their vessels could do. How fast did they go under varied conditions? How much did they carry? What stories and relationships did they embody? Today there are only a few fragments of ancient voyaging canoes to examine (Johns et al. 2014; Sinoto 1979), some petroglyphs, observations by the likes of James Cook (Beaglehole 1955), Joseph Banks (Banks 1998) and Ignacio Andia y Varela (Corney 1915: 284-87), and sketches by their artists. Some songs and stories about voyaging were recorded, and some are still remembered. However, in these there are precious few specifics of vessel design, construction methods and materials, and descriptions of how the vessels were sailed, to what purpose and with what performance capabilities (Clunie 2015; Irwin and Flay 2015). From such partial and sketchy information, some researchers have made models of what may have been ancient sail shapes and tested them in wind tunnels, in hopes of gauging which canoes could have sailed which routes, and what migrations could have been made (Di Piazza et al. 2014; Irwin and Flay 2015).

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