Setting Sail
Setting Sail.  Hoisting the sail on a traditional outrigger sailing canoe (a sailau) Dobu Island, D'Entrecaseaux Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. © Colin Munro Photography

Setting Sail. Hoisting the sail on a traditional outrigger sailing canoe (a sailau) Dobu Island, D’Entrecaseaux Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

Sailing outrigger canoes, known as sailau in Paupua New Guinea, are still vital for trade, fishing and transportation between islands in Milne bay Province, PNG. The canoes are built locally out of mastwood trees (Calophyllum inophyllum) by expert boatbuilders, then traded. Mastwood (also known as Alexandrian laurel, Indian laurel and beach touringa) is found in coastal regions throughout Australasia and the Indo-Pacific.  As the name suggests it is often used in the construction of boat spars and hulls.

Unlike most sailing vessels (but shared with other Proa outriggers throughout the Pacific) sailau do not tack. Instead they swap ends, the bow becoming the stern (shunting) thus keeping the outrigger permanently to windward.

Sailau, a lug rigged outrigger canoe, or proa, Dobu Island, Milne Bay Province, PNG.

Sailau, a lug rigged outrigger canoe, or proa, Dobu Island, Milne Bay Province, PNG.

Sails are made out of whatever is available: tired old dacron sails traded with passing yachts, patches of plastic sheeting, old tarpaulins, often creating patchwork quilt effect. Sailau, use lug sails (four-cornered sails with the top spar attached across the mast). These sailau have what is known as a balanced lug. These rigs are extremely efficient and have the advantage that they require little standing rigging to support them. They also have the advantage that the shape and tension of the sail is far less important than on a bermudan rig, an important consideration considering the patchwork repairs.

Further reading:

Smaalders, M., and Kinch, J., 2003.  Canoes, subsistence, and conservation in Papua New Guinea’s Louisaide Archipelago. SPC Traditional Marine Resource Management and Knowledge Information Bulletin. 15. July 2003.