The joy of French Polynesia’s traditional multihulls

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For over a decade, photographer Julien Girardot has been captivated by the traditional multihulls of French Polynesia and a dream of bringing sailing canoes, or pirogues, back to the motus

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I arrived in French Polynesia as a cook and photographer on the scientific research yacht Tara, just passing through. But I ended up settling here for a decade; partly because of my passion for sailing pirogues but also because, as a photographer, Tahiti and her islands are a true blessing.

When you think about French Polynesia, you think of traditional multihulls. Before I arrived I read about navigation by the stars, and the ancient history of Polynesians who sailed the Pacific to populate the islands of the Polynesian Triangle.

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Before the adventure really began, we met in Tahiti to try out a canoe belonging to one of Ato’s friends. Five minutes after this picture, we reached the beach in a panic, the pirogue was sinking. But seeds have been sown…

I planned to spend one month in Tuamotu, and told myself that I’d hang out with the locals and sail with them aboard their epic outriggers.

Living on Fakarava, an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, I became friends with my neighbour, Ato. One day I asked him: “Ato, where are all the sailing canoes?”

He told me that when engines first arrived in French Polynesia with the ‘popa’a’ (white people) and the nuclear testing programme in the 1960s, the locals were quickly impressed by having so much power with so much ease. No more sails to manage, no more tricky boatbuilding…

The nuclear test programme needed manpower and many Polynesians were hired. They started to earn something new for them: money. Islanders embraced modernity, and the sailing canoes were soon gone

One day, as we were exploring a motu, I asked Ato: “Shall we build a sailing canoe?” He said yes straight away.

After Tara I came back to Fakarava and we launched a non-profit organisation to realise the dream or returning traditional multihulls to the island.

Va’a Iti, starting small

Va’a Iti means ‘little canoe’ in Tahitian. As our first project we set out to develop a single-seat trimaran for a hotel in Bora Bora that wanted a model with a Polynesian look but that would very easy to use.

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Nestled in the bottom of a valley is the Va’a Iti construction site – Alexandre and his partner Charlotte’s garage. Photo: Julien Girardot

Working with Alexandre Genton, a talented local boatbuilder, we built a canoe based on a V1 canoe, which is a sport paddling canoe with one outrigger.

Single outrigger canoes are an institution in Polynesia, and Polynesian champion paddlers dominate the podiums at international competitions.

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This was my first canoe construction and the design was successful, though I came to understand what an old seadog I had met a long time ago in St Malo meant when he told me: “When it comes to boats, the best way to end up a millionaire is to start out as a billionaire!”

But what I gained by living this project was much more valuable than the money.

The next build was a larger Va’a Motu for the hotel, whose owner wanted a modern version of a traditional canoe for their beach club.

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The single-seat Va’a Iti trimaran developed for a hotel in Bora Bora. Photo: Julien Girardot

This canoe was 20ft long, built of kauri wood using strip planking, while the rig was made from carbon windsurf masts. There is no rudder so the sailor helms in the traditional Polynesian way, with a paddle in the water.

A dream, Te Maru O Havaiki

Te Maru O Havaiki means ‘the shadow of Havaiki’ and is the realisation of a dream – or certainly of the fantasy that I had as a first-time visitor to the Pacific.

Now, I understand that for French Polynesian locals what is past is past. Here people think of the now, the present. The future and past are not so important; it’s another perception of life. They say of people in the islands: ‘They’ve got the time, and people from busy cities, they’ve got the clock.’

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Making the two ‘iakos’, the linking spars that connect the ama to the main hull. Construction was complex due to their shape, with marine plywood, strip planking and hard foam core wrapped in composite. Photo: Julien Girardot

Te Maru O Havaiki is a 30ft Va’a Motu (outrigger canoe) designed by a local architect, Nicolas Gruet, and also built by Alexandre Genton.

The build created the opportunity to train two young people from Fakarava, and one of these young men, Toko, hung in right to the end of the construction. He proved to be an excellent laminator as well as disconcertingly natural at sailing the 30ft canoe, which is not an easy machine for a beginner to handle. The Paumotu people have an incredible ease with the water.

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For the children, there was the tradition of the ‘titiraina’, a model of a sailing dugout they played with and raced; a fun game which also allowed them to understand the wind and the sea from a very young age. Photo: Julien Girardot

The project secured sponsorship from the French marine preservation agency, which gave us almost €40,000. They liked the local values and tradition, but the most interesting element for them was the scientific element of the project. For them we had to map an area of Fakarava’s lagoon using kites equipped with cameras!

For more than two months we sailed almost every day, skimming the lagoon from east to west and from north to south, sometimes camping rough for two or three nights to explore further.

During each outing we learned a little more, and gained confidence by sailing with the same crew.

We start to dare to sheet on a little more. The canoe is fast, but on one tack it is unstable. Whenever we tack, we shake out or put in a reef, it’s a delicate balancing act. Others, more courageous than us, sailed with just two people, and later were able to turn by gybing. Three crew is fine, but you have to reef… four is better, five is ideal.

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Polynesian celebrations for Te Maru O Havaiki’s launch day. Photo: Julien Girardot

In the end, a government inspector from maritime affairs decided, after a stability test, not to register the dugout because it is too unstable. He is not a sailor, nor Polynesian, but freshly arrived from Dunkerque, where his job was to license cargo ships.

I don’t think he understood the importance of the shape of our canoe and it was painful at the time, but understandable with hindsight.

The dugout canoe in this configuration, with only one ama, will not be a 100% safe boat. Instead we will transform the canoe into a trimaran. The Va’a Motu association reconvened to re-elect a new board in April 2021. Now we will write a second chapter, but this time in a trimaran. Te Maru O Havaiki continues to tell the story of the evolution of multihulls.


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