Outrigger Canoe: Momoa

by Terry Wallace

oiling the momoa

Momoa or moamoa has no function. Or does it?

Na Maoli, (same as Maori and Maohi) the original people of what is now called the State of Hawai‘i, were not known for decorating functional tools. Unlike others, Maori for example, wa‘a were not usually intricately carved or decorated. Everything was functional. Parts were tied together by different systems, some being quite elaborate, but function was the main element. To quote Tommy Holmes in The Hawaiian Canoe:

any nonessential ornamental design feature either structurally weakened a canoe or resulted in a canoe that was less rugged and break-proof than a simpler and cleaner craft. To survive the pummeling surf and raging channels of Hawai‘i, every design feature, every component, every inch of the Hawaiian canoe had to be functional and rugged.

So it was with Momoa. Looking at the extreme aft end, ka hope (kah hopay), you should find a small flat spot. As if the manufacturer had not quite affixed the top (kupe hope - koopay) to the hull (ka‘ele) correctly, leaving a small projection about 1” to 1.5” or so of the top of the hull visible. What could this be for? Fastening spray covers? Tying the ama to the manu (mahnoo) in heavy seas to prevent excess movement? ‘Aole - no! It's where your canoe akua rides to protect you while you are at sea.

Remember, Moana (the ocean), doesn't care at all about you. And you’re too busy to be concerned with yourself. So hopefully, Akua, your team’s or canoe’s personal spirit will protect you. This thought may also make your crew more aware of surroundings, rigging, etc. (I choose the term “spirit” to avoid religious controversy. Don’t even bother to respond: I’ll delete at first hint.)

How this custom got started:
About 700 years ago, the religious Kahuna, Pa‘ao, went to Kahiki to find new blood for a king. To make a long story short, he finally selected Pili Ka‘aiea and asked him to come to Hawai‘i. As they sailed from Raiatea Island, heading back to Hawai‘i (island), the Tahunga (priest) Makuakaumana called out from the top of a cliff that he “had been left behind.” Pili replied that “the canoe is filled, but if you leap from the cliff, you can ride there (on the Momoa).”

Makuakaumana then leapt from the cliff and flew toward the canoe, meanwhile changing from a man into a spirit so that he could ride on that small place. From then on, momoa was considered an essential part of any canoe, outrigger or double.

Since the advent of fiberglass canoes and the story of momoa being “misplaced,” many manufacturers and carvers have either moved, redesigned or forgotten ka momoa. Some of us believe that momoa is an essential and important design feature of the Hawaiian canoe. If you believe in Custom, Culture and Tradition and that your canoe needs its own “feeling,” spirit or “akua”, or whatever you choose to call it, then include momoa.

Bibliography: OHA - Jan. 1988, Stokes - HHS paper #15, Abraham Fornander - “The Polynesian Race.”

Malama pono (Take care)

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