The History of Outrigging – From Survival to Sports

The modern sport of outrigging is a competitive race between two or more teams in outrigger canoes. It was developed in Hawaii in earlier centuries, but the first official outrigger races took place in the early 20th century in Waikiki. The sport has since spread and is now very popular in many countries, including Australia. The difference between outriggers and other canoes is the fact that it is double-hulled. Its stability comes from the distance between its hulls, which are longer and narrower than single-hulled canoes.

shutterstock_88967230The Birth of Outrigger Canoes

Sea vessels played a major role in the survival of many ancient cultures and the use of outrigger canoes, along the Pacific Rim, can be traced as far back as 30,000 years ago. They facilitated the migration of these ancient cultures along the coast, and beyond. The vessels were used to travel to Hawaii in about 200 A.D, when explorers found the islands in canoes which could hold about 80 people each. These people led here by migrating birds, and brought with them a wide variety of plants and animals. They continued to use the canoes for fishing and transport, as the harsh terrain of the land made it easier to navigate by sea.

The giant Koa trees found on the island were perfect for carving out more outrigger canoes, as a single tree could be used to make each. The Hawaiians made these canoes to withstand harsh ocean conditions, and they are still considered a symbol of how important the sea is to the islanders.

Creating a Sport from Outrigger Canoes

Humans are naturally competitive, and wherever there is the opportunity to prove themselves superior they will take it immediately. Outrigger canoe racing was widely practised when Captain Cook rediscovered the islands, in 1779. The Hawaiians called the sport hei hei wa’a and the competitors were mainly tribal chiefs. Bets were placed on the outcome of the races, and there would be rewards and recognition for the winners. With the arrival of European missionaries, the betting became offensive and Queen Ka’ahumanu banned the races under their influence.

shutterstock_148119962In 1875, the last Hawaiian king, David Kalakaua, resurrected the sport by declaring his birthday on November 16th the annual regatta day. In 1908, the Outrigger Canoe Club was formed in Oahu and the sport continued to grow from there. There are now over 60 canoe clubs in the country and countless others worldwide.

The design of the Hawaiian outrigger canoe is the standard one used in competitions. The most popular in racing are single-seaters, double-seaters and those that can accommodate six people. The six-seater is 13.8m in length with a small outrigger, and all six passengers are equipped with a single bladed paddle. The sixth paddler is responsible for steering the canoe, and the majority of competitive races are divided into sprints, from 500-3000m, and marathons, which are between 5 and 30km.

3 Comments on “The History of Outrigging – From Survival to Sports

  1. Excellent little bit of history! As a keen OC racer for the past 14 years based in Singapore, I am very interested to understand the influence of Dragon Boating on the sport throughout Polynesia (Tahiti, New Zealand, etc.). It seems that Va’a sprint racing has exploded in popularity and I wonder if that has evolved from the influence of recreational Dragon Boat club racing which gained popularity in the late 80’s – 90’s, but now seems to be waining across SE Asia (NZ and Australia in particular).


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