Traditional sailing canoes and the art of navigation

The Canoe – pliant and beautifully organic – binds the sea to the land.

sailing-in-yap Powered only by plaited leaf sails and human sinew, guided by the winds of trade and the timeless maps of the firmament and ocean depths, it is perhaps the single most important symbol of the Pacific and it’s islands. In Yap, the image of the central role of the majestic and ancient craft held in keeping the Yapese empire intact.

Six different styles of canoes were used in the Yapese empire for specialized tasks like cargo transportation or intra-island travel. The most commonly known style of Yapese canoe is the distinctive two-pronged bow “Popow”, a sleek, seagoing vessel used for the lang voyages to Palau and other distant lands.

Building a canoe was a highly complicated task, shrouded in magic and ritual. It required the cooperation of many men and women and the skills of a master craftsman.

Yap Village View Hotel75 First, a large mahogany or breadfruit tree was chosen. Carefully, the builders dug the tree from the earth rather than cutting it. This prevented fissures and ensured the strength of the wood in the unforgiving high sea waves. Then the men gathered in large groups to move the wood closer to shore. Strengthened and prodded an by ancient hauling chants they pulled the massive timber to the preparation site.

Yap Village View Hotel79 Women gathered pandanus and began the Fine weaving needed for the canoe’s sails, while men labored tediously with stone, shell or metal adzes to hollow the canoe hull. Breadfruit tree sap and coconut husks and fiber rope were used to glue and tie the upper and lower portions of the hull, and to attach the single outrigger, which was made with bamboo, breadfruit tree and coconut fiber rope. Finally, the finished craft was painted and put to sea amidst dancing and ceremonies, and its pandanus sail was unfurled into the wind, held aloft by a towering reversible bamboo mast.


Traditional navigators crossed the treacherous waves in search of adventure with-out the aid of modern navigational tools or even a simple compass. Their tools were the celestial compass a system of 32 starr whose positions and movements they memorized – and directional messages from the crisscrossing swells of the ocean. Traditionally instruction in the navigational arts began at an early age and was one of the most highly guarded secrets of each island clan. Master navigators held an exalted Position i n traditional societies and lived lives governed by strict adherence to taboos and magic rituals.

The art of canoe construction and traditional navigation are still practiced in Yap State today, although many of the magic rituals and initiation rites have been forgot-ten or abandoned. Outer Islanders have been more successful than the people of Yap proper in their efforts to pass the skills of canoe building and navigation on to younger generations.

Yap Village View Hotel22This is due in part to the important role canoes still play on many islands where motorboats are not practical or affordable, and in part, to the active measures that have been taken by traditional leader, craftsmen, and navigators to preserve and pass on their skills.

On Yap proper there are only a few active canoe builders, mostly from the Northern municipalities of Maap, Rumung and Gagil. There may well be no master navigators left on Yap proper. Most of the craftsmen are aging too, and unless steps are taken soon, this art form may be lost to the Yapese people.