Explore the High Seas, Here’s How to Build an Outrigger Sailing Canoe.
Meet Gary Dierking, specialty outrigger sailing canoes designer and builder who calls Coromandel, New Zealand home. Gary acknowledges that while catamarans and trimarans are now the norm in ocean racing, cruising, and charter fleets, the characteristics of the sailing outrigger canoe are still unknown to most sailors. Read on, as Gary helps explain the different designs and benefits of outrigger sailing.
1. What is an outrigger sailing canoe?
An outrigger canoe is a very narrow canoe that would not be stable without the addition of a float on the end of a pair of beams to stabilize it. The advantage of making it very narrow is the ease with which it can be driven through the water and especially waves. An outrigger canoe can be paddled, sailed, or powered with an engine. A sailing model requires a bigger ama and stronger crossbeams to counter the forces of the sail. Over half of the earth’s surface, from Madagascar to Easter Island, was originally explored and settled with this type of vessel. An outrigger canoe can range from twelve foot in length to over one hundred feet.
2. What are they used for?
Today most outrigger canoes are used for fishing by indigenous people in the Pacific or for recreation all over the rest of the world. In Hawaii they are used for surfing and racing between the islands.
3. Can you use them on the open ocean?
Outrigger sailing canoes can be safely used on the open ocean if they are designed and built for that purpose. An 18 foot outrigger with a windsurf sail crossed 700 miles of open Pacific several years ago. One of my T2 designs cruised for over 1000 miles from Northern Mexico to Panama. The success of a voyage like these depends on good workmanship, water tight compartments, and an experienced sailor. Take baby steps first; don’t finish a canoe and immediately take off into a long voyage. Learn to sail it in light winds and calm seas until your instincts are developed. Capsize it on purpose and learn to right it. Then imagine doing that in a big seaway.
4. Are there different designs?
There is a wide variety of outrigger sailing canoes. The most important published work, “Canoes of Oceania” is 1000 pages long. There are a limited number of plans available for modern builders but I have been trying to interpret traditional designs so that they can be reproduced with modern materials. The sailing rigs and the resulting differences in hulls and structure can be divided into two types. Shunting rigs allow the canoe to be sailed with either end as the bow and always keep the ama (outrigger float) on the windward side where it acts as floating ballast. Tacking rigs sail like normal Western sailing boats and will have the ama to windward or leeward depending on the tack being sailed.
5. How do the differences of the design affect performance?
Some hulls like the classic Hawaiian were optimized for landing in heavy surf due to the lack of protected harbors. All boat design involves compromises and a canoe optimized for surf with buoyant ends and plenty of rocker will not be the best performer sailing on a lake. Traditional outriggers never had centerboards or leeboards but I have added them to greatly improve their performance to windward. Some traditional sailors would use their paddles as leeboard when sailing to windward but this is poor substitute for a good deep high aspect foil.
Steering can be accomplished with a large paddle, a long steering oar, or a rudder mounted either on the stern or on the side like a Viking ship. All of these methods were used in Oceania. Modern recreational sailors can use any of these methods but the paddle and oar are more difficult if you are sailing alone.
6. How quickly could you build one using your plans?
The big hull can usually be completed in 100 hours or less, but there are many additional parts to an outrigger sailing canoe that can take another 200 hours to complete. Much is determined by the standards of finish and ability of the builder.
Gary Dierking specializes in building Outrigger sailing canoes, you can see more at his blog, Outrigger Sailing Canoes.