Hawaii Reopens Koa Forests for Canoes: The Outrigger’s Origins

For the first time in 20 years, officials will allow Hawaiians to access koa forest to manufacture the next generation of traditional outrigger canoes.

Wed 29 May 24


More than 1 million cubic feet of koa forest will be made available for “selective logging” for traditional Hawaiin outrigger canoes after government officials approved a plan to also allocate 1.5 million cubic feet of forest for “log construction.”

That is according to West Hawaii Today, which reported that the new plan published last month permits “high-grade” harvesting within the Kapapala Canoe Forest—a special exclusion area in the Ka’u Forest Reserve – set aside 20 years ago to protect the dwindling supplies of koa wood.

In 2019, the Haiwan Board of Land and Natural Resources—whose Division of Forestry and Wildlife manages the forest—signed off on an inventory of the forest to further understand its ecology and, eventually, develop a sustainable management plan to allow harvesting.

The 1,257-acre area is the only Hawaiʻi state land currently designated for cultivating and providing koa for use in kālaiwaʻa, or traditional Hawaiian canoe construction. Footage courtesy of @bigislandvideonews.

Five years later, the officials confirm that 5.5 million cubic feet of koa wood exist within the 1,257-acre exclusion zone, with the extraction to be highly regulated. Wood Central understands applicants must submit a stewardship plan, which will be reviewed by a selected board of experts, including cultural practitioners, voyaging and racing canoe associations, canoe builders, forestry experts, and conservationists.

The cultural significance of traditional canoes for Haiwans

According to Hawaiian Historian and artistHerb Kawainui Kāne, “The Wa’a shaped the Hawaiian people physically, intellectually and spiritually as much as the Hawaiians shaped the logs that became their canoes”.

In ancient Hawaiian society, canoes held great significance. Not only were they vital for transportation, trade, fishing, and warfare, but they were also considered sacred vessels associated with gods and spirits.

Thousands of years ago, large, double-hulled voyaging outrigger canoes brought the first ancient Polynesians to the Hawaiian islands, and for years afterwards, smaller outriggers were used for fishing, communion, trading, and sailing between the islands.

An introduction to the storied Polynesian voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa and its significance from the Hawaiian Renaissance to today. Footage courtesy of @OiwiTV.

Yet, despite attempts by European settlers to suppress Haiwan connections with the canoes, Hawaiian connections with canoes have experienced a resurgence over the past century, as interest in Haiiwan cultures and traditions has grown over the generations.

“(Our ancestors) travelled the oceans on their big double-hull canoes. While they’re on their journey, the canoe is their island. So they learned to work with each other, look after each other, and take care of their duties,” according to Anela Gutierrez, vice president of the Maui-based Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society, who spoke to Seattle Times.

“They learned not to overstep … They learned sustainability. So, we try to take all those values to the island and make the island our canoe.”

Traditional Hawaiian Canoe Hull Design: In Detail.

The traditional Hawaiian canoe hull was crafted from a single piece of wood, usually a large koa log. It had a U-shaped cross-section, lacking a true keel. It was the widest, just behind the centre. The bow and stern were tapered, narrow, and rounded.

A bulge in the lower section of the hull gave it a distinctive calabash shape. This rounded hull design allowed the canoe to glide over rough seas and navigate breaking surf during launching and landing.

The Mua (bow) and Hope (stern) were covered with finely carved end pieces called Kupe. The Kupe prevented water from spilling into the hull while underway. The Kupe’s upturned end, the Manu, helped the canoe rise up and out of rough seas by breaking through incoming waves.


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


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