Na Waqa Drua: A Fijian project to link the past and the present

25 days ago

The computer generated model of the Na Waqa Drua. Photo: Na Waqa Drua

It is planned to become the largest double-hull canoe of its kind.

Fiji - Figure 1
Photo RNZ

The Na Waqa Drua is an exciting story that had been retold over the years, especially amongst our Pacific Islanders.

Stories of the voyaging across the seas on "giant canoes" led to movies and documentaries in the past.

All trying to prove or disapprove what the tales said.

But a Fiji based group have taken it upon themselves to test the stories and the theories by building a canoe and testing it themselves.

That's one side of the focus.

The other, and a critical part, is ensuring that keeping traditional canoe building skills and traditional navigation art for years to come.

Measuring over 100 feet in size, the canoe is expected to be ready for launching in November.

Na Waqa Drua representative Carson Young and traditional builder/navigator Kaiafa Ledua spoke to RNZ Pacific and said there's a lot of reasons why they are getting involved in the project.

Young, an artist and designer, has worked on the Drua design, incorporating what he and the team have learned from their research in the past four years.

He said keeping traditional canoe building and navigational skills alive were inspiration for the group members.

From left to right: Jope Ubitau, Steven Ledua and Biu Veigaravi stand before the build shed structure measuring 36 x 10 metres. Photo: Na Waqa Drua

"We started with the fact we were lamenting over covid that a lot of the skills that we've acquired over the years wasn't really put to use," he said.

"And a lot of what we know is slowly slipping into fables, only because the literature isn't conclusive as to the performance of Waqa Drua. Some say it could carry 300, some 100 or 200. It is something for us to recapture in terms of heritage knowledge embedded in these vessels.

"But it's also again, doing something for the country. Strangely enough, it feels there's nothing personal about it. It seems like a responsibility right from the word go."

Ledua said the opportunity to keep traditional wayfinding skills alive inspires him to be part of building "what no one has ever built or ever seen" in the last 180 years or so.

The Na Waqa Drua project team have a grant of FJ$420,000 given to them by the Pacific African Caribbean Pacific-European Union (ACP-EU) Cultural and Creative Industries grant scheme, which aims to support the national/regional development priorities in the areas of culture and creative industries.

They are working with the Pacific Community on the project, expected to be launched in six months time.

Here is the full interview:

RNZP: What is the idea behind building the 'Waqa Drua' and why?

CY: We started with the fact we were lamenting over COVID that a lot of the skills that we've acquired over the years wasn't really put to use. And when we look at the voyaging societies across the Pacific, we found that those that flourished were those that actually built canoes. The idea of building something for ourselves was born at that very moment.

And then after giving it some thought we came with different reasons why we should build. The reason we are building something over 100 feet is to put to the test the performance of these vessels. You can't really do it with a Camakau, which is really a canoe with an outrigger. So yeah, one of the Post-build activities is to run what they call an experimental archaeology.

A lot of what we know is slowly slipping into fables, only because the literature isn't conclusive as to the performance of Waqa Drua. Some say it could carry 300, some others say 100 or 200. And then the speed that it could achieve or its performance, in regards to the wind, how many points to the wind it could achieve. So, it is something for us to recapture in terms of heritage knowledge embedded in these vessels.

But it's also again, doing something for the country. Strangely enough, it feels there's nothing personal about it. It seems like a responsibility, right from the get go as to something that should have been done. We just so happen to find ourselves doing something that a lot of people have resonated with and a whole cross section of the community. In essence, we share the excitement, but it's not gonna be easy for us.

We're serious about a creating a Drua renaissance in Fiji. And so we see this being a huge part of it, gathering momentum amongst the traditional builders, sailors here in Fiji, those from Southern Lau, you know, Kabara, Fulaga, Ogea and those islands and then tracing back in time and starting with Nakauvadra and finding those that migrated and ended up in Rewa and Nukutubu.

Fiji - Figure 2
Photo RNZ

Also there is another community with strong traditional building tradition in Kadavu.

These are really exciting for us, but we find that it's important that we honour the legacy and history of these families, just to recognize the historic importance in this area.

RNZP: What backgrounds do you have as a group?

CY: a core group comes from those who started sailing on the Uto ni Yalo, which is a Tuamotu designed double hull canoe. And, you know, I haven't done the calculation, but according to the mate, they reckon that we've sailed around the globe at least two or three times.

It's the type of experience that we have. And then we have Kaiafa Ledua and Moala Tuataha, who built this vessel called Ai Volasiga Vou, which happens to be the exact replica of the Ratu Finau, which was completed in 1913 and is housed in the Fiji museum in Suva.

A university in New Zealand assisted in getting the lines off the Rt Finau and then the 'Ai Volasiga Vou' was built.

They were the only local builders associated with that build. We've been thinking about this for a while and we've had time to do research. We had a meeting with, particularly with the diaspora in Suva, particularly the Mataisau community.

Over the next few weeks, we're going to be hosting and inviting as much of the senior canoe builders and so that's going to be quite exciting for everyone.

We have two persons from the from the disability school, we have a female who's a fine artist and basically the crew that we have now are fit for purpose, meaning they are part of the crew because we find that their skills can be put to good use in terms of building the canoe house. We are also constructing a bure or fale for our various meetings and workshops.

RNZP: When do you expect it to be completed? Where are you sourcing the timber from? What is going to be used? Are you using local timber or are you sourcing that from somewhere else?

CY: This build has been funded by the APC-EU grant program for arts and culture and is managed by the Pacific community.

We are very grateful for their contributions and belief in the project. We have a definite timeline and the project concludes in November.

We are using a rapid build system to meet that deadline. We're finishing off with our Drua shed and the bure. Over the last few weeks, we have been looking at the numbers. Essentially no miller in Fiji is capable or willing to cut anything longer than eight meters.

This is one of the few challenges that we have. Like for the uli or steering oar, we've had to look everywhere, and we found the winning Kabara cricket team while they were here in Suva and we struck a deal that they would harvest vesi loa in Kabara and then rough cut these and will ship it over.

Fortunate enough, we've been speaking to other interested parties. And at this point, it seems that Pacific Energy will be providing 44 gallons of fuel for the chainsaws and probably will cut these logs on their pipes. We're very appreciative and thankful for that kind of partnership.

We found some piece in Fiji, which is great. All the timber that we require are natural timbers like damanu, vesi and obviously there's a crossover as you don't really have to stick with one. We're quite happy with that.

We've also been speaking with the Ministry of Forestry. For example, if you go to the hardware store, it is almost impossible to get the width of timber that we require for the hulls. We are using what they call strip planking to build a hull. And so basically, you cut wood into strips and then you crank them on to the hull.

Yes, we understand it's not your everyday traditional build but it's something that means that using this system that we adopted, we'd be able to keep the Drua longer in the water rather than being on land, undergoing longer time for maintenance and therefore costing more. We know building the canoe with a Toki or hand held axe has already been proven and established.

So, there's some level of adopting modern technology. For us it's about verifying the performance of the Waqa Drua. Just to put things into perspective, no living person has ever seen one or built one. A real size Tabetebete class Waqa Drua, not in the last 150, 180 years.

That meant that our research have involved looking at all the canoes that have been documented. And then looking for ratios, little bits and pieces, where we can then come up with the design. It's been a very interesting journey.

Fiji - Figure 3
Photo RNZ

We've decided that we would spend money doing a computer model of the canoe. And we find that very important, because not only are these ratios important, we wanted to know why they had those ratios. And so both the local science or the traditional science, and the contemporary science, both have a foundation of physics, meaning they both follow the laws of physics, hydro and aerodynamics.

Getting a computer model meant that we could simulate and find out, we could take out all the guesswork of what we were trying to produce. It's been very interesting. We wanted to go as far as building a tow tank and a wind tunnel.

We had actually started building a model but we didn't quite get to that because the project has to start.

In terms of materials, again this is the kind of project where there's been a lot of surprises. I had to look for a router bit and I couldn't find it in Fiji obviously, I couldn't find it in Australia but found it in New Zealand and interestingly it's made in Germany.

And they would be one of only a handful of countries that would make this sort of things for the type of product that we are embarking on or trying to build.

We are fortunate enough to know that there's a good supply of timber that we can use. We use primarily recycled timber for our for our canoe house, it's something that a way of saving money for us as well as you know trying to go in that the house will come down in seven months.

RNZP: Do you have a confirmed budget for the project? And once this is done what is the Waqa Drua going to be used for?

CY: We have a budget of $420,000 Fijian. It's something that we are very grateful for and will get us quite far. And that's why you've seen we've adopted the strategy of trying to save every penny.

Our primary post-build activity, mainly because of sustainability, is to operate in cultural tourism space. We see an opportunity to continue to educate, and to share the knowledge of this canoe, widely renowned as the most successful sailing and ocean vessel ever built.

And, you know, people in the 1600, 1700 and 1800s had glowing things to say about its performance. So yeah, we are keen to create this exciting new boutique market in the tourism space, offering, you know, unique experiences that is authentic and very closely related to tradition.

It's something that we believe a good number of people will have the passion for. And it's really basically getting a museum piece embedded into society, and actual interactive, interesting artifacts, arguably the most important artifact of any Pacific society.

In terms of training, we have opportunities for apprentices to do one, two or three months stints with us. We have adopted Ballentine Memorial School, they will be doing a school holiday program with us.

We know that the young people are our future and that is where we are looking towards, providing opportunities for them to learn to experience and get a feel of what we're doing. You know, there's a career path in this space for those that feel that it might be their calling.

And then, as I mentioned, Kaiafa Ledua is probably the most prominent traditional navigator around in Fiji. So, there's some room space for, you know, learning this ancient art, this ancient science.

The building component, we've solely invested in trying to unify and work with the living mataisau or boat builders. We have set aside a budget to invite and reach out to them, and particularly those that are 50, 60 and 70 years of age. Just bring them to our boat and get them to decide what they think of the project. You know, what the future holds for them and the sorts of things.

We think it's something that should be exciting for everyone. The premise of this belief is that our ancestors, the master builders, use the best technology that was available to them at the time. And if they were alive today, they would totally embrace what is available. So, we've gone over that hump in terms of drawing the line as to what is considered sacred, what is considered traditional and contemporary.

The teaching is ongoing, we would never claim to be to be the master builders, we're just trying to do something that we believe is the dream almost, if not all, the youth of the country. We've shared with a lot of people and a lot of people have said, you know, I've always dreamt of sailing one of these. So yeah, it's so there's no surprise they were what we how why we find ourselves doing this and how positive the responses have been from the community.

From left to right: Jope Ubitau, Steven Ledua and Biu Veigaravi stand before the build shed structure measuring 36 x 10 metres. Photo: Na Waqa Drua

RNZP: Kaifa Ledua, what skills do you have and what is your focus on the project?

KL: I was born into a building family but not so much on navigation. I was taught the basics of piloting, that means inter island travelling where our target islands are always visible to us.

For the art of Wayfinding, or traditional navigation, as we call it today, if it was not for the revival done on the Uto ni Yalo, sadly we could have lost the art of wayfinding for good or forever.

There were and still remnants of traditional canoe building all around Fiji, even though there's hardly any canoes around the on the islands. The art of canoe building is very much alive. People have been building different sizes of canoe, even though no one has ever tempted or seen the scale of the canoe we are going to build.

But for navigation on the Drua it's going to be a totally different level for me. It's going to be totally different. I have navigated on the Uto ni Yalo on her expeditions around the Pacific, right up to the US. But it's nothing compared to our Drua.

The way that these vessels are sailed, the way that being handled up in the ocean totally different.

RNZP: How do you see the Waqa Drua and the project playing a part in promoting and continuing the interest in sailing and building traditional canoes?

KL: Our students now our younger generation are starting to ask questions, because the hype around our Drua team has created a lot of conversations on the islands and our younger generations are starting to ask what exactly that rugby team is named after?

For me, coming from a canoe building family, I understand the importance of maintaining the legacy and history of the Drua.

The Uto ni Yalo has completed its voyages about five years ago. We are not sure when the next one will be and for navigation there is no substitute for ocean.

There is no such thing as book navigation, you have to go out there to the open ocean and practise the art of wayfinding.

So, for the Drua to be out on the water we will create our own voyages. We will be using the Drua as a floating classroom for navigation and we will also try and revive the art of canoe building.

We have a big responsibility that you understand and we know that it rests on us. The gospel of sailing, not only sailing, but starting from building our own canoes and sailing them around the island again rests on us.

It is very important. We know the importance of the projects that we are involved with.

The Na Waqa Drua is recipient of a grant award under the Pacific African Caribbean Pacific-European Union (ACP-EU) Cultural and Creative Industries grant scheme which aims to support the national/regional development priorities in the areas of culture and creative industries.

Pacific Community (SPC) Human Rights and Social Development (HRSD) director Miles Young said 12 new projects were awarded in round three of the ACP EU grants, bringing the total number of grants to 20.

In total, five large grants have been awarded along with ten medium grants and five small grants dispersed to grantees from Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Solomon Islands. European Union (EU) delegate Pedro Velazquez said the EU was committed to supporting and promoting culture in the Pacific.

I believe it's important, cultural heritage is a common good, that cannot be replaced or renewed so once we lose cultural heritage is lost forever," Mr Velazquez said.

There's no way it will come back this way we need to take care of it. We (EU) feel that it's also our responsibility to help to safeguard cultural heritage.

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