The Making of a Tongan Popao

Vaka is the Tongan word for small boat, obviously very close to the Hawaiian word, wa'a. However, vaka is not used for an outrigger is call a popao. For the last 6 months I have been in a remote southern part of the already remote Ha'apai Group of islands in central Tonga. I am on Telekivava'u, 40 acres of pristine islolated beauty. I can see 8 or so islands, all but two unhinhabited. One of the two has a population of 50, and the other, Fonoi, has a population of 100, and is about 7 nm away. This is where Ma'ake is from.... he spends most of his time though, on this island, Telekivava'u, living rather traditionally in his coconut fale, fishing and makafeke, the catching of octopus, feke (he'e), using the traditional rat lure made of a cowrie shell.... all from his dug-out popao.

Click on a photo so see the entire album.Cut to length
Almost on the beach
Taking shape.

Ma'ake wanted to make a new popao (for Kendall from Kaua'i), so when Kendall
was here last January we all went to Telekitonga, two islands away to search
for the right tree, cut it, rough shape it, dig out a little, and get it
back to "our" island. Needless to say it was a long full day, and ended
with much laughing in our efforts to drag the extremely heavy log out of the
forest, onto the beach and into the water to be towed back to Telekivava'u.

Ma'ake and his son continued to shape and hollow it out over the next weeks,
first with a chain saw. This is a newer addition, and Ma'ake told me of all
the canoes he made without a chain saw. Lots of work followed with a
machete, or bush knife, and a adze like blade on a long pipe for the inside.
The tree we used is a pretty heavy hardwood, making for a more durable
popao, but making the work much slower. It was quite impressive after their
work, but he wanted it much thinner and lighter, and knowing my boatbuilding
background and having seen some of my work and tools, he asked for my help.
Of course I hesitated a little, being respectful of the more traditional
techniques, but at the same time knowing that it would be wonderful and
inspiring for all of us, if I show and teach them new efficient techniques
and tools. So, with the small quiet Honda generator, we began shaping and
taking off more material with my power planer and grinder. Big smiles as
Ma'ake and his son, Lupeni, watched how fast the material was removed, and
how fair the hull becomes. They picked up on using the tools in minutes and
continued shaping. We have not been able to work on it for several weeks,
but he still wants the hull thinner, so we need another day of power
planing. In the mean time Ma'ake found a tree branch for the hama (ama)
having gone into the bush here on Telekivava'u. He came back out with it
squared off, ready for shaping, and said he wanted me to shape it! It has
nice rocker and I could easily see a Waveblade like ama shape, although this
would definitely give the popao a bow and stern. The other popaos are
shaped to be paddled either way. We will see.... I have also ideas for the
fau (hau) 'iakos.... the hama is a softer, lighter wood, and will be easier
to work with.

What a wonderful experience exchanging and sharing ideas and knowledge with
Ma'ake. Enjoy the photos and I will submit Part 2 at a later date.

Aloha! Steve Gates

Posted by keizo on Fri, 04/30/2004 - 6:33pm



Steve, thank you for the wonderful report. What is the name of the tree/wood? The canoe looks like a surfer to me. Are you going with the traditional rebar/or Hawaiian style holes in the gunnel and lash down with cord.

Please give my best to Ma'ake, Sissy,Lola and Joe. Hope to someday find my way back to Telekivava'u. I think about Sissy everyday!

Aloha, Matt Muirhead

#1 Wed, 05/05/2004 - 5:13pm

Aloha Matt! Glad you enjoyed the article and photos. The tree is false kamani...not sure how to spell the Tongan name, will get it for part 2. Since Ma'ake asked me to shape the ama... I do have ideas for the iako attatchements, we will see.

I will pass your aloha to all when I get back to Nuku'alofa and the island....right now I am in Fiji for a week. Joe and I saw Sissy just a few days ago at a cafe she is working at. See you on the island someday!


#2 Wed, 05/05/2004 - 8:20pm

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