Peace Corps Writers
Crafting a Canoe (page 2)
Crafting a Canoe
page 1
page 2
page 3

     “What are we using for wood?” I asked.
     Mbwe very subtly raised his chin and pursed his lips towards a large log underneath his buia. It was the Kiribati way of pointing.
     “Where did you get it?”
     “On the beach,” Beara said. “It’s good wood; strong but not too heavy. We think it will work well.”
     I eyed the thickness of the log, and glanced over to the handsaw I had brought. “How will we cut it?”
     “We’ll need to cut it first with a chainsaw. Then we’ll use your handsaw. Your friend Buranke has a chainsaw. Maybe we can use that one.”

WE STARTED WORK the next morning. Buranke had given me permission to borrow his chainsaw — the only one on the island. I was elected to run it, and, though I had used one before, I was certainly no expert. I cut the log in half lengthwise, and then cut those two pieces in half again lengthwise, so we ended up with four pieces, each being about 6 inches thick. It was a crucial project, and there were many onlookers giving advice.
     With the machine work behind us, Teinai and I got down to the business of cutting the thin planks of wood that would make up the hull of the canoe. An old 50-gallon oil drum was produced and the first quarter of the log was placed on top. Teinai motioned me to hop up and sit on the log, and he commenced sawing a 1/2 inch wide strip off the side with the handsaw. It was a brutally slow process, and we constantly flip-flopped the log back and forth on either side to ensure we were getting an even cut. To misjudge and saw too thin in an area would cause the piece to be too weak and would waste our precious wood; too thick and it would take forever to hand-plane it down to the correct thickness.
     At the same time Mbwe and the others went about setting the keel. He had a 16-foot, 2x2-inch length of hardwood that he had obtained from a cargo ship the year before. Using hand-planes, Mbwe and Beara shaved off one corner smoothly until the keel was triangular in shape. At the same time, Kauone and Keaki went into the bush and cut three stout pieces of uri wood. They sharpened one end of each piece, and notched the other with machetes. Using a manual hand drill, they drilled a single hole in each piece about 3 inches below the bottom of the notch.
     With the shaping completed, Mbwe carefully drilled a hole in the exact center of the keel and also at each end. The holes ran parallel to the flat side, not through it. He then measured and directed that the three stakes be driven into the ground in a straight line. The two end pieces were the same height and the middle was about 9 inches lower. The keel was placed in the notches flat side up, and lashed into place with monofilament fishing line threaded though the holes. It was a very sturdy arrangement, and the lower middle stake caused it to have a nice even bend. The others were ready to being shaping the side planks.
     
“How’s it coming over there?” Beara called over to us, laughing.
     I was on the saw by this time. Beads of sweat poured off my face.
     “Teutana imwin teutana. Little by little,” Teinai responded. We were on our third plank. The first two had taken us over an hour a piece. It was hard work.
     “E a tao,” Mbwe called out. “That’s enough for now. You must pace yourself.”
     “But we have many planks to cut,” I answered, short of breath.
     “True. But the fish will still be there in a month,” he said, motioning towards the sea. “Sit and rest.”
     And so it went for the next two weeks. Teinai and I struggling on the saw, Beara and Keaki planing and smoothing each plank that we produced, and Mbwe and Kauone fine tuning each plank so that they would fit together. Nothing was actually placed on the canoe until all the pieces were cut, planed, and honed.
     Every day we ate lunch together on the ground beside the work area. Once a week I would go and buy five pounds of rice and sugar from the village store; and whenever I could, I would go out flyfishing on the east side and try and catch a few small trevallies as an addition. Teinai helped me out with this task, and on the mornings when I was busy with school or teaching in the villages, he would go out fishing himself.
     One morning I arrived to find everyone sitting around the keel, fiddling with the drill and unrolling the fishing line.
     “Today the building will begin,” Mbwe told me. “Sit down and help.”
     I was thrilled to be done with sawing.

kora = string made of coconut husk fiber

     The first plank was placed up to the keel and held in place as small holes were drilled every six inches near the bottom of the plank and in matching increments in the top of the keel. Mbwe chalked the bottom of the plank well and as we held it in place he tightly rubbed it back and forth along the keel. We removed the plank and he examined the keel closely, making sure there were chalk marks along its entire upper edge, thereby ensuring a tight fit. He put a strip of glue on the bottom of the plank and we replaced it and held it tightly in place with makeshift clamps constructed from wooden pegs and kora. As the glue dried, Beara showed me how to run the fishing line through the holes in the bottom of the plank and the top of the keel several times in a certain way and cinch the knot down tight, securing the two pieces together every 6 inches. The next plank was fitted on top of the first in a similar manner, and we repeated the entire process; hole by hole, knot by knot, board by board. It was a slow, precise process, and the Kiribati men were very skillful. Two weeks later the hull was completed.
  

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