Most small canoes are wooden, single hulled supported by an outrigger. The canoe is pushed forward or backward with single blade paddles, by a person sitting or kneeling in the canoes hull. Over long distances, a person can paddle on each side of the hull alternatively to maintain stability, direction and stamina. In some cases, the canoe can have a mast and a sail and is propelled forward by wind and directed by a person, who holds a single blade paddle, as a rudder .
In many coastal areas of PNG, where places and people are separated by the seas and rivers, the canoe has always been the most popular mode of travel on water. In Manus province, my island province of PNG, the canoe is used for travel extensively -to bring garden produce to the markets, moving household stuff, fishing expeditions, going to school, trading...making it an essential part of Manus society. When the canoe gets old and a bit fragile, the outrigger is disassembled and hull is used as single canoes, similar to a kayak or used a decanter in the sago making process.
Steffen Dalsgaard (2009) described the skill of canoe bulding in Manus as more than just having the knowledge, especially when it came to the building and craftsmanship of large sailing canoes. The skill was an attribute of both genealogical relationships and ethnic belonging.
This, he explained, was that the transmission of knowledge was important when arguing that one knew who to buiild a canoe. For example, in many parts of Manus where the building of large sailing canoes that where once used for trade and warfare, are now a dying art among the young. One could claim knowledge of such canoe building when they watched their father work or through relationships and converations with elders who knew how.
Dalsgaard also commented that one could claim knowledge of canoe building becasue of his ethnicity. For example, those in the outer islands of Manus claim superior knowledge of canoe building skills and art, than those who live along the coastlines of Manus. However, as seen today, ethnicity alone cannot gurantee skills of canoe building as old men and women die without pasing this knowledge on.
In Manus society, canoes also play a part in wealth distribution. For example, Carrier and Carrier (1982) who studied Ponam islanders on the north coast of Manus, explained that when groups of people go for a fishing expedition and come back, the fish (wealth) caught is distributed equally to all those who have taken part in the expedition. They said that unlike the Western system of wealth distribution where wealth is distributed according to labour achieved, wealth is distributed to capitals (such as canoes, net rights,) rather than to labour. This is like saying that everyone who goes on a fishing trip gets an equal share even though they have worked or not.
Carrier and Carrier also found that a canoe could be built by anyone and given to anyone the maker chooses unlike other things such as net or reef rights. The researchers found that unlike canoes, net rights are always owned by patrilineal groups and not everybody on the island.
Alas, today these cultures, skills, craftmanships, inticate knowlege and tools of large sailing canoe building are definately fading more and more into oblivion as Papua New Guineas embrace modern methods of seawater transport and modern fishing methods.
Steffen Dalsgaard (2009) Claiming Culture: New Definitions and Ownership of Cultural Practices in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea. Published in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2009, pp. 20 32
James G. Carrier and Achsah. H. Carrier (1983) Profitless Property: Marine Ownership and access to wealth on Ponam Island, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, Published Joural of Ethnology Vol 22, No.2April 1983, pp 133-151