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Building Vaka

The Atafu Tokelau Community Group is one of the few Tokelau organisations in New Zealand to have built our own vaka - the "Mulihelu" (pictured above). 

Canoes or Vaka are important not only for fishing, but also in preserving the knowledge and skills for canoe building. Although modern boats are available, the traditional canoe is still favoured choice of vessels for fishing, due to its flexibility and maneuvering when fishing. Another important aspect in people's preference for using the traditional canoe is because of its reliability and safety on the open ocean.


Atafu is the only island, that still builds traditional canoes, and one will discover it a common site to see many canoes on the island. Atafu has been blessed with the abundance of the Kanava tree (Cordia subcordata), the wood which is used for building the canoes, that is lacking on the other atolls. The Kanava tree is sufficiently thick, durable, water resistant and hard, and canoes built from the Kanava can last over a hundred years.

Because of the complexity in building a canoe, traditional rites in canoe building are still maintained, with the master carpenter or tohuga requested to perform the task in building the canoe. The tohuga is the master carpenter and the designer and overseer of the project.​

In this page you'll see the stories behind our Vaka-building journey and other material highlighting the importance of vaka to Tokelau.

Source:  Excerpts from Tokelau Government

Scenes of Vaka Building

Atafu Tokelau Community Group member Mose Viliamu captured some video of the process involved in building the vaka "Mulihelu" and footage of it sailing across the Porirua harbour.

Vaka Building (2012)

Tagata Pasifka came along to report on the progress of the vaka building effort in 2012.

Importance of Canoe to Tokelau

Excerpt from "Ethnology of Tokelau Islands," by Gordon MacGregor, 1937.  New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.

The canoe is the most important and valuable property of an atoll islander. It is a vital necessity in procuring his food supply from the sea and from his plantations across the lagoon. All contact with other islands is dependent on the canoe. The Tokelau men were skilled navigators, visiting Samoa, Uvea, and Fiji as well as the other Tokelau atolls.

Double canoes were used for long journeys but single-outrigger canoes were used in fishing excursions from Fakaofu to Atafu, and in war fleets, raiding among the islands of the group. The double canoe has been completely abandoned since the government prohibited its use for travel between the atolls. Many lives have been lost in canoes blown off their courses. All inter-island travel must now be made on the trading schooner from Samoa.

Three classes of canoes are recognized on the island today: the small outrigger canoe (paopao) with a single-piece hull, the single-outrigger fishing canoe (vaka) (pl. 3, B) made of segments of tree trunks, and the double canoe (lualua). Paopao, the Samoan name for the smallest dugout canoe, is said to be also a native Tokelau name. However, there is only one paopao in the group, and that was made for the use of the Samoan missionary on the lagoon at Atafu. This paopao is modeled after the vaka and has two outrigger booms and the Tokelau attachment to the float. The hull is made from a single tree trunk, but the sides are built up in one or two places where the sinuous growth of the tree left depressions. The small size and the name are probably Samoan features.

The fishing canoe is usually made of three sections of tree trunks. It has five outrigger booms indirectly attached to the float and carries five men. Each canoe is equipped with a support in the stern to carry a fishing pole for trolling for bonito. Some variation in the shape was observed between the canoes of Atafu and Nukunono. The Nukunono canoes have slightly rounded hulls in cross section and the upper part of the cutwater curves outward, whereas the Atafu hull has straight sides and the cutwater is straight, though sloped.

The double canoe is composed of two hulls lashed together by cross booms. These canoes were sailed with a mat lateen sail attached to the mast and were steered with an oar at each hull.

Source - Title: Ethnology of Tokelau Islands, Author: Gordon MacGregor, Publication details: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1937.   New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.

Significance of the Foe

Tokelau Hutt Valley community member Hohimo Āhili Manuele explains the significance of the foe (Tokelau paddle) and passing on knowledge to the younger generation. Video credit: Vaka Lemisio. Tāgafoe Paddle-making workshop thanks to ACE Aotearoa and Tokelau Hutt Valley.

Youth Learning Craft

Young tokelauans Kapi Mana News_edited.j

Published by Kapi-Mana News, 2012

Young Tokelauans will soon be making waves in more ways than one, as a community initiative to build a traditional vaka (canoe) nears completion.

A core group of 30 men and boys has been working eight hours a day, six days a week since November to carve a Tokelauan outrigger vaka from two huge totara logs.


The vaka is an attempt by Porirua's Tokelauan elders to interest young people in the culture and traditions of their homeland.

Once complete, the vaka will be launched and used to teach teenagers fishing and navigation skills, community member Moses Viliamu said.


"It's something to get the young people interested.


"They like things to be hands-on. We're going to use it to teach the culture to the next generation, about how to sail, how to read the stars, how to read the water and fishing techniques."

Vaka are hugely important to Tokelauans - without them there would be no food or communication on the three tiny atolls that make up the nation.

Hardly any plants grow on the coral atolls except coconut trees, so fishing provides a huge part of Tokelauans' diets, Mr Viliamu said.


"They say if we didn't have the vaka we wouldn't survive in Tokelau."

The vaka project only came about after Mr Viliamu, a painter and graphic artist, applied for Creative New Zealand funding and received $20,000. Mana Community Grants also chipped in $4500 for educational resources.


"We were over the moon when they said we won [the funding]," he said.


"The whole community was really happy."


Master carver Vase Reupena has passed his skills on to the community's amateur carvers, first teaching them how to make the carving tools themselves, then how to butterfly- join two hollowed logs together to form the seven-seater vaka.

The canoe will be seaworthy and the community is planning an ambitious journey from Porirua to Auckland in it, Mr Viliamu said.

Porirua is home to 6000 Tokelauans, the highest number in the world, including in Tokelau which has a population of 1500.

"We like to unofficially claim Porirua as the Tokelau capital of the world," Mr Viliamu said.

Most Tokelauans came to New Zealand in the 1960s to get factory jobs and escape overcrowding back home, Mr Viliamu said. Each atoll in Tokelau is about the size of four rugby fields and the three islands together have an area of just 10 square kilometres.

The vaka has been built at Matauala Hall in Cannons Creek, which was built in the 1970s as a gathering place for Porirua's Tokelauan community.

50 Days Lost at Sea


Three teenage boys from Atafu were found alive after being lost in their boat in the Pacific Ocean for 50 days in 2010

The boys, from the Tokelau Islands, a New Zealand-administered territory in the South Pacific, had been given up for dead after an unsuccessful search.


A tuna fishing boat picked them up near Fiji and is taking them to hospital for treatment for severe sunburn.

The boys survived on coconuts, water they trapped on a tarpaulin and a seabird they managed to catch.

The boys - Samu Perez and Filo Filo, both 15, and Edward Nasau, 14 - had gone missing from Atafu atoll in a small aluminium boat after an annual sporting event on 5 October.

They were presumed to have died after unsuccessful searches by the New Zealand air force.

The boys were then spotted north-east of Fiji on Wednesday afternoon by a member of the tuna boat's crew.

"We drew up next to them, and we asked if they needed any help and their reply was a very ecstatic 'yes'," the tuna vessel's first mate, Tai Fredricsen, told the BBC.

"We immediately deployed our rescue craft and got them straight on board and administered basic first aid."

Mr Fredricsen said the boys had a small supply of coconuts on their boat, but that it had run out after two days.

"They had a period when they were only drinking fresh water, which they were capturing during the night in a tarpaulin," he said.

"They also told me that two weeks prior to us rescuing them, they were able to catch a sea bird which was very lucky for them."

"They did mention that during the last two days they had started drinking salt water, which could have been disastrous for them," he added.

Mr Fredricsen said the boys were in surprisingly good shape considering their ordeal under the blazing tropical sun.

"They've got a lot of gusto, a lot of strong mental spirit," he said, adding that though they were physically in a bad way, they were "mentally [...] very strong".

Source: BBC, 25 November 2010

GQ Magazine on 9 May 2011 published a full account of the their harrowing ordeal.  As the writer says in the article: "There have been, over the centuries, several incredible stories of survival at sea. Most recently, in August of 2006, three Mexican fishermen were picked up in a fiberglass boat after an astounding 285-day drift across the Pacific—an all-time record, in terms of days, by quite a margin. I researched dozens of these survival tales. And the more I read, the more I realized that almost no one experienced a harder trip than the Tokelauans."

Photo courtesy of GQ Magazine.

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Families Celebrate Boys Found

The families of three teenage Atafu boys lost at sea for 50 days celebrating after the young men were rescued by a New Zealand fishing boat in 2010.  Courtesy of ABC News.

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