A four-man outrigger surfs in Galveston
Capt. James Cook, voyaging to the islands of the South Pacific in the 1770s, was amazed at the performance of the outrigger canoes he observed in the surf and the open ocean.
Paddled by Polynesian crews into the sea, these were the craft that sustained their ocean-based way of life in fishing, trading and warfare.
The outrigger, a shaped float carried on spars extending out from the side of the canoe’s hull, was an innovation unknown in Europe, but it had enabled the initial human settlement of these widely scattered islands.
More than three centuries after Cook first saw these boats, Ben Walcher, a modern seafarer trained at Texas A&M University at Galveston, was intrigued as well. Walcher, a longtime surfer, saw in them another way to interact with the ocean.
He decided to build an outrigger surf canoe of his own. He sent for plans from designer Gary Dierking in New Zealand.
It took Walcher and a group of his Galveston friends nearly three years to complete the boat in his island garage. But they were patient.
“You don’t build a boat because you want a boat,” Walcher said. “You build it because you enjoy the process.”
This process involved setting up a series of wooden molds 12 inches apart, each uniquely formed to the desired shape of the boat at that station. Then strips of 1/2-inch by ¾-inch western red cedar were bent, glued and stapled over them, and sanded smooth to form the shell.
Coats of clear West System epoxy completed the exterior, leaving the tones of the wood in evidence. And when that was fully cured, the boat was turned over, the molds removed, and more coats of epoxy were applied inboard, forming an impervious sandwich of materials.
Mahogany was then used for the gunwales trimming the gentle curve at the top edge of the boat, and for the thwarts, or seats where the paddlers sit. Watertight compartments at stem and stern were added for flotation.
Walcher and his crew then added the mahogany cross beams to which the projecting laminated spars are attached, holding the “ama,” the outrigger float that makes this kind of boat viable in a seaway.
In the Pacific, the construction and operation of an outrigger canoe was a community project. Islanders would fell a mature tree, a precious and limited resource on any island, and under the direction of a master craftsman many workers would shape it into a seaworthy hull. The process took time and social cohesion.
When finally launched, the vessel required a crew of strong and willing paddlers to operate it — usually the same men who had built it.
Today, Walcher’s canoe, gleaming in coated laminated wood, is driven by pickup truck to the beach near the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier and lifted onto the sand by members of his island community. Four of them in turn take her out to dance in the waves rushing onto the beach.
A traditional craft built with modern materials, on an island far from the one where it was conceived, the boat surfs the waves. The tradition it draws on is more than one of form and function, but of the kind of social collaboration needed to build her, and now propel her into the sea.