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Reliving memories of Mangaia’s boatmen shooting the reef

Friday 11 June 2021 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Features, Weekend

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Reliving memories of Mangaia’s boatmen shooting the reef
A poti papa or flat bottomed cargo boat, launches off the reef and into the surf, 1955 (photo; D.S.Marshall)/ 21061107

Taking cargo over the reef in the outer islands involved extraordinary seamanship. Boats and canoes crossed the edge of the reef on the crest of a chosen wave. But when the sea was rolling from the wrong direction, a crossing could be fraught with danger. By Rod Dixon on Mangaia.

Mangaia, the southernmost island of the Cook Islands, is surrounded by a narrow fringing reef. None of the natural channels allow ships to cross the reef while the deep ocean floor prevents anchorage. Ships therefore stand off and on, while cargo is ferried over the reef.

For over a century, Mangaians ferried cargo from shore to ship and back again, using large outrigger canoes with a shallow draft, enabling them to be hauled across the reef even at half-tide.

Each canoe could carry up to 20 cases of oranges plus a crew of six comprising a tu’oe or steersman at either end, two oarsmen and two young men to bail and ride the outrigger when heavy seas heeled the canoe dangerously.

A captain or tu’ava stood on the reef to signal the right moment for the vaka to enter the waves on its outward journey and return.  

Each village had its own complement of canoes, as well as kai-ngaru or men who “knew the waves”.

This knowledge had its own vocabulary – ngaru ‘eretue or ngaru turua gave name to a double wave or two small waves accumulating close to each other. These were waves very suitable for shooting the reef; ngaru rapa rapa was a thin type of wave unsuitable for shooting the reef, and often accompanied by a strong undertow. 

Ngaru o te pī‘aki describes an incoming wave that retains it’s size while crossing the lagoon to the moment where it crashes on the shore; ngaru o te roroka refers to an incoming wave which quickly loses size as it traverses the lagoon. Ngarutā is a wave receding, after washing upon the shore. Uitā or utā refers to the juncture smash of an incoming wave against an outgoing wave.

During the second World War, cargo-canoes gave way to the poti papa, a flat-bottomed cargo boat built to largely European design. The crew of the poti papa comprised six oarsmen together with a tu’oe at the back.

The poti papa, with its significantly larger capacity of around 100 cases, reduced the number of trips required to load and unload cargo and decreased the standing time offshore for inter-island and international shipping.

The large size of the poti papa, plus its maintenance and handling, required a support crew much larger than the immediate family who had previously managed the dug-out cargo canoes. Responsibility for the poti papa passed from the immediate family to the kopu tangata, the sub-village or the puna. Any puna member could buy shares in a boat kamupani for £1 each. All shareholders participated in the work on boat day and all received a share of the boat’s profits.

The canoes and the poti papa had names. The only ones still remembered are a canoe belonging to the puna Keia called ‘Pao-te-Moa’ (literally, ‘Chicken Pecker’), a poti papa belonging to puna Veitatei  called Te Au To’ora (‘The Whales’) and Vaevae Rani’s boat known as Tiopakete (or Joe’s Bucket – Rani’s Catholic name being Joseph).  A Keia boat was called after it’s ancient name “;Te a puna vai mataora” – “The four happy water-holes”.

When the new Avarua harbour was completed in the 1960s, the poti papa was itself replaced by motorised steel barges – initially operated by the puna Keia and Tava’enga and subsequently by the Island government.

With the introduction of enlarged harbours and motorised barges, an era of seamanship and much of the knowledge associated with it, passed into history.

It was said of Mangaian boatmen that they had a good idea of when to bring in a passenger dry and when it would be salutary to give them a thorough soaking.

An early New Zealand Minister of External Affairs, various land surveyors and numerous land court officials were among those conferred the salutary soaking.

The following stories and pictures relive memories of Mangaia’s boatmen shooting the reef and the thrilling rides they often gave their passengers.

“Hurdling in a canoe” (1935)

“A moderate swell was running and a breeze with it made things very lively in those sturdy little craft. The short trip from the ship to outside the reef was quite an experience, the canoe rolling and pitching, but under the control of its crew of four paddlers. It was low tide and the natives had to exercise great care in their choice of wave on which to “hurdle” the outer edge of the reef. Any miscalculation or slip on their part would lead to a capsize, a smashed canoe and even possibly serious injury to the occupants.

I guess four minutes elapsed before a shout from the helmsman indicated that a favourable swell was approaching, and at the same time four paddles churned up the water. In a fraction of a section, we were shooting towards the shore on top of a wave, at what seemed an amazing speed. Just as we crossed the reef’s edge the wave broke around us with a terrific crash, half filling the canoe and drenching me to the skin. The canoe got out of control, and acted like a crazy animal. One second it was broadside to the shore, next head on and then broadside again. We bumped badly on the coral, but were soon grasped and steadied by a dozen natives who were stationed in the shallow water for that purpose…

Returning to the ship held many thrills too. Our reef pilots guided us out to the edge of the coral reef, and held us there until a heavy backwash would assist in bearing the canoe over the ledge during the period between incoming waves.


1930 Mangaia - The dug-out outrigger canoe was the mainstay of cargo lighterage for a century until 1942. It typically carried a steersman at the front and back, two paddlers, and two young-men who bailed water and rode the outrigger in rough seas. 21061108

Besides having me as freight, there was a payload of 18 cases of oranges in the canoe so the crew had to exercise great care clearing the reef.

Without any warning our craft received a hefty push and we were shooting forward over the edge and into deep water. The sudden push caught me unawares and I found myself in the bottom of the canoe, much to the boys’ delight. Just outside the reef a “comber” caught us, the cases shifted, I shifted, and had it not been for the agility of one of the natives we all would have been swimming for life. He swiftly slipped out onto the outrigger, and his weight centred there, restoring stability until we re-stowed the freight. I wasn’t sorry to be back on the old ‘Haurakie’ although I would not have missed the experience for anything.”

  • By G. Morrison Blanch (Source; Grafton Daily Examiner, 15 July, 1935)

Over the top! – landing a Bedford truck on Mangaia (1940)

Mangaia has no harbour or anchorages. The outer edge of the reef falls away into deep water. Crossing the reef is at all times a tricky business, but in bad weather the Mangaians perform miracles of seamanship.

Their greatest feat is that of landing a modern motor truck. To date (1940), seven vehicles have been brought ashore without mishap.

Two canoes which are hollowed out from single tree-trunks, are lashed parallel, spaced with timbers, so that the wheels of the vehicle will settle snugly into the hulls, and taken out to the ship.

Now comes the nerve-racking business of lowering the truck into the canoes from the deck of a pitching and swaying schooner.

We hold our breath as it dangles precariously from the cargo hoist, swinging with the motion of the ship and rising and falling in alternative rushes. Time and again the hovering truck is almost settled into the canoes, but before it can be released it is jerked into the air, and the canoes go sheering off.


A truck comes over the reef atop two dug-out canoes lashed together with outriggers to port and starboard – (photo - Hugh Hickling, Pacific Islands Monthly, 14 December, 1940). 21061109

Eventually it is settled in the canoes and the tackle cleared. The strange and valuable cargo is now paddled over the ocean swells to the reef, where comes the difficult task of getting it “over the top.” The craft is halted just outside the breaking surf, one moment lifted level with the reef, the next sinking into the trough, with the jagged coral looming in a formidable barrier.

The art of landing on the reef is to choose the “right wave”, to lift the craft above the level of the coral and sweep it over into the quiet shallows inside, aided by the strenuous efforts of the paddlers and the skillful handling of the Rangatira at the steering oar.

A misjudgement would crash the canoes onto the sloping outer edge of the reef, at the mercy of the next curling sea.

  • (Source- Pacific Islands Monthly, 14 December, 1940)

Something had gone wrong ... (1953)

“Our small boat has completed loading and we are now seated atop a cargo of 24 cases of oranges for the New Zealand market.

The small frail craft slowly edges its way along the narrow channel towards the reef. About 25 yards from the line of angry breakers we wait, as the watchmen on the reef’s edge scan the sea, watching for the correct series of waves before giving us right of way.

For twenty minutes we wait, while a string of loaded boats take their place behind us. Our native captain and his crew are fully occupied in keeping the little craft’s head to the waves which sweep across the reef.

At last we are given the signal and our two rowers pull with might and main toward the foaming billows. Their captain literally yells his orders to them to put every ounce of strength into it, and they certainly do.

We are now approaching the edge of the submerged coral cliff where rollers mount higher and higher, and finally crash with ceaseless thunder against the jagged walls.

These great swells have come in unbroken freedom across countless leagues to the South Pacific from the Antarctic.

Unconsciously we tighten our grip on the orange case beneath us, and prepare for the crossing.

We are now on the edge and should soon be through. But something has gone wrong. There has been a split-second error in timing with the result that the waters have rushed back to the ocean, leaving our little craft poised perilously on the cliff’s edge, with its nose pointing sickeningly downwards toward the crushing sea.

Now a huge wall of water rises before us and curls green as it breaks our bows. Surely we must be engulfed. But the boat lifts as the water rises and we slip off the reef’s edge. Then our bows plunge into the boiling sea before us. But miraculously we are righted and are still afloat.


"The curling breaker picks us up and turns us broadside in. It seems that nothing can save us now”. (Photo; D. S. Marshall). 21061111

The captain shouts and strains on the steering oar; the muscles of the rowers stand out hard and tense as they pull to save our lives and cargo.

We are quickly drawn away from the reef by the foaming back surge as old briny withdraws his diabolical forces, to gather them for the next onslaught. We are in the midst of masses of foam and spume that come swirling out of the crashing water.

We brace ourselves as we see the second comber, like a huge battery, rise menancingly as though to pound us into the deep. The curling breaker picks us up and turns us broadside on.

It seems that nothing can save us now. Our boat is a cockleshell in a roaring chaos. We must be capsized now, and perhaps dashed without mercy on the reef we have just crossed.

Again we experience a miracle! The seething billows let us go, only a few feet from the coral wall, and our crew labours fiercely to turn the boat’s prow back to the open sea.

The third wave is not so large. It lifts us high on its crest; then we slide away down its back into the safety of the sea beyond. We are half full of water, but afloat.

As our heroic and skillful crew complete the arduous task of bailing, their exhausted captain orders them to rest a while before pulling over to the Maui Pomare. There he stands, steering oar in hand, his whole body trembling in reaction to the tenseness of the experience.”

  • (Source; J. E. Cormack, Pacific Islands Monthly, 1 April, 1953)