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Fast-sailing cargo ships of Melanesia

Monday 4 April 2016 | Published in Regional

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The Fijian drua were large and fast – reaching speeds of up to fifteen knots in a good wind. They were among the most finely crafted vessels in Fiji, similar in design to the Samoan ‘alia and the Tongan kalia.

Drua were built from hand-hewn planks and powered by huge triangular sails of pandanus matting. Either end could be the bow, so to change direction, the entire rig was shifted to the opposite end of the boat.

Fijian drua could reach 36 metres in length, and had room for many passengers, as well as supplies and livestock. In some of the larger drua, a person could easily stand in the hold without their head touching the ceiling.

In 1847 one such vessel was observed to be carrying 100 warriors.

A European visitor to Fiji wrote of one drua : “A pig could be roasted whole in the open cooking place, and the food and water were easily stowed away for long voyages. On one occasion a canoe carried 12 head of cattle in her holds, and another carried on deck from Tailevu to Suva a cargo of bagged maize sufficient to load the Alarm ketch of 30 tons, and the Xerifa of 20 tons burden.”

The steering paddles on a drua were enormous. Over ten metres long the blades were over four metres in length and around half a metre wide. In a strong wind, several people would operate one of these paddles. - TE PAPA