Waka sail

This drawing of the rā brings out the detail of the sail’s patterning, which is hard to distinguish in photographs.

Image credit: Drawing of the rā in the British Museum. Artist unknown. Ref: Plans-80-1215 Alexander Turnbull Library.

Pencil drawing on paper of a rā (waka sail) made of woven harakeke (flax) in 13 sections. It shows zigzag patterns throughout the sail. A scale is shown at the bottom.

This scale drawing is of a rare rā (sail) housed in the British Museum. The drawing shows an attempt to understand the unique construction and technology behind a customary Māori waka sail. Find out more by exploring our collections and curated resources.

Read a story about this waka sail and Pacific voyaging

This painstaking scale drawing of a rā in the British Museum records an unknown scholar’s attempt to understand exactly how a customary waka sail was constructed. The rā itself was likely acquired on one of the voyages of British explorer James Cook (1728–1779) to New Zealand in the late eighteenth century and is thought to be the only surviving material example of sail construction from te ao Māori at that time.

It is not certain who made this meticulously detailed drawing, or even how it came to be in the Turnbull Library collection. Various leading ethnologists with connections to Alexander Turnbull or the Turnbull Library (or both) — for example, Augustus Hamilton, Elsdon Best, Raymond Firth and Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck) — are known to have studied the sail in the British Museum. What is clear is that the diagram is an attempt to document it precisely and understand its unique construction, perhaps because the recorder believed it represented a vanishing or already vanished technology.

Today, however, with the revival of traditional Pacific Ocean voyaging, the rā represents a continuing link with the pre-European Māori world and the knowledge and skills that enabled the migration of Polynesian peoples to Aotearoa hundreds of years before European navigators could get here.

Polynesian sailing technology and navigational science are now recognised as among the most extraordinary achievements in human history. The stories of how Austronesian-speaking peoples spread themselves and their cultures across the vast expanses of the Pacific and Indian Oceans are receiving more attention than ever as today’s Pacific voyagers continue to revitalise and pass on ancient techniques of long-distance sailing and navigation.

Cook was astounded at the similarities between the Māori and Tahitian languages, considering how distant these islands were from each other. He was lucky to have the Raiatean tohunga Tupaia (1724?–1770) with him on his first visit to Aotearoa in 1769, and those initial conversations between Māori and Europeans were facilitated by Tupaia. But as indigenous Pacific scholars are now pointing out, the Pacific was a vast meeting place of peoples long before the arrival of Europeans, and navigators had the multilingual and cultural skills to conduct complex exchanges across widely separated cultures — all facilitated by highly evolved sailing technology and navigational lore.

The rā itself is approximately 4.3 metres high by 2.7 metres at its widest point, and is made of woven flax in 13 sections. Its zigzag bands of hexagonal openwork plaiting will have allowed the controlled passage of air through the sail, while flax-fibre loops on the vertical edges attached the sail to narrow, light masts. In 2019, three Te Tai Tokerau weavers visited the British Museum to study the sail and are now engaged in a project to re-create it.

Story written by: Oliver Stead

Copyright: Turnbull Endowment Trust

Find out more

Explore the Alexander Turnbull Library collections further: Waka sail.

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Te Marautanga o Aotearoa

Tikanga ā-iwi:

  • Te whakaritenga pāpori me te ahurea
  • Te ao hurihuri
  • Te wāhi me te taiao.

Te Takanga o Te Wā (ngā hītori o Aotearoa):

  • Whakapapa
  • Tūrangawaewae.

New Zealand Curriculum

Social sciences concepts:

  • Identity, culture, and organisation
  • Place and environment
  • Continuity and change.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories:

  • Māori history is continuous
  • Relationships and connections between people.