A Writer Writes

Crafting a Canoe
by Jeb Bridges (Republic of Kiribati 1997–99)

    IT WAS LATE JULY in the South Pacific when I asked Benuera again to help me get my own canoe. This time he did not resist.
         “You have done well,” he said, “and taken the time to learn many different forms of our fishing. It will serve you well in the rest of your time here.”
         “Thank you Benuera.” I was flattered.
         “But fishing in the canoe is very different. As I told you before it is very dangerous. It is the open ocean with strong wind and waves and current and your canoe will be very small. Each time you go out it is possible you will not return. I want you to know that right now.”
         It was a grave statement and one I did not take lightly.
         “I understand.”
         “Very well. My father, Mbwe (Mmm-bway), is perhaps the best canoe builder on the island. He lives in Manriki, and I have already spoken to him about you. He has agreed to take on the project. There are some things you need to understand before we begin.”
         “Go ahead.”
         “In Kiribati there are certain traditions about building a canoe. The man for whom the canoe is being built must agree to provide the food for lunch for all the men who come to help during the process. Every day. Besides that you must provide whatever building materials you can; the fishing line, chalk, glue, and paint. My father has a driftwood log that will provide us with the wood, but you must try and find a saw.”
         I slowly digested the terms. They sounded fair to me.
         “In return for my father building this canoe for you, it must be agreed that you will return it to him when you leave to go back to America, that is, if you do not take it with you.”
         “No problem, Benuera. I agree.”
         “Good then, it is settled. I will tell my father tomorrow and he can begin arranging things. There is much work to be done.”

    TWO DAYS LATER I biked with Benuera to the village of Manriki where Mbwe and his wife Karea lived together with his youngest son Beara and his family. They had a large area off the road with no house but two large buias and a thatched work shed situated under three very large breadfruit trees. The compound was enveloped in the shade no matter what time of day and would be a nice place to work.
         We parked our bikes out front by the first buia and walked towards the interior. Mbwe and Beara sat on mats on the ground under the work shed sipping tea. Mbwe was small and frail, with grey hair and dark brown eyes. He smiled as we approached, and called us over.
          With introductions and formalities completed, we sipped tea and talked of the heat and the impending work. With Benuera busy at school, there would be 6 of us working full time. Mbwe, Beara, me, Teinai, Keaki, and Kauone. The last three members of the group lived in the village and were recruited by Mbwe.
         Beara, a strong barrel-chested man, asked to see what I had brought with me. With Benuera’s guidance and assistance, I had acquired a small box of white chalk, seven 40-yard rolls of 30-pound test fishing line, 2 bottles of wood glue from the school, and a handsaw from Tieemea.
          “This is good stuff,” Beara said. “Do you have any paint?”
         “Not yet.”
         “Akea te kanganga,” he said. “No problem. We’ll need to get some later, but we are far from there. For now this will be good.”
          I nodded in understanding, thinking I could write to a friend of mine in Tarawa and get him to send me some paint.
          Mbwe spoke. “We have most of the wood but we need to make it ready. We don’t have an outrigger yet, but we have many weeks until we will need it as it goes on last. The best kind of tree for that doesn’t grow here. I know a man who lives on Tamana, the next island to the south. There are many of those trees there. I will send word to him. Maybe he can help us.”
         “What are we using for wood?” I asked.
         Mbwe very subtly raised his chin and pursed his lips towards a large log underneath his buia. It was the Kiribati way of pointing.
         “Where did you get it?”
         “On the beach,” Beara said. “It’s good wood; strong but not too heavy. We think it will work well.”
         I eyed the thickness of the log, and glanced over to the handsaw I had brought. “How will we cut it?”
         “We’ll need to cut it first with a chainsaw. Then we’ll use your handsaw. Your friend Buranke has a chainsaw. Maybe we can use that one.”

    WE STARTED WORK the next morning. Buranke had given me permission to borrow his chainsaw — the only one on the island. I was elected to run it, and, though I had used one before, I was certainly no expert. I cut the log in half lengthwise, and then cut those two pieces in half again lengthwise, so we ended up with four pieces, each being about 6 inches thick. It was a crucial project, and there were many onlookers giving advice.
         With the machine work behind us, Teinai and I got down to the business of cutting the thin planks of wood that would make up the hull of the canoe. An old 50-gallon oil drum was produced and the first quarter of the log was placed on top. Teinai motioned me to hop up and sit on the log, and he commenced sawing a 1/2 inch wide strip off the side with the handsaw. It was a brutally slow process, and we constantly flip-flopped the log back and forth on either side to ensure we were getting an even cut. To misjudge and saw too thin in an area would cause the piece to be too weak and would waste our precious wood; too thick and it would take forever to hand-plane it down to the correct thickness.
         At the same time Mbwe and the others went about setting the keel. He had a 16-foot, 2x2-inch length of hardwood that he had obtained from a cargo ship the year before. Using hand-planes, Mbwe and Beara shaved off one corner smoothly until the keel was triangular in shape. At the same time, Kauone and Keaki went into the bush and cut three stout pieces of uri wood. They sharpened one end of each piece, and notched the other with machetes. Using a manual hand drill, they drilled a single hole in each piece about 3 inches below the bottom of the notch.
         With the shaping completed, Mbwe carefully drilled a hole in the exact center of the keel and also at each end. The holes ran parallel to the flat side, not through it. He then measured and directed that the three stakes be driven into the ground in a straight line. The two end pieces were the same height and the middle was about 9 inches lower. The keel was placed in the notches flat side up, and lashed into place with monofilament fishing line threaded though the holes. It was a very sturdy arrangement, and the lower middle stake caused it to have a nice even bend. The others were ready to being shaping the side planks.
         “How’s it coming over there?” Beara called over to us, laughing.
         I was on the saw by this time. Beads of sweat poured off my face.
         “Teutana imwin teutana. Little by little,” Teinai responded. We were on our third plank. The first two had taken us over an hour a piece. It was hard work.
         “E a tao,” Mbwe called out. “That’s enough for now. You must pace yourself.”
         “But we have many planks to cut,” I answered, short of breath.
         “True. But the fish will still be there in a month,” he said, motioning towards the sea. “Sit and rest.”
         And so it went for the next two weeks. Teinai and I struggling on the saw, Beara and Keaki planing and smoothing each plank that we produced, and Mbwe and Kauone fine tuning each plank so that they would fit together. Nothing was actually placed on the canoe until all the pieces were cut, planed, and honed.
         Every day we ate lunch together on the ground beside the work area. Once a week I would go and buy five pounds of rice and sugar from the village store; and whenever I could, I would go out flyfishing on the east side and try and catch a few small trevallies as an addition. Teinai helped me out with this task, and on the mornings when I was busy with school or teaching in the villages, he would go out fishing himself.
         One morning I arrived to find everyone sitting around the keel, fiddling with the drill and unrolling the fishing line.
         “Today the building will begin,” Mbwe told me. “Sit down and help.”
         I was thrilled to be done with sawing.
         The first plank was placed up to the keel and held in place as small holes were drilled every six inches near the bottom of the plank and in matching increments in the top of the keel. Mbwe chalked the bottom of the plank well and as we held it in place he tightly rubbed it back and forth along the keel. We removed the plank and he examined the keel closely, making sure there were chalk marks along its entire upper edge, thereby ensuring a tight fit. He put a strip of glue on the bottom of the plank and we replaced it and held it tightly in place with makeshift clamps constructed from wooden pegs and kora. As the glue dried, Beara showed me how to run the fishing line through the holes in the bottom of the plank and the top of the keel several times in a certain way and cinch the knot down tight, securing the two pieces together every 6 inches. The next plank was fitted on top of the first in a similar manner, and we repeated the entire process; hole by hole, knot by knot, board by board. It was a slow, precise process, and the Kiribati men were very skillful. Two weeks later the hull was completed.
    The remainder of the canoe was finished quickly. Notches were cut in the top planks and stout cross beams were lashed into place with kora every two feet. Five-foot outrigger booms were lashed on in a similar manner. Mbwe’s friend on Tamana had come through with the outrigger log, and Mbwe and Beara formed it into the shape of a 5-foot long torpedo, which was lashed to the booms with both kora and fishing line. My friend on Tarawa had come through by sending me two quarts of white and blue paint on the plane — breaking all of the Air Kiribati security measures. It was worth it.

    SIX WEEKS AFTER we had begun, the canoe was finished. After adding the final coats of paint, Mbwe stated that the next day we would see how it floated. A paddle, made from a short length of one of the extra planks shaped smoothly into a teardrop shape and carefully lashed to a stout 3-foot length of uri, was obtained from under the buia.
         The next day we carried the canoe across the coral road and out to the beach. It was high tide and the ocean was extremely calm; only very small breakers were coming across the reef.
          “You sit like this,” Beara said. A notched board was put in place over the top planks and he agilely hopped on and tested it out. He sat on top of the board and put his feet on one of the cross beams.
          “Remember to never put direct weight inside the bottom of the canoe,” Mbwe reminded me. “It is designed to take weight from the top, not pushing from the inside. You can stand up on the seat, but don’t try and stand up anywhere else.”
          “I don’t think I’ll be standing up at all,” I said. While the canoe was about sixteen feet in length, the actual hull was extremely narrow, less than 18 inches from side to side. The outrigger extended out four feet to the left side.
          “Remember to always keep the outrigger on your left,” Mbwe said, “except when you’re sailing. Then it will be on your left or your right, depending on the wind.”
          I nodded.
          Beara paddled in the foam inside the reef for a few minutes to make sure everything was all right. He came back and hopped off at the edge of the beach.
          “It doesn’t leak a bit,” he said, “and it tracks straight. It’s a very good canoe.”
          We all stood and admired it for a moment. I couldn’t believe it was actually mine.
          “Well, what are you waiting for?” Mbwe asked. “You have been waiting for this long enough. Hop on, the ocean awaits.” He pursed his lips toward the reef.
          “What do you mean?”
          “Take your canoe to Rungata and come in the channel there. Beara’s father-in-law, Tieemi, lives one house to the north on the beach. He has agreed to keep it there for you. That way you can be near the channel and also not too far from your house.”
          “You want me to take it there now?”
          Mbwe almost imperceptibly raised his eyebrows, the classic Kiribati way of saying yes without actually saying it. His eyes were smiling.
          “The ocean is calm today,” he said. “It will be good for you to practice. Teinai will take your bicycle and will be waiting there for you with Tieemi.”
         I was overcome with emotion. Our hard work had finally come to an end, and I would miss spending my time with these kind men. I wanted to tell them how much I enjoyed helping them with the building process, how much I appreciated their time and patience with me, but I knew it was not the Kiribati way. These men had sacrificed six weeks of their life just so I could have a canoe, just for this exact moment.
         I carefully got on and put my feet where Beara’s had been, looked back one last time at my smiling friends, and turned and paddled for the reef.

    Jeb Bridges lived on a remote coral atoll in the South Pacific for two years in the Republic of Kiribati teaching health education and English and making community gardens. Following that he traveled for nine months by bus and bicycle from the southern tip of Argentina to Texas. For the past three years he has been a professional flyfishing guide in Montana, Chile, Argentina, and the Cayman Islands. Jeb has a degree in biology from the University of the South in Sewanee, TN and he is currently obtaining his Master’s in Anesthesiology from Emory University in Atlanta. This piece — part of his Peace Corps memoir — was written by Jeb for the on-line writing course offered by PeaceCorpsWriters.org.