Once the pride of the islands in Lau, the major shipbuilding and sailing centre recognised across the Pacific for its fine craftsmanship, knowledge of the traditional drua culture is fragile with the descendants of the mataisau (traditional Fijian builders) and lemaki (Samoan specialist craftsmen brought to Lau in the late 1800s) in old age.
The threat of losing information held by the children and grandchildren of the mataisau and lemaki who built some of Fiji’s great drua fleets has spurred renewed interest in reviving Fiji’s sailing heritage.
The Fiji Islands Voyaging Society (FIVS), which was born in 2009 with the aim to revive and sustain traditional Fijian canoe building, sailing and navigational knowledge, skills and customs, started an extensive research in 2011 to collect, collate and archive existing knowledge of the drua with funding by the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific.
The research — titled The Drua Files: A report on the Collection and Recording of Cultural Knowledge of Drua and Associated Culture — was presented to the Ministry of iTaukei last Friday.
Compiled by New Zealand geographers Peter Nuttal and Alison Newell, traditional sailors Kaiafa Ledua and Peni Vunaki and FIVS president Colin Philp, the exercise resulted in the collection of raw data which is now held in trust by the ministry as custodian of Fiji’s unique and rich cultural heritage.
It is the first time such an exercise has been attempted since the work of acclaimed anthropologist Laura Thompson in 1940 and the report’s authors believe it’s also the first time such a data collection exercise has been undertaken by Lauans in their own dialect.
Mr Ledua, who hails from Nayau in Lau, said the drua was the most important treasure the people of Fiji had to restore.
“This is part of us and it is our duty to bring it back,” he said.
“From the ancient art of canoe building to traditional sailing, we have to regain all that knowledge for in it we have our future.
“The drua used to be the most treasured of i yau of our turaga. It’s a chiefly possession.
“In every village we went to during the research the elders said they had been waiting for one of their own to come and collect this knowledge and save it for our future.
“The whole vanua gave it their full support and gave us their blessing for the compilation of the research. And being part of it has been a real honour.”
Mr Ledua, a vice president of the FIVS, said each island in Lau had its own secrets in boat building and these may be lost forever if not revived.
“The design is unique to each island. The people kept them secret for their own competition but when it came to the chiefs after they summoned the people to build drua fleets, the islanders combined those secrets to make these magnificient vessels.”
According to the findings of the research, no great drua of the tabetebete design (multi-planked vessels sewn to a scarfed keel and of considerably greater size than the saucoko, drua and camakau built using a single large hollowed log as its base component) has been built in living memory.
“Traditional sailing vessels were a central feature of most aspects of practiced culture until little more than a century ago and only isolated pockets of sailing and canoe building remain,” it said.
“Yet sail-powered transport once connected Fiji to a complex social, political and trading network that covered a large portion of central Oceania.”
The team found that there was existing cultural memory of drua construction and sailing and this included knowledge of rig construction and sail making.
Sailing knowledge includes methods of sail reefing not previously recorded in the literature and held by a small group who are now at an advanced age.
“The distinction between saucoko and tabetebete drua is well known. No participant had ever built a tabetebete drua, although the Tui Vulaga recalled being instructed by his uncles in his early drua building career how to build a tabetebete drua. The Tui may be the only living person with this knowledge and he has offered to command his carpenters to construct a model tabetebete drua under his supervision. The Tui Vulaga said he had built 22 saucoko drua in his life,” the report said.
“The carpenters from the various islands all agreed that each island had its own style of drua and that drua could consequently be recognised as being from a particular island.
“… there are still women who have been taught by their elders to build the sails for drua. Their only literature available on this subject refers to matting sails. The descriptions of sails collected by the research team detail advanced technological designs and construction of great ingenuity and sophistication.
“There are memories of women camakau sailors and of women’s camakau races being held in Vulaga lagoon.”
The last drua built was a saucoko type built for an American in the late 1980s on the instruction of Ratu Kamisese Mara.
It was called Tabu Soro. Building of this started on Ogea and it was completed on Vulaga before being sailed to Suva. The drua was operated for a few years as a tourist venture in Suva, Pacific Harbour and Denarau.
The report said there was repeated reference to the tabetebete drua being used as crypts for chiefs and there was knowledge of the site of at least one of these.
“The knowledge of camakau building and sailing is still practised on Vulaga and Ogea although there were fewer craft than reported in 1993.
“It was reported that there is only one camakau still active on Moce. It is not known if others are still active in other parts of the Lau. The annual Camakau Race in Suva in 2011, organised by Pacific Blue Foundation, attracted eight entries and was the third year such an event had been held. Children were observed practicing bakanawa (racing model canoes) as an everyday activity on Vulaga.
“Building a drua took a community. While there was segregation of roles (eg men making the hulls and rigs, women making the sails), all the community — men, women, elders, and youths — came together to make the magimagi (the ropes and cord that bind the craft together and make it whole).”
The report said to preserve the knowledge, stakeholders must “revisit the Tui Vulaga, in particular, to discuss construction of a two-span tabetebete model, and for further in depth talanoa and recording of his knowledge”.
It also proposed the construction of a working model (up to 30-feet) of a saucoko drua, collaboration of Fiji experts on culture — masi, weaving, meke, carving etc — and workshops for practitioners in cultural practices associated with drua, eg sail weaving and magimagi production.
It also suggested that the elderly men and women of Lau with the knowledge of traditional drua building be officially recognised by the country as living human treasures.
Mr Philp said the research was the result of dedicated work led by Mr Nuttal and Ms Newell.
“Every journey begins with the first step,” said Mr Philp, who along with Mr Ledua and Mr Vunaki, from Solodamu in Kadavu, sailed on the Uto ni Yalo during its Pacific voyage.
The Uto ni Yalo — a modern fibreglass version of the vaka moana, a canoe from eastern Polynesia — is different from the drua.
The drua differ in conceptual design from other Pacific vessel designs in that they are “shunting” as opposed to “tacking” vessels.
The cama or outrigger hull is always kept to windward on all points of sail and the sail tack is carried from one end of the canoe to the other.
Manoa Rasigatale, one of Fiji’s advocates for the revival of traditional and cultural arts who named the Uto ni Yalo and sailed on her maiden voyage in 2010, said the drua was the icon of Fijian maritime.
“The drua is the most solidly built, the most durable that can last five to eight years whilst in use and the fastest in all.”
Visit Fiji Times Online to view this article.