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Ahead of its time

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

IT took up to 10 years to build the large iconic drua that disappeared over Fiji's horizon in the last 100-plus years.

The tabetebete, the largest design of the drua, cost lives and sometimes took the effort of all the community and two generations to put together, according to the only person alive who has the knowledge to build such a craft.

Tui Vulaga Ratu Taniela Bese, 85, recalls being instructed by his uncles in his early drua-building career how to build a tabetebete, a Fijian warship that was capable of carrying between 200 to 400 people.

This craft, recorded by European sailors who encountered them in the 18th century as the finest blue-water ships built in all Oceania, was "capable of sailing nearer the wind than any European vessel" and "justly celebrated as the most remarkable voyaging canoe ever to ply the Pacific".

The tabetebete — 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 — were the flagships of chiefs in ancient times.

Ratu Taniela has built 22 saucoko and countless camakau and hopes to see Fiji build a tebetebete while he is still alive.

Speaking to this newspaper in Fijian, he recalled his grandfather telling them of a drua, Rusivanua, that took more than 10 years to build.

By the time the builders reached the stern, the bow had started to rot. They ended up building a smaller one.

He said building the drua took considerable effort to ensure it could sail in either direction at the same speed.

Ta ki mua is a term the mataisau, builders with hereditary and traditional carpentry skills, use when shaping the drua.

It means the builder stands in the middle of the drua while building it and looks to the bow and to the stern to ensure he shapes the log evenly.

Using a matau vatu, stone axe which eventually became a steel axe, although still called a matau vatu up until today, he would chip away until he got the required shape.

Each hull is shaped differently from the other to give the vessel the capability to sail windward or leeward.

The drua differ in conceptual design from other Pacific vessel designs in that they can shunt, to be able to turn off to one side, as opposed to tacking, aligning a sailing vessel with respect to the wind when moving upwind like that which the Uto ni Yalo does.

For the tabetebete, Ratu Taniela said construction would need more detail. Each plank would have to reach both ends, he said, and the shape would almost be similar to the saucoko, only this would be bigger.

While there was segregation of roles — men making the hulls and rigs and women making the sails — the whole community came together to make the magimagi, ropes and cord made from coconut fibre that bind the craft together.

Once the hulls and rigs were completed, they would fine-tune its shape that gave it speed in the water.

Using shark skin wrapped around a bow, usually made from mangrove shoots that bend easily, they would sandpaper the hulls until they were smooth.

Ratu Taniela said it was painstaking work but one they were passionate and proud about.

The steering oar on the saucoko pale in comparison to accounts of that on the tabetebete.

Historians document that some drua were 36m to 42m in length, and had room for supplies and livestock apart from the passengers they carried. One documented a steering paddle at more than 10m long, its blade four metres-plus and around half a metre wide.

In some of the larger drua, a person could easily stand in the hold without their head touching the ceiling. In those early days, when our ancestors were naturally larger humans than what we are today, that was a feat. On the deck a thatched house was built for shelter for the higher ranked.

Ratu Taniela said weaving the sail was an art in those days and this had a big part in the speed of the drua.

Huge triangular sails made from voivoi (pandanus) powered the drua. Either end could be the bow, so to change direction, the entire rig was shifted to the opposite end of the boat.

In a research by the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society — titled The Drua Files: a report on the Collection and Recording of Cultural Knowledge of Drua and Associated Culture — prepared for the University of the South Pacific's Oceanic Centre of Art, Culture and Pacific Studies, it was found there was only one woman left in Lau who could still weave voivoi laca (sail).

Losana Vusoniua, from Naividamu in Fulaga, is named in a list of elders from Lau who FIVS has recommended to the Ministry of iTaukei to recognise as Fiji's living treasures.

FIVS president and sail-maker Colin Philp said the drua hulls and rig were unique and that gave them an edge.

"The drua is really ahead of its time. Aerodynamic engineers who have studied it have said it is the work of genius," he said.

"Because of the drua's shunting ability and her rig, it is a vessel that is finer in the entry and is much sharper.

"The hulls don't have to be symmetrical. One is to sail windward and one to sail leeward. They are uniquely shaped."

Ratu Taniela said the design passed on from our forefathers should be harnessed and improved with technology.

Instead of mats, which weigh down the drua when it rains, we could use canvas or tarpaulin because they were lighter.

His dream of building the great drua is one he wants to share with Fiji's younger generation.

While it would be a mammoth task, with the use of modern tools and materials, the tabetebete can come alive and Fiji can once again see its futuristic craft from the past.

TOMORROW: Sailing into the future

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