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The Zen of Proa

By John Dalziel

When you stop to think of it, sailing and sailboats are a rather peculiar passion, one which non-sailors rarely understand. We are often asked: why sails; why do we not simply use an outboard? We have, of course, quite a number of personal responses, which are essentially statements that we enjoy it. But beneath that lies another, broader truth: within many hobbies such as sailing lie important reservoirs of alternative knowledge our culture, usually for no expressed reason, feels necessary to keep at hand, even in the absence of obvious purpose.

For example, we know that the motorboat has replaced sail for all practical uses, and has done so world-wide. But concurrent with that has also arisen the pastime of sailing. In the embracement of the sailing hobby we can see expressed a certain discomfort with the motor, perhaps in reaction to its long, complex and costly umbilical cord of parts and fuel, or perhaps for deeper reasons; it is a tacit admission at a fundamental, even subconscious level, that our reliance on the motor is conditional. As we sail our "adult toys" for plain enjoyment, our culture conserves and even expands the potentially vital knowledge of the active practice of sailing.

At the same time, however, it always happens that a small minority of people is fascinated with the products of other cultures. This seems to stem from an unconscious acknowledgement that every society has blind spots; that the conceptual "map" of reality the culture uses may not be quite good enough to suffice in a dimly perceived potential future; that "new blood" must be brought in from time to time for the health of the community.

This conceptual "map" is based on certain assumptions about the nature of reality so basic that they mostly go unnoticed by people within the society. Unfortunately, this usually leads to dogmatic insistence that the map is identical to the reality, forgetting how much had to be left out to make the map readable. So there is usually a lot of resistance to what comes from the outside.

For something between 1500 and 5000 years, Pacific Islanders have sailed fast, seaworthy boats that we have called outrigger canoes or proas. By the time of the European conquest, these had become the dominant seafaring boats of the entire Pacific Ocean. Colonial governments found then extremely useful for military despatch (and presumably for spying and smuggling), but curiously little Western effort went into understanding or duplicating them. And even in modern times this trend has continued.

It isn’t difficult to describe the advantages of the proa: You have the least stress on the structure, and consequently the lightest possible structure, giving lower cost, smaller sails, lighter scantlings, lighter rigging, lower crew demands, least cost, etc. You get the longest waterline possible for a given weight, and you have that advantage always, beating, reaching or running. You have the boat hydrodynamically arranged for the least drag in nearly all conditions. The boat has a smooth motion with little pitching, and roll is dampened sharply by the weight of the mast and outriggers. Beam seas don’t rock the boat nearly as violently as they do a cat or tri, since the log can rise above the water and then back into and under it in a long, slow cycle. Under way the boat can be easily trimmed with the log just skimming the surface, allowing the sails to stay still and provide maximum power.

So why is it that we can enumerate these advantages, but cannot accept the proa, which provides them? It comes down to cultural blindness; the proa was "not invented here," it was invented by "primitives". Which meant that it was off the "map" which modern Westerners used to determine the value of things. So it has entirely escaped the attention of most investigators that these canoes are the primary artifact of Oceanic life (in fact it is only the canoe that allowed human life on many of these islands), and that they sprang from the efforts and inspirations of the best male geniuses of Oceania over a span of at least 50 generations. They are in no way primitive; they are in fact colossal masterpieces of engineering that deserve to be, and must be, studied seriously.

But exactly the opposite has occurred. Experimenter after experimenter has taken a look at the ancient proa, casually assumed it primitive, then applied the maps of "modern knowledge" and "science of naval architecture" to come up with a "modern proa." The end result has been a whole series of awful boats that quite frankly deserve to be ignored! The experimenters believed the map because they had never personally explored the territory; and having failed to do so, they never realized that the men who drew the maps had never been there either. So when reality deviated from the map, they insisted of course that it was reality that was in error.

Yet- is not the physics of sailing the same everywhere? Yes, of course, but the map of "modern sailboats" is not an accurate expression of the physics involved; rather it is only an accurate guide to the physics when certain details of design are taken for granted- details shared by all Western sailboats. But these details are not necessarily shared by the proa.

After a proa symposium in New Zealand in 1999, Dr. Hans-Dieter Bader wrote: “The common conclusion of the discussion was that the concept of the Pacific proa is a whole one, which is based on a fine trim of all elements, hull, outrigger and rig and by changing one element this trim is lost.” The concept is elegant, in mathematical or engineering terminology; no part plays only one role, no part is redundant, extraneous, or "hacked;" remove one element and the whole equation cannot be resolved. This is the major key to the difficulty people have in comprehending the proa.

Westerners are trained from birth to compartmentalize everything- it is a part of our map. With boats, each compartment contains certain parts of the craft. One box holds "the boards;" another the "lines;" another the "deck," another the "rig," etc. Boats are designed by joining together the boxes with a little conceptual duct tape. So even if the Westerner knows how all the individual elements of the traditional proa work, he is still uncomfortable; he can’t find the duct tape. He doesn’t realize it isn’t needed.

Conversely, a culture such as the Polynesian or Micronesian that has developed, and has developed around, a successful artifact- the Oceanic canoe- over a period of thousands of years does not need any sort of crude map to measure the correctness of a particular craft; that determination is already built into the culture as a whole.

Plainly, presenting the proa to someone who has never had the chance to personally experience the physical result is quite the challenge. And the Oceanic peoples cannot "explain" it in the standard Western fashion; they would have to explain an entire culture, and a rich one, to explain the traditional canoe. So: when all is said and done, if you really want to understand the proa, you have to set aside the theory for a while, and buckle down and build a real proa out of real materials. Then real people have to board it, raise a real sail, pick up a real steering oar, and move about the real water that covers 75% of this Earth.

When you do, you will find the most amazing part of the introduction to the proa lies in learning the sailing of it. Gary Dierking, builder and sailor of the 31’ Te Wa, said of the experience, "It’s been a fascinating process and is totally unlike any sailing I’ve done before. You just have to put in the hours and absorb the skills and new instincts."

What amazes one is just how the old reactions and old thinking patterns give way to the new; there is an almost physical sense of feeling the brain begin to process the new knowledge in a seamless, "natural" organization- the creation of a new, more inclusive map. Once the initial "how to do it" period is over, your whole sense of forwards, aft, bow, stern, and even direction changes. Your sense of your relationship to the wind changes most drastically. Where before you tend to look at the wind as an adversary to be mastered, now it is a magic steed that can be cleverly ridden. And your primary locus of perspective changes too, from the water to the air. Now it is the light moving air one identifies oneself as being "in," not the water.

This new attitude continues into the sailor’s relationship to the boat- you are now "part of the proa;" no longer are you simply "crew;" you are the vital organs; eyes, sinew, brain, and mass. This stems from the fine balance that Professor Bader spoke of, which aspect is usually overlooked in Western commentaries on proas: that balance both includes and anticipates the crew. The inanimate cooperates with the animate, and vice-versa.

This is a stark unmistakable departure from the pessimistic Western attitude where you "attack the water and fend off the wind" in order to get somewhere else and get off the boat. There is, after all, one bow and one stern; only one way forwards, on the boat as on the "map"- how could it be any different? The sense is of being locked into a headlong pursuit of arbitrary destinations which were determined long before one was capable of judging the value thereof.

The feeling on the proa is optimistic and opportunistic; you are here, now, with this boat, on this ocean, in this wind, and it is a good place to be. Certainly on the proa you are also headed somewhere, but there are now two bows- two "forwards" (in opposite directions no less), and this physical fact seems to grant a bedrock freedom to change course- to innovate, to explore, to enlarge the "map;" to take up the opportunities that our Western blinders forbid us; to decide on what we do.

This new relationship to your vessel brings with it a heightened awareness of the world you find yourself within- no longer are you simply a passenger vacationing in this world of wind and water, you are an active part of it- and rightfully so. And by no strange coincidence this watery world, and indeed the entire globe, becomes part and parcel with you. You are one with a boat, with sky and ocean, with the planet- and, since you have the ability to make choices, you can no longer pretend for a minute that your actions are immaterial to the Earth, any more than they can be immaterial to you. You realize that you may not destroy and pollute with impunity, for you destroy your own vital organs. And you realize that what you do in the span of your life really does matter- for you are an intelligent part of the world, and it is a part of you. The trees, the fish will not support you if you don’t support them.

Experiencing this whole process firsthand serves to introduce a promising line of thought: It would seem obvious that pessimistic, defensive cultures would have created art and tools and patterns of conduct that reflect that attitude, but now it is also brought home that if a pessimistic culture were to adopt tools from an optimistic culture, there would be a change in that pessimism as the optimistic attitudes necessary to skillfully use the new tools were learned. Or, in other words, that technology shapes cultural attitudes as clearly as cultural attitudes shape technology. So by introducing this optimistic technology from the midst of the Pacific, we are subtly changing our culture and improving our chances of survival. And as I sit here writing this, I am thinking to myself that perhaps our little toys- our Oceanic proas- are not so trivial after all…

A past moderator of the Proa File International mailing list, John Dalziel currently resides on ‘Zoella’ - a Phil Bolger designed sharpie on the US eastern seaboard.

Posted: 11/Jan/2005

1 Comments

Comments are closed for this entry.
Jose Garibaldi said:

John -quite a thoughtful and beautiful text. Have only discovered Proas recently, and am still ammazed by them. Your text reflects the same amazement, and the underlying wonder on the world that lies upon it. The zen of proas, indeed.

Posted: 14 Apr 2011 - 7:17