Working Watercraft of Madagascar

How traditional boats sustain a society

Text and photographs by Tom Polacheck

Typical beach scene in Madagascar.


This is a typical beach scene in Madagascar, with a pair of brightly painted outrigger sailing canoes pulled up on the beach and a Breton-style gaff-rigged schooner careened in the background. Madagascar is a melting pot of traditional wooden working craft that still have an essential role in everyday life.

The island of Madagascar, the fourth-largest in the world, is renowned for its wildlife, minerals, and exotic plants. Lesser known, however, is the fact that Madagascar also still has a rare and extensive fleet of traditional working sailing craft (see WB No. 228). The sight of a forest of wooden masts dominating the shoreline is an unexpected delight when arriving in almost any village, town, or port along the island’s west coast.

The origins of these boats are astonishingly diverse. Madagascar’s first settlers were not from nearby Africa but, rather, from the far-off Malaysia-Borneo archipelago, some 4,000 miles away. Anthropologists believe they arrived by sea around 600 A.D., bringing with them the Austro-Asian outrigger sailing canoe—a type that still flourishes in Madagascar. While it is generally assumed that the early settlers arrived by outrigger canoe, simply because of the large number of these craft now in Madagascar, there is little information about the boats of Madagascar in early colonial or precolonial times. It is, therefore, also possible that the first settlers voyaged in the large sailing vessels—jongs—in use in southeast Asia at the time. No matter how the early settlers arrived, it is clear that these sailor-pioneers brought with them the knowledge of how to build and sail outrigger canoes.

Cargo-carrying outrigger sailing canoe.


A large cargo-carrying outrigger sailing canoe heads toward shore. The canoe is taking advantage of the predictable afternoon sea breeze to provide a leisurely downwind sail.

At the same time Madagascar was being settled, the Maritime Silk Road, a trade route spanning the entire Indian Ocean and beyond, was developing and expanding. By the 10th century, Arab sailors were trading along the entire eastern African coast. Madagascar became part of this extensive trade network, and Arab traders left their influence. Madagascar’s “dhows,” if not direct descendants of those from the Arabian peninsula, show clear evidence of Arabian influence, particularly in their lateen rigs.

Finally, starting with Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in 1497, Madagascar became a crossroads in the Atlantic Ocean–Indian Ocean trade routes. Beginning in the 19th century, it developed, and continues building to this day, its own fleet of western-style, fore-and-aft-rigged gaff schooners.

The bow of the outrigger canoe.


The bow of this outrigger canoe illustrates a construction technique common in Madagascar, in which V-shaped cross sections are stacked to form the bow and stern. This is one feature that anthropologists have used to confirm the original settlement and historic link between Madagascar and Southeast Asia, where this technique originated.

Thus, four major historical maritime traditions meet in Madagascar: (1) the Southeast Asian–Polynesian outrigger canoe, (2) the ancient Southeast Asian jong and related vessels, (3) the Arab dhow, and (4) the western-style carvel-planked schooner. While wooden vessels from these various traditions have largely disappeared from their original places of origin, their descendants remain prolific in Madagascar, where they are still built and sailed along the western coast.

These sailing craft are fundamental to daily life in the communities along the 1,000-mile-long coast of Madagascar. The island has a large population—about 27 million—and abundant natural resources, but it is very cash-poor. Large numbers of people are concentrated in numerous coastal rural communities and offshore islands. Much of the adjoining land is of poor quality for agriculture or does not belong to these communities. There is limited land transportation; roads, if they do exist, are suitable only for 4×4 vehicles, and they become impassable during the rainy season. Therefore, these communities tend to be isolated and are dependent upon boats for food (from fishing), for local travel (to tend fields, gather wood, and attend school), and for access to the outside world.

Madagascar’s coastal communities have a vibrant culture. A large part of this can be attributed to the ability of its communities to move upon the sea in traditional wooden boats.


A sailing canoe.


A sailing canoe laden with fresh produce makes its way to windward as it heads to the market in Hellville, Nosy Be, one of the large urban centers on the west coast of Madagascar.

Sailing canoes are more abundant than any other sailing craft in Madagascar today. They come in a wide variety of sizes and styles and are used for fishing, food gathering, cargo transport, and general travel including transport to school. They are an integral part of daily life, like automobiles in other parts of the world. While wind is their main source of propulsion, paddles provide auxiliary power when it’s needed. Canoes often voyage more than 50 miles, and they fish well beyond the sight of land. There is great variation in their hull shapes, from sleek and narrow to broad and burdensome.

Canoes are built in almost every village in Madagascar. While construction methods vary, a common one reflects their southeast Asian origin: flush-planked hulls with each plank fastened vertically to the plank beneath it. To do this, the builder makes a row of small notches on the inner face of the upper plank near the plank seam. Holes are then drilled down vertically through the notches, and screws or nails fasten the two planks together. The technique is similar to that used in traditional canoe building in Southeast Asia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, except that in those places the planks were, and in some places still are, sewn together.

Fishermen launching their canoe.


Fishermen launch their canoe in a small village on the west coast.

The sewing of planks was also used in the traditional construction of Arab dhows, so it is therefore not clear whether there is some Arab influence on the current construction techniques in Madagascar. The screw fastenings might also be an evolution of the southeast Asian method of pinning plank edges together with dowels.

Instead of using the usual straight-sided stems and sternposts, many of the canoes have bow and stern pieces made from several stacked V-shaped cross sections, to which the hull planks attach on each side. They also have log keels, which are usually dug out. This method of construction, common to Southeast Asia and Oceania, further confirms the original Australasian origin of the Madagascar canoes. However, canoes in Madagascar today are also built plank-on-frame, which is a relatively modern adaptation with no antecedent in either the Indian Ocean or the Pacific Ocean before European contact. Small dugout canoes used mainly on rivers are simply hollowed out from single logs.

The bow of the outrigger canoe.


A small fishing canoe ghosts home on the last of the sea breeze after a day of fishing. The canoe carries a form of square sail set on two masts forming a V. This rig is rarely seen outside of Madagascar, the only other reports of its use being in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Most of the large canoes have stern-mounted rudders—apparently another recent development, because early-20th-century descriptions state that all canoes in Madagascar used paddles for steering. Currently, small sailing canoes are steered by paddles and are symmetrical fore and aft. Some of these are “shunted” to change tacks—that is, the mast position is moved from one end of the hull to the other, and the same side of the hull is always presented to windward in a manner similar to that practiced by some South Pacific islanders.

Outrigger canoes in Madagascar are mostly lateen-rigged, which is typical of the western Indian Ocean, and particularly of Arab dhows. However, the sail’s shape, and how it’s used when the wind is forward of the beam, suggests a Southeast Asian origin. The sail is triangular, not trapezoidal as found in the typical Arab dhows, and the tack is often secured to the bow of the canoe and sailed more like a loose-footed sprit sail than a typical lateen one in which the tack is carried by the spars. The masts are often raked steeply forward, similar to the sprit rigs of many traditional Southeast Asian and Pacific island canoes. Historical accounts also suggest a Southeast Asian influence: “lateen” sails with low, light bamboo booms (like a sprit sail) were being used in Madagascar in the early 20th century.

To change tacks, these vessels are jibed by allowing the clew of the sail to fly free and then rotating the upper spar round the mast in the manner typical of lateen rig. Also in lateen fashion, the sail is sometimes hung nearly horizontal when the wind is dead behind, like a large square sail or spinnaker.

Some Madagascar canoes use a square sail supported by two masts set in an A-frame formation—a configuration considered by some to be a primitive Southeast Asian sprit sail—and a primitive shunting rig. This rig’s persistence in western Madagascar, when more advanced rigs are available, might be due to its simplicity and its suitability for the predictable daily pattern of land breezes blowing out to sea in the morning and sea breezes blowing toward shore in the late afternoon. It is easily shunted, lowered, and raised. This rig is primarily used in Madagascar by fishermen in small canoes sailing to offshore fishing grounds and is also carried by some medium-sized canoes.

The amount of sail flown by the canoes of Madagascar can be quite impressive, and the boats are surprisingly fast and seaworthy. In fact, they sail in conditions in which many yachtsmen would hesitate to leave port.

The dhows of Madagascar.


The dhows of Madagascar are of shallow draft and have broad, flat bottoms to facilitate beaching.


Madagascar has a large fleet of vessels commonly referred to as “dhows.” Their origin is uncertain because they show characteristics of both an ancient Southeast Asian vessel called the jong, and the Arab dhow.

By the time Madagascar was settled, Southeast Asia had an extensive fleet of jongs; they measured up to 100m (328') or more and traded between China to the east and as far as India to the west, if not farther. Some of these vessels used outriggers to improve their stability. There are similarities between jongs and the dhows seen in Madagascar today.

Madagascar’s dhows tend to be relatively large and are used mainly for hauling cargo. They have broad, shallow-draft hulls with relatively flat bottoms and keels near their flat sterns. They require substantial investments in time and materials for their construction; timbers are gathered locally, and frames are fashioned from grown curves. They are carvel-built, by eye, by first setting up the keel, a couple of frames, and the sternpost and stem, and then bending on ribbands of long, small-diameter twigs to describe and fair the hull.

Crossbeams attached to the hull.


The crossbeams attached to the hull of this careened dhow and protruding on the port side, support an outrigger pontoon.

Dhows are driven by large lateen sails. As in canoes, they typically change tacks by heading downwind, letting the sail free, and moving the yard around the front of the mast—while at the same time moving the shroud to the new windward side. This process can be rather arduous, particularly in strong winds, and it can take several minutes before the flaying sail is tamed. Dhows may also be tacked by lowering the sail and yard, steering the boat on to the new tack, repositioning the sail and yard on the opposite side, and re-hoisting them. Some dhows sail with a single outrigger, which adds stability. Dhows are used extensively all along the east African coast, though they are less abundant there than in Madagascar, and I have not observed outriggers on them. These cargo-carriers need to be of shallow-draft because in most ports they must be beached on the high tide and loaded and unloaded by hand.

Unloading a transport dhow.


Madagascar’s ports lack mechanized infrastructure, so unloading a transport dhow, in this case one carrying a cargo of sand, is hard manual work.

While these vessels are called dhows, it is not clear that they represent a straightforward lineage from the ancient traditional Arab dhows, which had high ends—particularly sterns—and were double-ended with high freeboards, deep drafts, round bottoms, and full keels. The current-day hull construction is in the European plank-on-frame tradition and bears no clear resemblance to the sewn- or doweled-plank methods endemic to the Indian Ocean. The occasional use of outriggers, which are absent from Arab dhows, suggests a Southeast Asian influence. However, it is not clear whether outriggers appeared recently in the dhows of Madagascar or are a remnant of an old tradition.

Crossbeams attached to the hull.


A careened schooner awaits the tide. Schooner construction in Madagascar dates to the 1860s and is rooted in the Breton tradition.


While schooners are the least common of the three types of traditional Madagascar sailing craft, they are the best known, because they have been copiously documented in books, magazines, and film. They are increasingly common as one proceeds south along the western coast.

Schooner construction in Madagascar dates back to the last half of the 19th century, when some villagers on the west coast sought vessels with greater cargo capacity. At that same time, Madagascar’s King Radama II, who ruled only from 1861 to 1863, enlisted a pair of French shipwrights, the Joachim brothers of Brittany, to teach their methods on the island. A European-style shipbuilding industry was thus established in the area around Belo Monte; it continues to thrive today.

A typical foreshore scene.


This is a typical foreshore scene in the villages along the west coast of Madagascar. Wooden vessels are critical for sustaining the life and vibrant culture here, and they have descended from a rich and diverse maritime history. They are under threat. Will they persist?

About a dozen new schooners are launched annually, and they still resemble the traditional ones of Brittany. They are gaff-rigged and usually two-masted, but sometimes three-masted. Some have topmasts and topsails, though this is becoming rare. They have no auxiliary power, so in light breezes they depend upon tides to work into and out of ports and rivers. Article ends

Tom Polacheck is a retired marine biologist living in Australia. After retiring, he spent 10 years cruising with his partner on their 40′ sailboat, RUNNING TIDE. He has a passionate interest in traditional sailing vessels. He is deeply concerned about the possibility of their disappearance, and the resulting negative consequences of this in the few places, such as Madagascar, where they are still in common use.