What is an Outrigger?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An outrigger is a boat with a projecting rigid framework which supports a secondary hull located parallel to the main hull of the boat. The word is used to refer both to the secondary hull and to boats equipped with it. The design of an outrigger makes it much more stable and seaworthy than conventional boats, allowing the sailor to load his or her boat up with large amounts of goods and supplies, since it is less subject to capsizing than many other boats. A number of different outrigger designs are in use around the world.

Outriggers are still common in Tahiti and other South Pacific islands.
Outriggers are still common in Tahiti and other South Pacific islands.

In sailing, outrigging which projects from the side of a boat or ship is sometimes used for other equipment as well. Outrigging may help to secure masts or sails, or be used to attach additional sails to a sailing ship. The term is also used to refer to a specialized type of oarlock for rowing which enhances leverage.

Many seaplanes, including the Canadair CL-215, have outrigger floats that hang from beneath the wings and provide stability.
Many seaplanes, including the Canadair CL-215, have outrigger floats that hang from beneath the wings and provide stability.

The original design of the outrigger was developed in the South Pacific, and played an important role in the Polynesian exploration of the Pacific. Using strong, stable outriggers, the Polynesians traveled to many of the islands in the Pacific, establishing communities on some of them. The outrigger continues to be an important part of Polynesian life, and traditional outriggers are made by craftsmen who want to preserve Polynesian heritage. More updated versions made with plastics, aluminum, and other modern materials are also used.

Rowing or sailing are the two methods most commonly used to power an outrigger. One well known type of outrigger sailboat is called a proa. Proas are widely used in Micronesia to carry people and supplies. Outrigger canoes are in common use in Hawaii, Tahiti, and many other places around the South Pacific. In Hawaiian, an outrigger canoe is known as a wa'a, similar to the Maori waka. In the Philippines, the Tagalog word bangca is used to refer to an outrigger canoe. The basic design remains the same in all of these regions, however.

Outrigger canoes are raced in several nations, including Hawaii and Tahiti. A well coordinated crew of up to nine people rows together, and can attain impressive rates of speed. Many outrigger canoe races are carried out in the open ocean. Several organizations around the world promote outrigger trips and racing, especially around the Pacific Rim. Membership is open to people of all ages and levels of ability, since an outrigger canoe can be easily adapted for people with disabilities.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


It is hard to believe that the Polynesians traveled thousands of miles across a vast ocean in canoes, colonizing the island. That is truly a feat of human determination.

I watched a great special on the settling of the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians, and there was an interesting segment about the building of outrigger canoes. During this segment, the producers showed an outrigger with a cabin being built by hand. After the canoe was built, it was pushed to the beach on logs, and launched for its maiden voyage. The design of these boats is brilliant because it does not require a large amount of resources, but they are seaworthy in some of the worst conditions.

I wonder what it would take to dig an outrigger canoe from a log. How hard would it be to design a small outrigger that can be piloted by two? I am entering my retirement, and I think it would be a great project.


@Fiorite- I have taken outrigger canoe reef tours on the big island. We stayed in Kona and took a great little tour in an outrigger canoe. During the tour, the guide would narrate ancient history, touching on subjects like Hawaiian kings and queens, great wars, colonization, and the ancient Hawaiian gods.

The tour was tons of fun, but make sure you bring sunscreen. I made the mistake of forgetting sunscreen and ended up with a terrible burn. At least I can say that I paddled a traditional outrigger in the Pacific Ocean. This is something that I will definitely do again given the chance.


@Fiorite- One of my favorite experiences in Maui was an outrigger sailing trip I had taken on the advice from the concierge at the Outrigger Maui. The trip started in a beach in Wailea and was a two-hour tour of the waters around the island in an outrigger sailing canoe. The canoe can take up to six passengers, and you have the option to ride on the tarp between the outrigger and canoe, or to paddle the canoe while not under sail.

During the trip, we saw a number of animals that we did not see during any other tour on the island. We saw green sea turtles, dolphins and a school of hammerhead sharks. The sharks were the coolest because all you could see were their outlines gliding in the perfect blue water below the tarp. I would recommend a canoe tour to anyone wanting to take an island escape without hordes of tourists.


I used to live on the Big Island of Hawaii, and there were often outrigger canoe races near the resorts. I would often watch these races from the shore. The most surprising thing about these races is how fast the canoes can cruise in water. They also cut through small waves with ease.

I am going back to the island in the spring for my wedding. After reading this article, I am wondering if there is anywhere on the islands where you can take an outrigger canoe tour. Does anyone know of any such tour on the islands? I am planning on island hopping, so I could use information about tours on any of the islands.

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