Iroij Michael Kabua lives on Ebeye , a small islet in Kwajalein Atoll. The U.S. rents much of the atoll to use it as a missile range. The Marshallese workers and their families live on Ebeye. It's one of the most crowded places on earth. It was in the news briefly last year because of a cholera outbreak. Recreational and other opportunities for youth are very limited. Michael is working to revive the sport of riwuit racing there. I met him in 2000 when he came to Majuro, the capitol of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. He had brought some boys from Ebeye to compete in the national races held on Independence Day 2000. Michael's riwuit pictured above won the cross-lagoon race. It's six feet long and went 5 miles in about 20 minutes. In other words it's very fast.

In his words:

Riwuit is a part of growing up. There are no trees on Ebeye, so I made this riwuit with pvc pipe.

There are some sayings: "mejan wa mejam". In English, "the boat's eyes are your eyes". "Beim wa beim". "The boat's arms are your arms". In other words, the riwuit can't talk. You have to do everything for it. It can't say "ooh - too much weight on me". You have to imagine you are the riwuit.

There is a story about how the riwuit started on Ailinglaplap atoll. All the boys were trying to make a riwuit. One brought a shark as a riwuit. It bit the other boys and he always won.

Lots of kids are sitting around with nothing to do - now with riwuit they're outside during the day and at night they're tired. Riwuit is something they're proud of.

What's different about this riwuit? I wanted the kubaak to stay down. Keep it on the water. That's not the usual way, but it's a long race, and I wanted to be sure it wouldn't flip over.

You don't need any rules or measurements to make a riwuit. It's all feeling. I like to experiment. If it goes fast, then I measure it. Then go beyond those rules and see what happens.


1. wa
2. kubaak
3. kie
4. kiju
5. rojak maan
6. rojak kora
7. ujele
8. tokubaak
9. iep
10. ieplik

outrigger or ama
crossbeam, beam or aka
(roll the 'r') yard
windward stay
sheet bridle

The wa is made of Lo (hibiscus tiliaceous) wood. This tree sends out shoots that are very light. If you can't get it use the lightest wood available, such as western red cedar(density ~.29). Balsa might work, but it needs to be strong enough to hit rocks at the end of the run. Some people armor their keels with a strip of metal, such as an umbrella rib. They're galvanized channels of about the right shape and size. The row of mast step sockets are used to adjust the fore and aft rake of the sail. The plastic splash rails run the length of the hull. I can't remember if they're on both sides or not. Michael?

The kubaak is carved from a piece of 4x4 fir lumber. The relationship between the kubaak and sail is very important. The lead weight is used in strong wind. It's held in place with a wood screw. In light wind less weight or none at all is used.

The kie assembly is made so the angle with the wa is adjustable. The bracing dowels are lashed to the tee under the kie. I don't remember how the bracing dowels and kie are attached to the wa. I think they're screwed on.

The spars are all made of mahogany. The rows of small holes along the edges are used to lace on the sail. The usual way on a full-sized canoe is to use a thin cord to tie a thicker one to the spar with a series of half-hitches through the small holes, and then tie the sail to that cord with another thin cord using a series of half-hitches that perforate the edge of the sail. This allows the sail to be moved on the spars a bit for tuning purposes. On a riwuit it's easier to judge sail shape and quicker to redo completely, so usually the sail is tied with one string directly to the spars with a series of half-hitches that perforate the edge of the sail. Michael used teflon dental floss for this, because that's all he had at the time. A good choice because dental floss is really tough stuff and good for sewing anything. The lashing between the rojak maan and rojak kora works like a hinge.(It's called "copalpel" or "cabalbill") I'll add a drawing if people ask for it, in the mean time I bet there's a Marshallese person somewhere near you who can explain. It's two interlocking rings of cord. A horizontal one through the hole near the pointy end of the rojak maan, a vertical one through a hole in the narrow end of the rojak kora.
I don't know why I drew that horizontal hole in the end of the rojak kora, I would expect it to be vertical. Maybe Michael used some other style of lashing that I don't remember, or maybe I made a mistake?

I'm not sure about the sail cut at the foot of the sail, so I used this popular pattern. Michael, is this right?

How you lace the sail onto the spars has an effect on sail shape. Try it first with no luff tension at all. There should be a bit of a belly in the front half of the sail low down by the boom. Look at the riwuit pictures elsewhere on this site to see different ways people tune their sails.

This riwuit always sails from left to right in an onshore wind as seen from shore. The favorite course for riwuit racing is a broad reach, which is the fastest. The best riwuit racing spot on a given island will require the riwuit to go left or right only.

The magic of the riwuit is that it steers itself. It will hold a course despite gusts of wind and breaking waves. How is this possible? The balanced relationship between sail and kubaak is most important.
The following table describes the behavior of this riwuit as the wind increases.

A gust of wind does this to the riwuit:
and this change by itself would make the riwuit turn
Lifts the kubaak, decreasing its drag in the water. This moves the center of resistance to the right. right
Heels the sail, moving the driving force of of the sail more to the right. left
The increased apparent wind speed over the sail moves the center of lift aft. left

These forces exactly balance so that the riwuit holds to a straight course, broad reaching at high speed. When the wind lulls, the forces move back the other way, again exactly balancing. Every modification, design change and adjustment changes the course the riwuit wants to steer.
The following table lists some adjustments and the effect each has on steering.

this change by itself would make the riwuit turn
Rake the sail forward. right
Put a heavier lead weight on the kubaak. left
Sheet in the sail. right (usually)
shorten the tokubaak (windward stay) right

To start out adjust the tokubaak (windward stay) so the mast leans just a bit to windward. Adjust the iep (sheet) so the boom swings out 15 or so degrees as seen from above with the sail flat. Put the riwuit on the water pointed across the wind. Let it go a few times and grab it again or have someone help you and grab it after it's gone far enough to see what heading it seeks. Make your adjustments and see how the heading changes. Then let it go! If everything is right it'll zoom off with a rooster tail, just like in the pictures.
This is just the beginning. Ask a Marshallese person to teach you more about how to sail your riwuit. They'll enjoy it as much as you will.

If you feel you've benefitted from these plans, howabout making a donation to a Marshallese nonprofit group? Maybe prize money for riwuit races there? Michael, can you suggest some worthy recipients?

The rhino 2.0 3dmodel of the riwuit is in this directory of drawings, along with the 2d drawings in various formats.

c.Tim Anderson 2002