You can sail on Moana’s real-life boat in Palau

Palau is famously home to one of the seven underwater wonders of the world, but it’s also one of the only destinations in the Pacific where visitors can board a traditional Micronesian sailboat.

It’s 9am and I am surrounded by an endless stretch of cobalt. The morning sun hits the fibres of the woven sail above me, which glimmers in silvery-gold glory like an iridescent fish scale. I’m sailing the ludicrously photogenic lagoons of Palau atop an authentic Micronesian canoe. Crafted entirely from natural materials, the boat’s body is hand-carved wood, the ropes are made from coconut fibre and breadfruit sap serves as a natural glue – and there’s not a single nail or scrap of metal in sight. Even harder to believe is that these boats were once used to traverse the Pacific and Indian oceans using only the sun and stars for navigation. Behold the wa’a, a single-hulled outrigger sailing canoe once found widely across Micronesia, but now a rare treasure. It’s a vessel that turns wood into wind and dreams into realities, whose presence is as deeply rooted in Palauan history as the breadfruit tree from which it is carved.

Paddling Palau's traditional wooden sailing canoe on Palaun waters
Paddling Palau’s traditional wooden sailing canoe © Ron Leidich

Miluu’s dream

It’s no coincidence that this very boat stars in Disney’s well-loved film Moana. When the eight-year-old daughter of Ron Leidich, National Geographic naturalist and founder of tour operator Paddling Palau, saw the movie for the first time, she was awestruck.

“Can you make me a canoe just like Moana’s?” Miluu asked. Unable to refuse, Ron and his Palauan wife embarked on a quest to find someone who still knew how to make these fabled boats. It turned out that the centuries-old craft of carving traditional canoes hadn’t been practised in Palau since before WWII. After sending out letters to the atoll-dwelling elders of Micronesia’s remote outer islands, Ron’s family eventually located a handful of master craftsmen and navigators from Sonsorol, Ifalik, Satawal and Woolei who were willing to join the project of reviving traditional sailing in Palau. And so Miluu’s dream began to take shape. 

But Miluu had an additional caveat for the Moana-inspired sailboat: she didn’t want her dad to cut down any trees during the process of construction. The team searched the forests of Palau and, in a stroke of luck, found an enormous lumber tree that had fallen during a storm. It would make the perfect hull for their canoe. After two months of carving in the forest, the canoe was carried to the water’s edge by a dozen men where the team had constructed two traditional canoe houses, and a group of local Palauans had woven the boat’s mast. “Couldn’t she have just asked for a pony?” Ron jokes as he recounts the story to us.

Traditional weaving Palau canoe
Team Ngardmau weaving the boat’s sail from pandanus leaves © Ron Leidich

Paddling Palau now offers visitors the chance to discover the art form and history of the Micronesian canoe through their Traditional Sailing Tour, a soul-stirring experience for all adventure lovers. By supporting local Micronesian craftsmen, guests experience this majestic boat’s magic and help keep an important cultural practice alive for Palau’s future generations.

Get to know the master navigators of Palau

Our Traditional Sailing Tour with Paddling Palau begins with a fascinating briefing that traces the historical origins of the wa’a canoe. We learn about the role of the traditional wooden canoe in forging deep linguistic, cultural and migratory connections between the Pacific Islands, Africa and parts of Asia over thousands of years.

Soon after, we’re acquainted with Sesario, a master navigator from Satawal and our sail guide for the day. The art of non-instrumental navigation was passed down to Sesario from the age of four by his father, whom his grandfather taught at a young age. Having sailed with his father throughout the ’80s and ’90s following their first long journey from Hawai’i to Tahiti in 1976, Sesario was initiated as a Master Navigator at the age of 30. Before we hop on the sailboat, Sesario tells us that wa’a, the word for canoe, also means ‘vein’. It stems from the belief that the ocean connects everyone. It’s in this moment that I realise sailing in Palau will be wildly different from any sailing I’ve done before.

Turqouise water of Palau, Micronesia Rock Islands
The unspoiled lagoons of Palau, Micronesia © Josh Burkinshaw

Sailing with Paddling Palau

There’s nothing quite as therapeutic as gliding over scintillating waves, wind in your face and no motor to be heard. In the safe hands of two expert crew, sailing in Palau on a traditional canoe is as thrilling as it is calming. Deeply knowledgeable and charmingly humble, both crew are more than happy to answer my questions (of which I have many). It’s truly awe-inspiring to think that these boats navigated thousands of kilometres across treacherous seas with only the cosmos as a guide. Due to the risks of food insecurity and typhoons, these canoes are still used today by those living on the remote atolls of Micronesia out of the necessity for mobility. 

I’m admiring the impossibly blue waters and verdant limestone islands that unfold in every direction when Sesario informs me we’re about to tack – and what happens next is far from what I was expecting. Rather than letting the sail swing over to the opposite side, crew member Clyde single-handedly picks up the entire mast (sail included) from the base, completely detaching it from the hull, and carries it across the length of the canoe – a manoeuvre that takes a great deal of strength and precision. It feels like a scene straight out of a movie.

When my time upon the traditional vessel comes to an end and I reluctantly board our accompanying motorboat, I feel as though I am stepping out of a time capsule. This spellbinding experience has left me yearning for more.

Sailing crew preparing a sailboat in Palau
Sailing crew Sesario and Clyde preparing the sailboat © Ron Leidich

How to book a Traditional Sailing Tour in Palau

Visitors to Palau can book a Traditional Sailing Tour through Paddling Palau in Koror. The experience is offered as a half or full-day tour with a required booking minimum of two people. The half-day tour includes sailing in Palau’s aqua lagoons on a traditional Micronesian wa’a boat with history briefing and cultural immersion, lunch, cold drinks, expert sailors, local guide and hotel pick-up and drop-off. The full-day option includes additional activities such as snorkelling.

To request availability for a Traditional Sailing Tour, contact Paddling Palau via email at info@paddlingpalau.net. Visit the Paddling Palau website for additional information. 

Who are Paddling Palau?

Paddling Palau is a family-run tour operator based in Koror, Palau. As well as sailing in Palau, they offer kayak and snorkel day tours in some of Palau’s most prized ecological locations, multi-day camping safaris and WWII tours. Paddling Palau also runs multiple conservation projects, including Palau’s crown-of-thorns reduction program, which removes more than 5,000 of these coral predators every year, and a shark finning ban.

Coral in Palau snorkeling
Globally acclaimed for its pristine marine environments, Palau is a great place to snorkel and kayak © Adobe Stock

How to get to Palau

Palau is an island state in the western Pacific Ocean in the subregion of Micronesia. It is accessible by plane in just six hours from Brisbane to Koror with the new Nauru Airlines ‘Palau Paradise Express’ service, which departs once a week on Tuesdays and returns weekly on Wednesdays. Flights to Palau from Guam, Seoul, Taipei and Manila are available with other airlines.

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