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A Slavic dugout boat from the 10th century

A dugout or dugout canoe is a boat which is basically a hollowed tree trunk. Other names for this type of boat are logboat and monoxylon. Monoxylon (μονόξυλον) (pl: monoxyla) is Greek -- mono- (single) + ξύλον xylon (tree) -- and is mostly used in classic Greek texts. In Germany they are called Einbaum (English translation: One tree). Some, but not all, pirogues are also constructed in this manner.

Dugouts are the oldest boats archaeologists have found. This is probably because they are made of massive pieces of wood, which tend to preserve better than, e.g., bark canoes. Einbaum dug-out boat finds in Germany date back to the Stone Age. Along with bark canoe and hide kayak, dugout boats were also used by indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Dugouts on the shore of Lake Malawi



American Indians making a dugout canoe, 1590
Building a sea-going dugout canoe 10 meters (33 ft) long

Construction of a dugout begins with the selection of a log of suitable dimensions. Sufficient wood needed to be removed to make the vessel relatively light in weight and buoyant, yet still strong enough to support the crew and cargo. Specific types of wood were often preferred based on their strength, durability, and weight. The shape of the boat is then fashioned to minimize drag, with sharp ends at the bow and stern.

First the bark is removed from the exterior. Before the appearance of metal tools, dugouts were hollowed-out using controlled fires. The burnt wood was then removed using an adze. Another method using tools is to chop out parallel notches across the interior span of the wood, then split out and remove the wood from between the notches. Once hollowed out, the interior was dressed and smoothed out with a knife or adze.

For travel in the rougher waters of the ocean, dugouts can be fitted with outriggers. One or two smaller logs are mounted parallel to the main hull by long poles. In the case of two outriggers, one is mounted to either side of the hull.


The well-watered tropical rainforest and woodland regions of sub-Saharan Africa provide both the waterways and the trees for dugout canoes, which are commonplace from the Limpopo River basin in the south through East and Central Africa and across to West Africa. African Teak is the timber favoured for their construction, though this comprises a number of different species, and is in short supply in some areas. Dugouts are paddled across deep lakes and rivers or punted through channels in swamps (see makoro) or in shallow areas, and are used for transport, fishing and hunting, including, in the past, the very dangerous hunting of hippopotamus. Dugouts are called pirogues in Francophone areas of Africa.

Eastern Europe

De Administrando Imperio details how the Slavs built monoxyla that they sold to Vikings in Kiev.[1] These ships were then used against the Byzantine Empire during the Rus'–Byzantine Wars of the 9th and 10th centuries. They used dugouts to attack Constantinople and to withdraw into their lands with bewildering speed and mobility. Hence, the name of Δρομίται ("people on the run") applied to the Rus in some Byzantine sources. The monoxyla were often accompanied by larger galleys, that served as command and control centres. Each Slavic dugout could hold from 40 to 70 warriors.

The Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host were also renowned for their artful use of dugouts, which issued from the Dnieper to raid the shores of the Black Sea in the 16th and 17th centuries. Using small, shallow-draft, and highly manoeuvrable galleys known as chaiky, they moved swiftly across the Black Sea. According to the Cossacks' own records, these vessels, carrying a 50 to 70 man crew, could reach the coast of Anatolia from the mouth of the Dnieper River in forty hours.

Expanding a dugout canoe at Basecamp Karuskose at Soomaa National Park

In Estonia, dugout canoes are built at Soomaa National Park.

Northern Europe

Dugout boats have been found in Scandinavia and Germany. In German, the craft are known as einbaum (one-tree). These boats were used for fishing and transport on calmer bodies of water. [2] Dugouts require no metal parts or shipbuilding expertise, and were likely common amongst farming folk in Northern Europe until large trees suitable for making this type of watercraft became scarce. Length was limited to the size of trees in the old-growth forests -- up to 10 metres (33 ft) in length. [3] Later models increased freeboard (and seaworthiness) by lashing additional boards to the side of the boat. Eventually, the dugout portion was reduced to a solid keel, and the lashed boards on the sides became a Lapstrake hull.

Indigenous Peoples of North America

Sea-going dugout canoe in full glory

Dugout canoes were constructed throughout the Americas where suitable logs were available. The Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest are very skilled at crafting wood. Best known for totem poles up to 80 feet (24 m) tall, they also construct dugout canoes over 60 feet (18 m) long for everyday use and ceremonial purposes.[4]

In 1978, Geordie Tochler and two companions sailed a 3.5-short-ton (3.2 t), 40-foot (12 m) dugout canoe (the Orenda II), made of Douglas-fir, and based on Haida designs (but with sails), from Vancouver, Canada to Hawaiʻi to add credibility to stories that the Haida had travelled to Hawaiʻi in ancient times. Altogether they ventured some 4,500 miles (7,242 km) after two months at sea.[5][6]

The dugout canoes were made mostly of huge cedar logs in the state of Washington for the ocean travelers but for natives that lived on the smaller rivers used smaller cedar logs.

United Kingdom

The Poole Logboat made from a single oak tree is over 2,000 years old. It is currently in the Poole Museum.

Two log boats were discovered in Newport, Shropshire and are now on display at Harper Adams University College Newport. The Iron Age residents of Great Britain were known to have used logboats for fishing and basic trade. In 1964, a logboat was uncovered in Poole Harbour, Dorset. The Poole Logboat dated to 300 BC was large enough to accommodate 18 people and was constructed from a giant Oak tree. It is currently located in the Poole Museum.

Pacific Islands

See also Māori migration canoes, Waka

In the Pacific Islands, dugout canoes are very large, made from whole mature trees and fitted with outriggers for increased stability in the ocean, and were once used for long-distance travel. Such are the very large waka used by Māori who ventured to New Zealand many centuries ago. Such vessels carried 40 to 80 warriors in sheltered waters or smaller numbers thousands of miles across the Pacific ocean. In Hawaiʻi, waʻa (canoes) are traditionally manufactured from the trunk of the koa tree. They typically carry a crew of six: one steersman and five paddlers.

Dugout canoes at Djuka Maroon village.

John F. Kennedy's PT-109

The Solomon Islanders have used and continue to use dugout canoes to travel between islands. In World War II these were used during the Japanese occupation - with their small visual and noise signatures these were among the smallest boats used by the Allied forces in World War II. After the sinking of PT-109, Biuki Gasa reached the shipwrecked John F. Kennedy by dugout.


  1. ^ Excerpt from the "De Administrando Imperio" with self-study questions.
  2. ^ [1] Viking era dugout boat found in lake
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3] Pacific Northwest Coastal Indians website
  5. ^ Stall, Robert (5 March 1979). "A man, a tree and an ocean to cross". Maclean's: 4–6. 
  6. ^ Peter SpSpeck, Peter (22 November 1978). "Orenda recalled". North Shore News: pp. 2 and 12. 

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