A pirogue (or piragua or piraga) can be one of several kinds of small boats. One is the small, flat-bottomed boat of a design associated particularly with the Cajuns of the Louisiana marsh. These boats are not usually intended for overnight travel but are light and small enough to be easily taken onto land. The design also allows the pirogue to move through the very shallow water of marshes and be easily turned over to drain any water that may get into the boat. A pirogue has "hard chines" which means that instead of a smooth curve from the gunwales to the keel, there is often a flat bottom which meets the plane of the side. The pirogue is usually propelled by paddles that have one blade (as opposed to a kayak paddle, which has two). It can also be punted with a push pole in shallow water. Small sails can also be employed. Outboard motors are increasingly being used in many regions. In West Africa they were used as traditional fishing boats.
The word comes from the Spanish word piragua [piˈɾaɣwa]. Traditionally, it was just another name for dugout canoes, but it came to refer to a specific type of canoe. Naturally, in Louisiana the boats were constructed of cypress, but suitable natural lumber is no longer readily available. Plywood is the common material for modern pirogues. Many modern duck hunters and fisherman in the swamps of south Louisiana use pirogues made of fiberglass, some of which are outfitted with small outboard motors or even "Go-Devils", a type of motor with a pivoting drive shaft for use in very shallow waters.
In his 1952 classic song Jambalaya, Hank Williams refers to the pirogue in the line "me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou". Johnny Horton, an avid Louisiana fisherman who celebrated Cajun customs and culture, also mentions pirogues in his 1956 song "I Got a Hole in My Pirogue."
Doug Kershaw's 1961 hit "Louisiana Man" includes the line "..he jumps in his pirogue headed down the bayou". Many online lyrics sites mis-understand this line, saying 'hero' or sometimes 'biro' instead.
On the Lewis and Clark expedition, pirogues were among the boats used during the journey. The term usually referred to the medium-sized boats of the company carrying 8 rowers and a pilot, capable of carrying 8 tons of cargo. Henry D. Thoreau writes of using heavy pirogues in his book "The Maine Woods".
In 626, when the Avars were besieging Constantinople, the Slavonians crossed the Golden Horn in their pirogues and landed on the shore of the Lower Blachernae, and in spite of all defensive measures that were taken, looted churches.
There is not one pirogue design, but several. Besides small pirogues as seen above, there are also pirogues that can hold up to ten men with paddles and also feature a main sail. These too, however, are not designed (and should not be used) for open waters. They are best used near shore.
- Pirogues: time-tested craft for hunters and fishermen accessed 10 June 2008