Old Maui: what the song means

Sometimes known as ‘Rolling Down to Old Maui’, this song acknowledges the hardship of a whaler’s life in the cold north. This is contrasted with the warm land and welcoming ladies of Old Maui. It’s a great wee tune that captures both extremes.

We’re going to look at the history, break down the lyrics, and share our favourite versions of the shanty. If you’re familiar with the tune and fancy singing it, check out our instrumental karaoke version of Old Maui.

History of Old Maui

The song is thought to have origins in the late 18th century as the lyrics are in the copybook of sailor George Piper. It’s listed there as ‘Rolling Down to Old Mohee. It’s worth pointing out that those lyrics aren’t the same as today’s widely sung version. If you’re interested in the song it’s good fun singing it with those alternative lyrics.

The song is all about a whaling ship returning from the Kamchatka Sea to the island of Maui. The Kamchatka Sea is on the eastern side of Russia and south of the Bering Sea. It was a popular location for fishing right and bowhead whales – we’ll do a separate post where we deep dive into whaling. (I hope you appreciated the nautical joke. Deep dive…)

The island of Maui is located in Hawaii. It’s the 2nd largest of the Islands. During the whaling years, the capital was Lahaina. Its sheltered waters became a popular destination for whalers. “In one season over 400 ships visited with up to 100 anchored at one time”. The pleasant weather was a welcome reprieve, so ships stayed for weeks at a time. I’m sure you can imagine the debauchery that took place.

Route from Kamchatka peninsula to Old Maui

Old Maui Lyrics

It’s a damn tough life full of toil and strife

We whalermen undergo

And we don’t give a damn when the day is done

How hard the winds did blow

For we’re homeward bound from the Arctic Ground

With a good ship taut and free

And we don’t give a damn when we drink our rum

With the girls of Old Maui


Rolling down to Old Maui, me boys

Rolling down to Old Maui

We’re homeward bound from the Arctic Ground

Rolling down to Old Maui

Once more we sail with a northerly gale

Through the ice and wind and rain

Them coconut fronds, them tropical lands

We soon shall see again

Six hellish months we passed away

On the cold Kamchatka Sea

But now we’re bound from the Arctic Ground

Rolling down to Old Maui


Once more we sail with the northerly gale

Towards our island home

Our mainmast sprung, our whaling done

And we ain’t got far to roam

Our stuns’l booms are carried away

What care we for that sound

A living gale is after us

Thank God we’re homeward bound


How soft the breeze through the island trees

Now the ice is far astern

Them native maids, them tropical glades

Are awaiting our return

Even now their big, brown eyes look out

Hoping some fine day to see

Our baggy sails running ‘fore the gales

Rolling down to Old Maui

(Chorus) x2

Specialist vocabulary breakdown

We’ll now go over all the unusual words and terms to help you appreciate the nuances of the song.

“With a good ship taut and free”

There are two parts to this. ‘Taut’ means all the ropes are tight. Nothing is loose in the rigging so the ship sails smoothly. ‘Free’ means the ship is released from the clutches of the North. It’s not caught by ice or storms.

“Our mainmast sprung”

This means that the primary mast of the ship has been damaged but not to the point it snaps. It’s a huge risk because in bad weather it could fully break off. Depending on where the mast was cracked would depend on the fix.

It was such a common problem that ships carried spares to replace the upper mast. “The usual recourse for the lower mast was to “fish” it by lashing a special set of spars to the mast along the cracked area.” You can think of it like a splint for an injured leg.

“Our stuns’l booms are carried away”

The stuns’l is an alternative spelling for stunsail. It’s also known as a studding sail or studsail. It’s a supplementary sail that can be hoisted to take advantage of good weather. They dramatically increase the area of the ship that’s in the wind meaning the ship can travel faster. 

The sail is attached via the ‘boom’. It’s the pole coming off the mast. “Stuns’l booms” are basically an extension that attaches to the primary ‘boom’. They can only be used in mild weather or they’ll break. In the case of the lyrics, the weather has broken and blown them away.

USS Monongahela with stunsails hoisted
USS Monongahela with stunsails hoisted

“Now the ice is far astern”

The ‘stern’ is the back of the ship. It’s a nautical term used so that no matter which way a sailor is facing, they can communicate about the ship. The other related terms are ‘port’ for left, ‘starboard’ for right, and ‘bow’ for the front.

 ‘Astern’ means behind the ship. They’ve left the ice far behind.

Best version of Old Maui

Here are our three favourite versions for you. They’re all unique and portray the song slightly differently.

Stan Rogers

He’s often credited as the writer of the song. This is a mistake as you know now. He did however make it popular. 

Longest Johns

A more melodic version. And the harmonies are on point. Really good stuff.

The Dreadnaughts

This is our favourite version. There’s a lot of emotion in the chorus that sets it apart from other versions.

Final thoughts

There you have it. You now have a good understanding of what Old Maui is about. You understand the locations, the vocabulary, and have heard a few fantastic versions. If we missed anything, let us know in the comments. 

If you’d like to sing along with it, why not give our acoustic karaoke version a bash?

1 thought on “Old Maui: what the song means”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *