2: Moai 263
1: Testing the reed boat hypothesis
2: The Ra Expedition
3: The Ra II Expedition
1: Completing Heyerdahl’s
2: The Viracocha Expedition
The vessel carved upon Moai No. 263 on
Heyerdahl linked several cultivated plants from
contact is conclusively aboriginal, the cultigen having been observed in
linguistic evidence points to the Cuna language spoken in northern
The combination of balsa rafts, sweet potatoes, and
megalithic industries, all found along the coast of
2: Moai 263
After his archaeological research
carving appears to be propelled like a three-masted, square-rigged European
ship, yet the hull has the distinctive upswept bow and stern of a
the carving on the chest of No. 263, Heyerdahl's expedition also uncovered
locally produced volcanic stone carvings that unmistakably represent reed
boats. Taken together, Heyerdahl saw
this as evidence that reed ships had arrived on
began to research boats constructed of reeds all over the world, travelling
from museum to marsh to study watercraft made from totora, papyrus, and other
natural fibre materials. When he saw
boats and barges apparently constructed of papyrus depicted in the burial
1. Testing the reed boat hypothesis.
Heyerdahl had his doubts that papyrus possessed the same
watertight capacity of the totora reed of
Egyptian authorities finally gave the go-ahead for a papyrus ship
to be built at
As construction of the replica progressed, Heyerdahl divided his
time between the work site at
Heyerdahl had his raft ready to be delivered to the African coast
2. The Ra Expedition, 1969.
Just as on the Kon-Tiki, the crew marveled at how waves washed through rather than swamped the hull. Navigator Norman Baker found himself incapacitated by influenza and a temperature of 102°. As the raft fought to make its way offshore on the very first day at sea, Heyerdahl was suddenly called aft to see a disaster in the making. Not one but both of the steering oars had snapped completely away. The crew was despondent, feeling that the experiment was over before it had even begun.
Heyerdahl studied the raft closely. Without the two oars, the raft suddenly turned on its own and headed out to sea. Heyerdahl was concerned but not despondent. For a man who had spent his life trying to demonstrate that ocean currents were conveyors of culture instead of impassable barriers to human migration, Ra had suddenly turned into an even more daring experiment. It was one of Heyerdahl’s favorite scenarios: ancient mariners on a crippled vessel, its crew in a battle against wind and current, intent on carrying their culture to a foreign shore. Ra would now imitate the navigation of Incan rafts with their guara leeboards.
Hearing Heyerdahl yelling, Norman Baker crawled from the wickerwork cabin to learn the good news. He was stunned to learn that the vessel of which he was navigator was now adrift, without rudders, and almost completely unmanageable. The raft broached and waves slammed its sides. At a stroke, the crew had not extacly been transformed from sailors into supercargo, but Heyerdahl’s Atlantic laboratory had subjected his raft experiment to its first variable.
The next challenge for the raft was to pass the lowlands at Cape Juby on the African coast, and begin to arc to the west, across the Atlantic. To everyone’s surprise, the raft began to list slowly toward the wind, not against it, as on a regular sailboat. Heyerdahl discovered that waves breaking on the windward side deposited water more heavily into the reeds on that side of the raft, while the lee side remained high and dry. Much shifting of cargo failed to alleviate the problem, which was yet another lesson relearned after five millennia in obscurity. On May 31st, Ra passed Cape Juby and put Africa astern. The reed boat had been afloat two weeks, without showing any signs of the imminent disintegration predicted for it. But the greatest challenge still lay ahead.
The crew improvised a new steering oar from a spare mast, as the raft moved westwards at approximately sixty miles per day, half again as fast as Tim Severin’s bamboo raft Hsu Fu would snake across the North Pacific nearly a quarter century later. But where Severin’s wash-through bamboo raft subjected its crew to constant drenching, Heyerdahl’s paper boat, at least for the time being, kept his men high and dry.
The performance of the special rigging, copied so carefully from Egyptian tomb paintings, now seemed in practice to both Heyerdahl and Baker to have been designed to handle ocean swells and waves. It seemed clear enough that the papyrus boats of antiquity had done more than float calmly on the Nile. However, the absence of the strange cable linking the upturned stern with the aft deck—the cable that the boat-builders from Chad had told Heyerdahl was unnecessary—now came back to haunt the raft. Halfway through June, the stern of the raft was awash, even as the bow continued to sail on as dry as the day the reed boat was launched.
By the first days of July, the Ra had sailed over 2,000 miles, and less than 1,500 remained between the raft and the Caribbean island of Barbados. Heyerdahl was learning that, unlike the pre-Incan log raft Kon-Tiki, this Egyptian reed ship required true sailing ability. Anybody could hang onto a raft. The stern continued to drag further into the sea, the starboard side continued to fill with water. The oars had been rebuilt only to snap again.
On Ra, Heyerdahl felt as if he was driving a car without a license. It was the fate of anyone who tried to recreate prehistoric technology. A simple and many would claim unbridgeable flaw was always present in the experiment. The replica might be correct; the ocean route might be the right one. But no scientist could replicate the prehistoric mind, nor venture with certainty into a prehistoric worldview. As the Caribbean loomed just beyond the horizon, the Ra slipped inexorably into the sea.
On July 18th, 1969, with sharks and Portuguese Man-o-war encircling the reed boat, Heyerdahl ordered the crew to abandon ship. The apparent failure of this greatest of primitive reed ship experiments was wholly overshadowed in the days that followed by the first landing of humans on the surface of the moon. The juxtaposition of the sinking trajectory of the ancient raft with the successful soft landing of the ultramodern lunar module could not have been more striking. Between the failure of Ra and the triumph of Apollo 11, it seemed as if modern humans had put the ancient world behind them once and for all. All modern humans, that is, except Thor Heyerdahl.
3. The Ra II Expedition, 1970.
In the spring of 1970, under a thick blanket of secrecy, Thor Heyerdahl was back in Morocco, building another ship of papyrus. This time, Heyerdahl had gone back to his roots, bringing Aymara Indians from Lake Titicaca to Africa to oversee the construction of perhaps the most beautiful recreation of a prehistoric vessel ever undertaken. With the many lessons learned from what was now called Ra I, along with another year of research amongst traditional reed boat builders, Heyerdahl left nothing to chance this second time around. Even so, he was plagued by worries that a second failure would prove disastrous, and be seen as “nothing but a risky repetition” (Heyerdahl 1971, 286).
After setting sail for Morocco on May 17, 1970, the Ra II proved less stable that her predecessor, but more seaworthy. The new reed ship was thirty-nine feet long—almost twenty feet shorter than Ra I—sixteen feet wide amidships, and six feet deep. In fact, the raft proved seaworthy enough to transport a multinational crew of eight completely across the Atlantic. But the voyage nearly ended less than a month after it started.
Norman Baker had returned as well, as both navigator and second-in-command. As Baker set a course away from Africa as fast as possible, none save Heyerdahl were very optimistic about their chances for success. Leaving port, the reed deck of Ra II was only three feet above the surface of the sea. Within two weeks, the raft had sunk two whole feet. After three, the decks were awash. Seeing this, Baker thought they had little choice but to run for the Cape Verde Islands, 1,200 miles from Safi in Morocco. There the expedition could slink into obscurity, rather than cause a scene by calling for an inevitable rescue in mid-Atlantic.
Desperate, the crew threw over the sides everything they could, even to the point of potentially sacrificing themselves by throwing their papyrus life raft overboard. As the Cape Verde Islands drew closer, so did the crew’s last apparent hope of abandoning ship before it sank. They had all decided that they would sail into port and go home. But as Baker took the raft’s position throughout that day, Heyerdahl kept a steady course westward. In the morning, the Cape Verdes were a few points off the port bow; by noon, they were directly abeam, about eight miles away; by early evening, the islands were on the port quarter, about sixteen miles away. The raft had passed the point of no return.
No one said anything. The raft had less than a foot of freeboard remaining. There was no way to turn the reed boat around and return the Cape Verdes. The crew knew that they were now committed to 2,000 miles of open ocean. To solidify their dismay, the crew decided to conduct a secret ballot on the only question that mattered: would Ra II make it across the Atlantic Ocean? As Baker recalled, seven of the crew voted “no”; only one responded “yes.” “No one ever asked who the cockeyed optimist was,” Baker remembered, although in the end it was the lone dissenter who proved to be correct. “Though I’ve never asked, in my heart I know who it was—our Captain, Thor Heyerdahl” (Baker 1997).
On July 12, 1970, the crew sighted land. They had sailed 3,270 miles from Africa. As the reeds began to lose their buoyancy once and for all, Ra II sailed hard into the harbor at Bridgetown, Barbados. Heyerdahl had staked everything on a second reed boat, and it had delivered him to the New World. Soon after, Ra II was returned to the Old World, and took up a permanent place in a great hall in Oslo, Norway, directly adjacent to that occupied by Kon-Tiki.
Heyerdahl’s experimental voyage to
By the spring of 1997, half a century after the original Kon-Tiki expedition, no primitive experimental raft had made the connection between South America and that continent’s closest Polynesian island, Easter Island, although Eric de Bisschop had come close in Tahiti-Nui I in 1957, and Kitin Muñoz had drifted on Uru from Peru to the Marquesas in 1988. Heyerdahl’s massive ethnological tome American Indians in the Pacific had compiled a much greater case for prehistoric reed boat—as opposed to balsa raft—voyages to Easter Island, yet despite the Ra expeditions no one could say from actual experience whether such an expedition was possible.
Such an experimental raft expeditions would connect the reed boat builders of the pre-Inca highlands of Peru with the Pacific ports that could have made use of large versions of lake reed boats. It would connect a potential prehistoric South American port with the most likely Polynesian island to have received cultural impulses from pre-Incan Peru. It would offer a plausible escape route for the legendary prehistoric figure Viracocha, as he fled from the shores of the great highland lake at Titicaca to his exile somewhere toward the setting sun. And it would offer some comparative strength to Heyerdahl’s hypothesis that pre-Incan Moche mariners forced to sea during cultural catastophes triggered by El Niño events would be pushed southwest toward Easter Island.
In 1998, such an experiment was created. Phil Buck, a highly-accomplished mountaineer, announced that he would circumnavigate the globe in a series of five reed boats. The reed ships would all be named for the bearded sun-god Viracocha. The first leg of this enormous undertaking would take the Viracocha I from Arica, a Chilean port near the border with Peru, to Easter Island.
In the late 1998, Buck journeyed to Huatajata, Bolivia, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. There, both the Catari and Limarchi families—many of whom had helped Heyerdahl construct the reed ships Ra II and Tigris—collaborated with Buck to build the hull of Viracocha I. The hull was completed in March of 1999, then stored under a tin roof until it was trucked to the coast in December. During the storage period Buck had the boat builders haul on the hull’s ropes each month. Eventually, he considered that this simple step might have been critical to the success of his voyage. Reeds shrink as they dry, and having a solid reed boat is imperative to lower water absorption and lessen the overall flexing of the boat at sea.
The hull was trucked to Arica, Chile, in December 1999, where it was fitted out with masts and sails, rudder oars, and a bamboo cabin. Like Heyerdahl, Buck selected a multi-national crew, in this case three Chileans, a Bolivian, a Britisher, a Frenchman, and one other American. Buck envisioned a six-week expedition to Easter Island, one that would start around January 15 in the new millennium, and reach Easter Island in early March. There the explorers would tramp the island, look in on the totora reeds of the island’s crater lakes, and seek permissions for the second leg in the global circumnavigation, from Easter Island to Australia. In the end, Buck’s timetable evolved with almost clock-like precision.
2. The Viracocha Expedition, 1999
Viracocha I left Arica on February 25, 2000, after having been placed in the water fifteen days earlier. Norman Baker had suggested to Buck that the raft should be put into the ocean three days prior to departure, to allow the reeds to absorb seawater as ballast, but problems with inspections and computer software delayed the departure.
Three days after leaving
the Chilean coast, the reed boat was 150 miles to sea, sailing 150 degrees
off the wind and about two knots an hour, on a southwest course toward Easter
Island. Over the course of the next
forty-four days, the reed boat continued to average about two knots an hour,
or about fifty miles a day. On only
two or three days did the boat’s performance increase or decrease
dramatically. On March 9, contrary
winds stalled the boat’s progress to nothing, while on March 23rd
and 26th, the boat skimmed along with the wind at speeds of five
and six knots.
“I thought that passing near Sala Y Gomez was important to Thor Heyerdahl’s theories because passing an uninhabited, rocky bird island was one of things that the Spanish Chronicler Sarmiento had heard that Inca and Pre-Incan voyages would pass one week before reaching the island Thor Heyerdahl believes to be Easter Island” (ibid.).
Buck hoped to zero in on the harbor at Anakena, the port on the northeast corner of Easter Island where legends place the arrival of Hotu Matua, the prehistoric maritime explorer and founder of Easter Island culture. As the island emerged out of the Pacific a week later, Buck steered the reed boat around the southern side of the island, to a landing at Hango Piko.
For perhaps the first time ever—or possibly the first time in over a thousand years, depending on your view of the evidence—a reed boat sailed through the gap separating the ancient ceremonial center of Orongo, and the small offshore island of Moto Nui. It was across this gap that the famous annual birdman competition was held, where young men on small reed floats swam and climbed to reach the first sooty tern egg of each spring.
At 3:00 in the afternoon of Sunday, April 9th, 2000, Viracocha I anchored at Hanga Piko, where the arrival of a reed boat from Chile was greeted with decidedly mixed feelings. The memory of nineteenth century raids by Peruvian slavers is still warm on this Polynesian island, and any reminders of ancient ties with the mainland stir complex emotions. Buck himself wanted to preserve Viracocha I, which had survived the voyage in almost perfect condition. Local merchants likewise saw an interesting tourist attraction. But when others recalled the biting mosquitos they felt had arrived with the reeds of Kitin Muñoz’ Mata Rangi I, Buck had no choice but to agree to burn the ship. Less than two weeks later, stripped of all useable equipment, Viracocha I went up in flames at Hanga Roa, an event which in itself may reflect the fate of earlier voyagers to this strangest of all the world’s islands.