Thor Heyerdahl’s Atlantic crossing by reed boat…
During the expedition to Easter Island in 1955-1956, Thor Heyerdahl became interested in reed boats and their seagoing properties. The archaeologists’ excavations had uncovered pictures of large reed boats with masts and sails engraved in the buried statues and painted on flagstones in prehistoric houses. It soon became clear to Heyerdahl that not only balsa wood rafts, but also reed boats, with pre-Incan sailors could have carried the earliest South Americans out over the open Pacific Ocean.
Other researchers had pointed out the obvious similarity between the old reed boats from Mexico and Peru, and the papyrus boats from the earliest civilisations in the Mediterranean region. These anthropologists, who were known as ‘diffusionists’, had listed reed boats as one of the many cultural parallels between the great civilisations of pre-Columbian times on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. They used the reed boat as an argument in the discussion about transoceanic-contact prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Their opponents meanwhile, the ‘isolationists’, pointed to the accepted view that reed boats could not cross oceans. They believed that cultural parallels could be ascribed to independent development.
The Papyrus Institute in Egypt had determined that papyrus-reed rotted and dissolved after two weeks in a water tank.
Despite this, Heyerdahl was convinced that ship builders in the time of the pharaohs would never have used this reed to built enormous seagoing vessels if they had only stayed afloat on the ocean for two weeks. He decided to build a reed boat and cross the Atlantic Ocean with it to see whether or not his assumption was correct.
Ra was launched in the spring of 1969 in the old Phoenician seaport of Safi, Morocco. In order to show that people from different nations could work together even under pressure and difficult circumstances, Heyerdahl picked a crew of 7 men from 7 nations and sailed under the flag of the UN. Ra sailed west with the trade winds and the Northern Equatorial Stream. The reed bundles proved to be incredibly buoyant. Despite broken steering oars and poor weather, Ra had sailed 5,000 km in 8 weeks before the loss of bundles on the starboard side made Heyerdahl call off the experiment, just one week before they would have reached Barbados, in the West Indies.
Ten months later Heyerdahl launched a new papyrus boat – Ra II – from the same Moroccan seaport.
This time he had brought four Aymara Indians over from Lake Titicaca in South America to build the vessel.
The Aymara still built reed boats on the shores of this stormy mountain lake in the Andes, 4,000 m above sea level, using the same methods used in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
The entire crew from the first Ra voyage wanted to repeat the experiment and, with the addition of a representative from yet another nation, Heyerdahl hoisted the sail on Ra II. This boat was only 12 m long, but was structurally far stronger than Ra.
Ra II crossed the Atlantic Ocean and sailed the approx. 6,100 km from Safi in Morocco to Barbados in the West Indies in 57 days. Since this time the experiment had been successful, anthropologists across the entire world had to forget the old dogma that papyrus boats could not have brought cultural impulses from North Africa to Central America in pre-Columbian times.
During the Ra voyage, Heyerdahl wrote his first letter to the UN about the fact that the oceans of the world were becoming polluted. He was asked by the Secretary-General of the UN to make daily pollution observations during the Ra II voyage. Hardened clumps of tar were collected on 43 days of the 57-day voyage. In this way the voyage helped to raise awareness of the need to stop the pollution of the world’s seas.
Heyerdahl presented reports about the pollution problem to the UN’s first conference on oceanic law, committees of the USA’s senate and congress, the USSR’s scientific academy and in a long series of campaigns for the conservation of the world’s seas.
Following the expedition a book was published about the Ra expeditions, as well as a documentary, which was nominated for an Oscar.
“The Ra Expeditions” 1972 directed by Lennart Ehrenborg and Thor Heyerdahl