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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Raft Wackos

Everyone's heard of Kon Tiki, the balsa raft and the eponymous book by raftconteur Thor Heyerdahl. And a few of us are aware of some of Heyerdahl's other rafting adventures, especially on the reed boats Ra and Tigris. But who knew that Heyerdahl had inspired literally dozens of other raft trips by other quasi-scientists, dreamers, solitaries and assorted wackos?

In Sea Drift, author P.J. Capelotti recounts more than 40 rafting expeditions since 1947, when Heyerdahl sailed and drifted in Kon Tiki across a good chunk of the Pacific Ocean. He does this briefly in most cases, since there's only so much detail you can fit into an under-300 page book that attempts to cover so many different stories. But what comes out is the notion that transoceanic rafting has a strange allure to certain strange individuals, and that there are a surprising number of them who have, or can scare up, the resources to act on it. I almost said "to turn their dreams into reality," but stopped myself, because that would be highly inaccurate, since a large majority of the rafting expeditions were miserable failures by almost any yardstick. Certainly, few of them succeeded in achieving their geographic targets, whether those targets were highly specific islands, or more generalized goals like "across the whole damn ocean" (or, in one case, a world circumnavigation! Don't make me laugh.). In fact, a good number of these would-be ocean crossers never got more than a few miles off their coast of departure. Some were simply unable to cross contrary currents or work against contrary winds. Others were poorly built from the get-go and began to fall apart almost immediately.

That's not to say that there weren't some fairly impressive adventures -- but still, they never really proved anything. Most of them sought to demonstrate that some People could have settled some land by means of rafts. But that's a big so what? I could have written The DaVinci Code. It gets one not a bit further in discovering whether they actually did, or how.

Capelotti has a certain amount of sympathy for many of his subjects, and a great deal of (probably undeserved) respect for Heyerdahl, who has been credibly accused to making up huge chunks of the so-called science upon which he based his transoceanic settlement theories. (I recall reading an article titled "Con Tiki.") And it is interesting, from sociological and nautical points of view, to read these brief descriptions of these oddball adventures.

The book includes fairly crude sketches of many of the rafts, and just a single photo (of Heyerdahl, naturally). Of greater use are a couple of tables in appendices that list every post-WWII oceanic raft trip, their leaders, dates, basic construction materials (e.g., balsa, reed, plywood), geographic goals, results, and present disposition of the raft The book appears to be out of print (I found it deeply discounted in a local bookstore), but it's fairly recent (2001, Rutgers University Press), and I suspect it could be had if one looked hard enough.


  1. And would you believe that my spellchecker didn't like it?