Tuesday, May 10, 2011

William Willis, Raft Wacko Extraordinaire

William Willis building Seven Little Sisters.
Thor Heyerdahl's world-famous Kon Tiki expedition in 1948 spawned a whole raft (ahem!) of emulators. Some of these sought to demonstrate some scientific principle or theory of prehistoric settlement, as Heyerdahl had done, based on theories ranging from plausible to absurd. Some sought fame. William Willis apparently did it for the pure hell of it.

As described in Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting by T.R. Pearson, Willis was a nearly-rootless adventurer. Beginning as a merchant seaman, he drifted through literally dozens of jobs, wrote reams of unreadable literature, and practiced yoga and ate a macrobiotic diet decades before hardly anyone in the U.S. had heard of either. In his mid-40s, he spent over a year of appalling hardship in French Guiana on a hare-brained, but ultimately successful, plot to spring his landlady's son -- a man he had never met -- from the penal colony of Devil's Island: no special reason, but the hardship and the challenge seemed to appeal to him.

It was in that vein that, at the age of 60, he decided to outdo Heyerdahl in terms of distance, self-reliance, deprivation and audacity. He traveled to Peru, built himself a balsa raft named Seven Little Sisters, and set sail alone (if you don't count the cat or the parrot), provisioned with starvation rations of ground meal, raw sugar and little else.

Seven Little Sisters under sail.
Willis was a curious case. Intelligent, thoughtful, and capable of careful planning, he always  got tired of details before he was done with them, essentially saying to himself, "well, that may be close enough." And then, when things went wrong, he would invariably curse himself, saying "I just KNEW that was going to happen!" So when his only mainsail split wide open, he accepted it with equanimity, because he knew that he should have sailed with a spare. Ditto when most of his water supplies disappeared because they had been stored in rust-prone containers. And when he almost died in mid-ocean due to a perforated ulcer and, later, a strangulated hernia -- well, he knew these problems existed, and very consciously decided not to have them treated before embarking. He had the self-knowledge at all times to blame only himself for his hardships, and indeed, it appears that he purposely threw hardships in his own way. Perhaps there was a death wish. Perhaps he was driven to see just what kind of stuff he was made of. (He believed that he was almost supernaturally resistant to the effects of age.) Almost certainly, he enjoyed facing the challenges that such hardships presented.

Willis made it to Samoa, his intended destination, wrote a book about the trip, and achieved a modest degree of fame that proved fleeting. (His book The Gods Were Kind sold less than 10,000 copies in the U.S., but when it was translated into Russian and sold as a children's book in the USSR, it moved over 100,000 copies!) But he wasn't done. More than ten years later, in his early 70s, he built another raft, which he took -- again alone -- from Peru to Australia. This was followed by three attempts to cross the Atlantic in a small, apparently not very suitable, open sailboat. The first two attempts were turned back by poor conditions and miserable progress. Willis disappeared on the third attempt, although his boat was recovered.

Seaworthy (not to be confused with Linda Greenlaw's fishing memoir of the same title) is a quick, fun read and a fascinating profile of a very strange but oddly admirable individual. Author Pearson places Willis's adventures in context by describing at substantial length some of the other notable raft expeditions of the time: Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki, Alain Bombard's L'Heretique, Eric de Bisschop's two Tahiti Nui expeditions, and DeVere Baker's well-funded but ludicrous Lehi expeditions (which last sought to prove Baker's fantastic, Mormon-inspired "theory" that the western hemisphere had been settled by ancient Israelites sailing rafts across the Indian and Pacific Oceans). One might reasonably suspect that these other raft expeditions are included mainly to pad out the text, but in fact they are described in fascinating detail in their own right, and they serve the important function of holding Willis up to the mirror of his colleagues and competitiors in terms of their seamanship, their motiviations, their craft and equipment, and the nature of their achievements.

1 comment:

  1. This post is now available in German: http://atlantisforschung.de/index.php?title=William_Willis_-_ein_au%C3%9Fergew%C3%B6hnlicher_%27Flo%C3%9F-Narr%27