Sunday, August 28, 2011

Raft Wackos and Quackos

In 1998, adventurer Phil Buck mounted an expedition to demonstrate the feasibility of Thor Heyerdahls' theory that Easter Island was settled by people from the west coast of South America. Heyerdahl, of course, had already shown that a raft built of balsa logs could make its way across vast stretches of the Pacific, but it had yet to be demonstrated that Easter Island in particular could be reached via pre-Columbian seagoing technology.

At Lake Titicaca, Buck hired a boatbuilder who had experience building reed boats, and the result was the hull of Viracocha, measuring 64 feet LOA,16 feet in beam and weighing 16 tons.This was trucked to the coast of Chile where it was completed with the addition of decking and deck house, a steering platform with twin steering oars, and a rig consisting of two bipod masts hoisting lateen sails. Buck and a crew of seven then sailed it without mishap, and with few serious difficulties, from Arica, Chile, to Easter Island. (Two ducks were also shipped as crew, but one abandoned ship mid-ocean.)

Heyerdahl's theories concerning the settlement of the Pacific by people from South America are controversial and are generally dismissed by scientists. Nevertheless,
8 Men and a Duck : An Improbable Voyage by Reed Boat to Easter Island, by Nick Thorpe, is one of the better first-person accounts of modern raft voyaging.

Thorpe met Buck by happenstance while Viracocha was still under construction in Bolivia. A reporter for a Scottish newspaper, Thorpe was really on the lookout for a personal adventure, and he joined Buck's project as crew first, and only secondarily to document it as a journalist. Thorpe's narrative is unassuming and mildly comic in tone, and his concern is far more with the personalities and interactions of the crew during the six-week voyage under crowded and uncomfortable conditions than with the technical aspects of seafaring.

All illustrations from
Eight Men and a Duck.
(Click any image to enlarge)
One of the expedition's greatest difficulties was its opposition by another rafting adventurer, Kitin Munoz, who considered himself to be Heyerdahl's "spiritual son," and whose two previous attempts to sail reed boats across the Pacific met with failure. Munoz sniped at the Buck expedition constantly in the press, declaring it invalid due to a small amount of synthetic rope that had been used to bind some of the innermost bundles of reeds. According to Thorpe, Munoz exaggerated or lied outright about several aspects of the project, and he even managed to get Heyerdahl himself to make some fairly negative comments about the Viracocha expedition in the press. Buck, who as a youth had been deeply influenced by Heyerdahl's book Kon Tiki, was deeply wounded by this criticism from his hero.

In the end of Thorpe's narrative, however, he describes a meeting between himself, Buck, and Heyerdahl, some time after Viracocha's voyage. In it, Buck was able to persuade Heyerdahl of the validity of his project, gaining his approval and thus helping Buck to justify his otherwise almost entirely successful project in his own eyes.

The first third of the book describes the expedition's planning and the boat's construction and launching as a narrative, while an appendix gives a good amount of detail about the boat's design and construction. As shown below, Viracocha consisted of two main hulls of tortora reeds bound closely around a central pontoon known as the corazon ("heart").  The main bundles were somewhat blunt-ended, but to these were added extensions of more bundled reeds that tapered to points. In the front, the two end-bundles merged into a single, upturned pointed bow, while in the rear, the two end bundles remained separate, curving up into a bifurcated stern. Both centerboards and leeboards ("guaras") controlled leeway, and steering was by way of a pair of steering oars with their huge blades placed entirely abaft the shafts. These, according to Thorpe, was physically challenging to manage. They obviously would have been handier had they been "balanced," -- i.e., had part of their blades ahead of the shaft.


  1. I actually have his other book about the balsa craft on my Amazon wishlist. This one looks pretty good too.

    So, how do I get to be an adventurer building medieval boats and sailing them? What a cool job!

  2. Grant - If I knew the answer to your question, I'd be doing it.
    Seriously, the folk who've done this kind of thing have had to make it happen for themselves. Driven, self-directed individuals, some of whom do it on a shoestring, others who can sweet-talk others into financing the project.