Notoriously fickle wind currents coursing the channel of the Missouri River which forms the surface of Lewis and Clark Lake west of Yankton have drawn a great many sailboats to our area. One seasoned sailboat captain told a public television interviewer that, “If you can sail Lewis and Clark Lake, you can sail anywhere.”
One wonders how many of these intrepid boaters would answer this inquiry:
“Am going to cross Pacific on a wooden raft to support theory that the South Sea Islands were peopled from Peru. Will you come along?” All three explorers who received this telegram joined the expedition.
Thor Heyerdahl, author and explorer, led his first expedition in 1937-38 to the Marquesa Islands in the South Pacific. During this year of field work, while living among the Polynesian tribes, he was led to suspect that the earliest settlers of these islands had come with the winds and currents from South America.
He hoisted the Norwegian flag over his raft of balsawood logs April 27, 1947, at the Calloa Yacht Club on the west coast of Peru, just north of Lima. Yes, this is an old story. I read about this “new” adventure in our copies of “The Weekly Reader,” a newspaper country school students subscribed to in those days for 10 cents each.
A book review of “Kon-Tiki” in the Saturday Review of Literature Syndicate explained, “To prove his theory that Polynesia was peopled by an ancient race sailing from Peru on rafts, Thor Heyerdahl, a young Norwegian anthropologist, assembled five men of dauntless courage and many talents.
“They built a raft of balsa logs, an exact replica of those used by the Incas.
“Kin-Tiki is the story of their 101-day voyage — 4,300 miles westward across the Pacific, with wind and current for power, a wealth of marine life for sure provisions and a green parrot for a mascot.
“The crew of the Kon-Tiki became intimates of dolphins, flying fish and sharks. At night, they met the mysterious, staring eyes of indistinguishable sea monsters. They grew close to the immensities of the sea and sky.”
No specific dimensions of the craft are mentioned in the Reader’s Digest condensed version, but I would assume, from pictures taken and developed at sea, the raft was about the size of a modest living room.
Nine of the thickest logs were chosen, with the longest at 45 feet, lashed into the middle. The logs were lashed together and a floor of bamboo, which they also harvested from the Peruvian jungle by themselves, served as a floor of the raft. Not a single spike, nail or wire rope was used in the whole construction.
They had ventured into the swamps and forests of Peru to cut the living balsa trees themselves and floated them downriver to ports on the Peruvian coast.
They hired a tug boat to tow the raft many miles out into the ocean from Peru until they reached the Humboldt current — and they sailed away from the tug.
Heyerdahl wrote that, at sea, the raft encountered heavy seas, “it handled the seas like a cork.
“About midnight that first night, a ship’s light passed, bound north. At three, another passed on the same course. We waved our parafin lamp and a flashlight, but evidently they did not see us for they did not signal back. This was the last ship and the last trace of men we should see till we had reached the other side of the ocean.”
Kon-Tiki averaged about 55 to 60 sea miles daily, with a record 71 miles in one day.
But there was another passenger aboard — doubt.
“Now that we were accustomed to the sea, we began to wonder how long we could count on keeping afloat. The balsa logs were absorbing water. We could press a fingertip into the aft crossbeam till the water squelched.
“Without saying anything, I broke off a piece of the sodden wood and threw it overboard. It sank. Later, I saw others doing the same thing when they thought no one was looking. However, if we drove a knife an inch or so into the timber, we saw that the wood was dry.”
Heyerdahl’s extensive research had been proven: dry balsa logs would have drawn up water immediately and sunk. The fresh balsa trees, wet with sap, they had harvested from the Peruvian forest themselves saved the voyage.
The cook’s first duty in the morning was to collect all the flying fish that had boarded the raft during the night. There were usually half a dozen or more. One morning, there were 26. Another morning, about four, one of the men was awakened with something cold and wet flapping about his pillow. When the lamp was lit, he was holding the neck of a fish three feet long, slender as a snake with dull black eyes and a long snout with a jaw full of teeth. The crew was the first in the modern world to see a live snake mackerel; only skeletons had been found before.
True sea monsters visited the raft, including a 50-foot whale shark, largest fish in the world. The crew was pleasantly surprised by a close encounter with a nosy whale who breathed fresh air as did they, one of the few other mammals they encountered on the trip.
On the night before July 30, there was a new and strange atmosphere about the Kon-Tiki. The screaming of birds sounded hectic and earthly after the dead creaking of the lifeless ropes, all they had heard above the noise of the seas in the last three months.
At six, one of the crew came down from the masthead and told Heyerdahl to “come look at your island.” His theory had been proven. “We were filled with a warm, quiet satisfaction at having actually reached Polynesia.” But the island sailed away as they were still caught in the prevailing current and could not make the island. Four days later, they heard from a crew member, “Land ahead.” Several days later, arrangements were made to tow Kon-Tiki among various islands to Tahiti.
One of the natives the rafters encountered said, “brrrrrr” meaning to start their motor and follow their canoes. The islanders were amazed the strange vessel was simply a raft.
Six men, nine logs and a jumble of bamboo and ropes came ashore on a Pacific Island in 1947. Kon-Tiki is maintained in a museum on an Oslo fjord and is visited by many curious visitors daily.