Rafting Across the Pacific and Other Impossible (But True) Voyages of Thor Heyerdahl

The Kon-Tiki raft
The Kon-Tiki raft

I almost overlooked the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo completely because, although it’s a highly-rated attraction, I had never heard of the incredible expeditions of Norwegian researcher Thor Heyerdahl.

Every aspect of the story of his first mission to raft from Peru to Polynesia is more impossible to believe than the last. And yet, it succeeded. And was followed up by more, equally against-all-odds expeditions. And even though some of Heyerdahl’s theories are no longer or only partially supported, his incredible death-defying sense of adventure in the name of science and humanity is beyond inspiring.

Let’s start with the first voyage of the Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl noticed similarities between South American and Polynesian cultures, and theorized that ocean travel in the direction of east to west had occurred in the past. He believed there to be truth in a Peruvian legend about a man who had sailed west on a raft to a faraway land.

To prove that this was possible, Heyerdahl studied materials and traditions in Peru and built a balsa wood raft in 1947 to complete such a voyage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Balsa wood. The same lightweight material used to make dollhouse furniture. The raft was essentially a cork bobbing along with the ocean. Even gathering the light wood proved death-defying, as the only available sources left were deep in the forests. One of the six men involved in the project was bitten by a poisonous spider during this early phase.

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But bobbing along sounds a bit exaggerated. At least the crew were experienced sailors who could steer the raft, right? No and no. Thor Heyerdahl himself was completely inexperienced at shipbuilding and sailing, and the raft was specifically built to be at the mercy of the currents, i.e. unsteerable.

More unbelievable still? Heyerdahl was not a strong swimmer and was afraid of water.

The U.S. army proved to be one of the only organizations crazy enough to donate supplies to the expedition, by all accounts considered by most (for obvious reasons!) to be a suicide mission.

But succeed the voyage did, despite a particularly perilous run-in with a whale shark, the largest fish in the sea. It seemed that the raft was doomed to capsize until crew member Erik Hesselberg attacked the monster of the deep with a harpoon.

After 101 days, just one day more than estimated, the raft of foolhardy adventurers washed onto the shores of the Polynesian Islands, proving that it could be done.

While it was the adventure of a lifetime, Heyerdahl didn’t stop there. After turning his research to Easter Island, bringing its culture and history to the attention of the western world, he returned to the sea.

The Ra II
The Ra II

In the late sixties to early seventies, he constructed more vessels to prove seemingly impossible theories. The Ra and Ra II, ships built of papyrus (!), were built to traverse the Atlantic. The second attempt, Ra II, succeeded in completing the voyage from Morocco to Barbados.

Heyerdahl specifically selected an internationally diverse crew for the Atlantic venture to show that people from different cultures could cooperate to successfully complete the project. Along the way, the crew discovered and collected samples of pollution in the ocean, presenting their findings to the United Nations upon completion in an effort to improve environmental sanctions.

Continuing in the spirit of humanitarianism, Heyerdahl chose to burn his last boat, the Tigris, whose passage through the Red Sea was blocked by warring nations in 1978. The reed boat’s mission was to prove the possibility of navigating the sea, as Heyerdahl theorized cultures from Mesopotamia and modern-day Pakistan and western India had done in the past. Burning the boat, as Heyerdahl spoke out to the UN, was intended to protest the inhumanity committed by civilized cultures:

“Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas, and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship.”

At the center of Heyerdahl’s incredible life and work seemed always to be the pursuit to understand the world’s people and improve our common home. And while newer studies contradict Heyerdahl’s anthropological theories as to the travel patterns and intercultural exchange of the past, I’d like to think he would appreciate the ongoing nature of the research and the continuing quest for seeking knowledge about our world and its peoples. After all, isn’t that what science and discovery is all about?

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Figure of Thor Heyerdahl in the Kon-Tiki Museum
Figure of Thor Heyerdahl in the Kon-Tiki Museum
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