Kon-Tiki Sails Again

A new film recreates the epic voyage—and revives the controversy over its legendary leader, Thor Heyerdahl

A crew member dives overboard in the film. (Recorded Picture Company / The Kobal Collection)
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The scientific community dismissed Heyerdahl’s findings. Fellow academics claimed humans could never have survived the months of exposure and privations, and that no early American craft could have weathered the violence of the Pacific’s storms. When Heyerdahl failed to interest New York publishers in his manuscript, the evocatively titled “Polynesia and America: A Study of Prehistoric Relations,” he decided to test his theories of human migration by attempting the journey himself. He vowed that if he pulled it off, he’d write a popular book.

Heyerdahl’s father, the president of a brewery and a mineral water plant, wanted to bankroll the expedition. But his plans were scuttled by restrictions on sending Norwegian kroner out of the country. So the younger Heyerdahl used his considerable powers of persuasion to scrounge the money ($22,500). He then put out a call for crew members: “Am going to cross the Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea islands were peopled from Peru. Will you come? Reply at once.’’

Four Norwegians and a Swede were game. Though the recruits knew Heyerdahl, they didn’t know one another. Most were intimate with danger as members of Norway’s wartime underground. They had either been spies or saboteurs; Heyerdahl himself had served as a paratrooper behind Nazi lines. Curiously, he could barely swim. Having twice almost drowned as a boy, he had grown up terrified of water.

Heyerdahl and countryman Herman Watzinger flew to Lima and, during the rainy season, crossed the Andes in a jeep. In the Ecuadorean jungle, they felled nine balsa trees and floated them downriver to the sea. Using ancient specs gleaned from explorers’ diaries and records, the crew patiently assembled a raft in the naval harbor of Callao.

The Kon-Tiki ran against every canon of modern seamanship. Its base—made of balsa logs ranging in length from 30 to 45 feet—was lashed to crossbeams with strips of hand-woven Manila rope. On top was laid a deck of bamboo matting. The raft’s small half-open cabin of bamboo plaits and leathery banana leaves was too low to stand in. A bipod mast was carved of mangrove, hard as iron. The square sail, bearing a likeness of the sun god, was set on a yard of bamboo stems, bound together; the helm was a 15-foot-long mango wood steering oar. For verisimilitude, this weird vegetable vessel was constructed without spikes, nails or wire—all of which were unknown to pre-Columbian Peruvians.

Though ignorant of the Incan art of steering, Heyerdahl was well aware of the perils awaiting an open raft with no more stability than a cork. (Balsa is, in fact, less dense than cork.) Skeptics—including National Geographic magazine, which declined to sponsor the expedition—treated Heyerdahl like he was on a dice roll with death. So-called experts predicted that the balsa would quickly break under the strain; that the logs would wear through the ropes or get waterlogged and sink; that the sail and rigging would be stripped by sudden, screaming winds; that gales would swamp the raft and wash the crew overboard. A naval attaché bet all the whiskey the crew members could drink over the rest of their lives that they’d never make it to the South Seas alive.

Despite the warnings, the six men and their parrot, Lorita, put to sea on April 28, 1947. Drifting with the trade winds, riding heavy swells, the unwieldy Kon-Tiki proved astonishingly seaworthy. Rather than chafe the Manila rope lashings, the balsa logs became soft and spongy, leaving the rope unharmed and effectively protecting it. Water swept over the raft and through the logs as if passing through the prongs of a fork. The floating prefab progressed through the southern latitudes at an average rate of 37 nautical miles a day.

According to Heyerdahl’s account, when the seas were really rough and the waves really high—say, 25 feet—the helmsmen, sometimes waist deep in water, “left the steering to the ropes and jumped up and hung on to a bamboo pole from the cabin roof, while the masses of water thundered in over them from astern. Then they had to fling themselves at the oar again before the raft could turn around, for if the raft took the seas at an angle the waves could easily pour right into the bamboo cabin.”

Among the post-Incan furnishings provided by the U.S. military were tinned food, shark repellent and six-watt transmitters. “Heyerdahl knew the value of good marketing,” offers Reidar Solsvik, curator of the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo. “He only allowed one navigator in his crew, but he made sure his raft had five radio sets.” Heyerdahl’s radioman broadcast daily progress reports to ham operators, who relayed the messages to a press as ravenous as bird-eating sharks and a postwar public eager to embrace overnight heroes. “The general public was enthralled,” says Jeremy Thomas. “Much of western civilization lay in ruins, and the Kon-Tiki took all the hardship off the front pages.”

Newspapers around the world charted the path of the daredevil explorers as if they were orbiting the moon. “Heyerdahl was a great storyteller, but his true genius was in PR,” says Joachim Roenning, who directed the new film with his childhood friend Espen Sandberg. “The voyage of the Kon-Tiki was the world’s first reality show.”

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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