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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Aboard the raft, the 20th-century Argonauts supplemented their G.I. rations with coconuts, sweet potatoes, pineapples (they had stashed away 657 cans), water stored in bamboo tubes and the fish they caught. During long lulls, they entertained themselves by baiting the ever-present sharks, snatching them by the tails and hoisting them aboard. Dozens of them. In the documentary assembled from footage Heyerdahl shot with his trusty 16-mm camera, a crew member dangles a mahi-mahi over the side of the raft and a shark pops up, snaps its jaws and takes half of the fish with it. “Just a childish game to relieve boredom,” says Heyerdahl’s eldest son, Thor Jr., a retired marine biologist. “For Norwegians, the concept of ‘conversation’ probably didn’t exist in those days.”

It would be three months before land was sighted. The Kon-Tiki passed several of the outlying islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago, and after 101 days at sea, was pushed by tail winds to a jagged coral reef. Rather than risk running the raft aground, Heyerdahl ordered the sail lowered and centerboards up. Anchors were rigged from the mast. A swell lifted the Kon-Tiki high and flung it in the shallows beyond the roaring breakers. The cabin and mast collapsed, but the men hung onto the main logs and emerged mostly unharmed. They straggled ashore on Raroia, an uninhabited atoll in French Polynesia. The flimsy Kon-Tiki had traveled more than 3,700 nautical miles.

Heyerdahl’s book would inspire a pop phenomenon. Kon-Tiki begat Tiki bars, Tiki motels, Tiki buses, Tiki sardines, Tiki shorts, Tiki cognac, Tiki chardonnay, vanilla-cream Tiki wafers and a tune by the Shadows that topped the British singles charts. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Enchanted Tiki Room, a Disneyland attraction that features Tiki drummers, Tiki totem poles and a flock of tropical Audio-Animatronic birds singing “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room.”

Looming in the dim light, a colossal whale shark gambols in the briny deep. The 30-foot creature, a plastic model of one that darted playfully beneath the Kon-Tiki and threatened to upend it, is suspended from the basement ceiling of the museum. Many a kid who grew up in or visited Oslo has stood in the semidarkness and marveled at the monster and imagined its fearful snort. In the museum’s diorama, the ocean stretches on forever.

Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg first glimpsed the whale shark when they were 10 years old. But what really caught their eye was the shiny gold idol that reposed in a glass case one floor above: Heyerdahl’s Oscar. “For us,” says Sandberg, “that was even bigger than the whale shark.”

Growing up in Sandefjord, a small town south of Oslo, Sandberg and Roenning didn’t read and reread Kon-Tiki to learn about migration theory. “We wanted to be part of Heyerdahl’s adventure,” says Roenning. “As a Norwegian, he fascinated us. He was ambitious and unafraid to admit it, which is not very Norwegian.”

Heyerdahl never veered from the course he set. In the wake of the Kon-Tiki, he pursued and promoted his controversial theories. He led cruises aboard the reed rafts Ra, Ra II and Tigris. He conducted fieldwork in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Canada. In Peru, he unearthed raft centerboards that he believed suggested return voyages from Polynesia against the wind might have been possible.

For a half-century, Heyerdahl refused to go to Hollywood. Many deep-pocketed producers came calling about Kon-Tiki. “All were kicked out to sea,” says Sandberg. “I think Thor was afraid of becoming the Kon-Tiki Man. He wanted to be judged on his body of work.”

Then one day in 1996 Jeremy Thomas showed up on the doorstep of Heyerdahl’s home in the Canary Islands. The British impresario had an Oscar under his belt—for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987)—and a story pitch on his lips. “In my imagination,” he says, “Kon-Tiki was about six hippies on a raft.”

When Heyerdahl, then 81, resisted, the 47-year-old Thomas persisted. He enlisted the aid of Heyerdahl’s third wife, Jacqueline, a former Miss France who’d appeared in a tranche of American movies (Pillow Talk, The Prize) and TV shows (“Mister Ed,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”). On Thomas’ third trip to the Canaries, Heyerdahl caved and signed over the rights. It wasn’t necessarily that Thomas’ counter­cultural vision had won him over. “Thor was short on expedition funding for one of his wilder theories,” says Reidar Solsvik. Heyerdahl believed that the Viking god Odin may have been a real king in the first century B.C. He used at least some of the money to search in southern Russia for evidence of Odin, who ruled over Asgard.

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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