The history of the sea is peppered with many stories of great seamanship and inspired journeys. One of the greatest of these is surely the story of the raft Kon-Tiki. The mastermind behind this famous undertaking was Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian anthropologist who took a great interest in Polynesia and its origins.
He travelled frequently to the South Pacific and even lived for a while on the Marquesan island of Fatu Hiva. In one of his books he describes how he sat for days on its eastern shore watching the waves crashing onto the cliffs. He could not help but notice that the wind and waves were coming, relentlessly, from the east. He listened to the old men telling stories about the god Tiki, who came from the sea, ‘where the sun rises’.
However, the commonly held theory at the time was that the Polynesians migrated from Asia. So as such, they should have come from the west, but the more Thor looked to the east, the more he thought that maybe the anthropologists had got it wrong. To him, it just didn’t make any sense.
“If the wind, the current and the waves come from the east, then the people must have come from that direction as well.” He confidently stated and this soon became his life’s purpose: he wanted to prove that the first Polynesians arrived from South America.
He found five Scandinavian comrades who believed in his theory and together they made their way to Peru where they began to plan the crossing of the Pacific Ocean. They wanted to make an exact replica of the rafts the Inca people had used, so they based their design on the sketches from the early Spanish conquistadors. They decided to use only materials that were available 2500 years ago, so they ended up with a raft made of balsa logs lashed together with natural ropes and powered by the very basic sail of the times. The raft was named after the Peruvian Sun god, the Kon-Tiki.
The journey of the Kon-Tiki lasted 101 days. The vessel and crew came through many ordeals: from encounters with whales to endless calms and raging storms.
On the 7th of August 1947, the Kon-Tiki ended its 7000km sail on the atoll of Raroia in French Polynesia. Thor Heyerdahl became famous, his book became a best-seller and his documentary even won an Oscar. The Norwegian anthropologist managed to achieve what many described as impossible and became a national hero. The only thing in which he didn’t succeed was his original goal - to prove that Polynesians descended from South Americans. Modern DNA evidence does indeed show that Polynesia was populated from Asia.
Whether Thor was right or wrong, we cannot deny that his achievement was truly remarkable. He challenged the limits of what was thought possible and opened many minds. His contribution is possibly best personified in one of his more famous quotes:
“Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”
Raroia, a small coral atoll in French Polynesia, still honours the unexpected visit of those six Scandinavian boys. In the place where the waves pushed the raft onto the reef, the locals erected a small monument. It stands in a little clearing in the middle of a tiny island. Snow-white birds fly above it and in the distance you can hear the loud noise of crashing waves.
I stood there for a long time, listening to the waves. Then I closed my eyes and was soon transported back to 1947. Amongst the big waves I saw a bunch of sunburned long-bearded modern-day Vikings on a tiny raft. I saw them on top of the last wave, the one that threw them onto the reef. They were holding their breath. In their blue eyes I could see how impatient they were about making landfall, just like every ocean sailor before them. I could also see the fear of the sharp coral reef and the excitement of the first sight of a tropical island. But more than anything, in their eyes I saw the glint of pride.
They had made it.
I have always had a connection to the sea. Born in the coastal village of Sistiana (near Trieste) in northern Italy, my earliest memories are of watching the heavy waves slam ashore when the local winds were blowing hard. As a teenager, the sailing club became my focus – not just for my love of water sports, but also for the handsome boys that sailed there. I went on to become an Optimist instructor for the club by summer and a junior school teacher by winter. However, ten years of focusing on the needs of children dampened my maternal instincts somewhat and I felt the need to travel. The sea was the obvious way to go…