On April 28, 1947 a balsa log raft loaded with roughly three months provisions and a presumably anxious crew, set sail from Callao, Peru. Their destination; the Tuamotu Archipelago in the South Pacific, some 4300 miles away. Their primary method of travel; drifting, albeit of a highly developed sort.
Thor Heyerdahl, the captain of Kon Tiki and the man responsible for the exceptionally risky expedition, was possibly the least qualified man to ever command a vessel in a transcontinental voyage. He was, after all, primarily a scientist. Hailing from Norway, in 1937 he travelled with his newlywed wife to the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific on a zoological research expedition; a trip that would change his life.
While there collecting maritime specimen, the Norwegian couldn't help but notice the prevailing trade winds and breakers rolling in from the east. Nor did the presence of South American crops such as the sweet potato and similarities between the stone figures on Fatu Hiva and those of ancient American civilizations escape his attentive eye. Heyerdahl also saw likeness in the peoples, rituals, and myths of the Polynesians he encountered with those of South American countries and one night, by the light of a beachside fire, listened rapt as an elder told him about the legend of a demigod named Tiki who brought his ancestors to the islands from a land beyond the horizon to the east.
This was too much for Thor Heyerdahl to simply muse on and write about in some quiet academic hall. He developed a working theory that the peoples of Polynesia had origins in the east and had simply drifted on strong open ocean currents from the Americas; a view that was dismissed as nonsense since the pre-Columbian shipbuilding techniques of South American peoples were deemed too primitive to make the voyage. The widely held theory was that Polynesia had been settled by the skillful mariners of Southeast Asia to the west who had mastered astrological navigation and developed advanced oceangoing vessels. And so, with nothing more than his charm and an abundance of optimism, Heyerdahl managed to corral financial sponsors and a crew of five willing accomplices of varying experience to build and sail an ancient style South American raft on his promise of 'a free trip to the South Sea Islands and back.'
The crew traveled to Peru where, with help from local shipwrights, they assembled a 15' x 30' raft of 9 balsa logs lashed together with hemp rope in an indigenous style as recorded by the first waves of Spanish conquistadores. A bamboo cabin fastened atop the deck and covered with thatched banana leaves provided the only shelter from the elements. A square, ironically Viking looking sail was hoisted baring the image of Kon Tiki; an ancient Peruvian sun god who'd disappeared across the sea to the west, mirroring the Polynesian god Tiki arriving from the east.
With a smash of a coconut against the bow, Heyerdahl and co set sail from Peru. Actually, they were towed the first 80 miles out to sea to avoid early misfortune with one of the many large shipping vessels steaming through the area; but after that they were on their own. Though the mission was to keep technology as close to that of ancient Incans as possible, the Kon Tiki did carry a radio for ocean conditions and weather reports and even a potential mayday call; but the fact was rescue would have been nearly impossible given their remote location and diminutive stature. The six men navigated with only the sun, stars, wind and currents and steered by maneuvering the mainsail and a temperamental balsa keel, and on more urgent occasions, by paddling. Swell heights reached above the sail in stormy seas but the crew managed to keep the rickety vessel on track following the Humboldt current southwest.
Kon Tiki's cook collected the flying fish that landed atop the deck every night, shellfish that grew on the bottom, and seaweed that floated past. They caught tuna and dolphin and at one point were nearly caught themselves by a large fish when crewmember Knut Haugland leaned over to wash his hands and came face to face with a 30 foot whale shark, which circled a few times then left without incident.
After 93 days at sea, Heyerdahl and crew sighted palm trees in the distance. Their primitive vessel being largely at the mercy of winds and currents, however, they had to watch as the mysterious island slowly floated past while they remained out at sea. More than a week later, on the morning of August 7, 1947 the crew spotted shallow reef off the starboard side. Excitement quickly turned to defensive action as towering surf overcame the fragile craft eventually snapping the mast and sending the crew overboard onto the Raroia Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago near Tahiti.
The men all arrived on land safely; only their pet parrot missing in action. After 101 days and 4300 miles at sea, Heyerdahl had proved it was indeed a possibility that ancients from the Americas travelled to the South Pacific islands. This would not prove, however, to be a decisive blow to the prevailing line of thought, and to this day Kon Tiki's voyage stands as a curious anomaly of open ocean navigation instead the piece of hard scientific evidence the Norwegian had hoped for. Heyerdahl's brave expedition would send him in his crew to fame though. In 1950 a critically acclaimed documentary film was produced on the subject and he would go on to pen a book documenting the adventure cementing his status as a Nordic folk hero.
Thor Heyerdahl continued to pursue his love for the open sea throughout his adventurous life; plotting various ocean endeavors no less perilous than Kon Tiki including a voyage from Morocco to Barbados following the Canary Current aboard a reed raft in the ancient Egyptian style. Regardless of the validity of his anthropological theories, Heyerdahl's robust sense of optimism and zest for life-namely life on the open sea-will forever stand as an inspiration, especially for those who's dreams lay out on the watery horizon.