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Kon-Tiki - short history

Kon-Tiki - short history

Kon-Tiki - short history

Text: Knut Haugland, crewmember, The Kon-Tiki expdition.

On the 28th of April 1947, the Kon-Tiki raft was towed out of the harbour of Callao in Peru, and left adrift in the Humboldt Current.

A hundred and one days later, after crossing 4300 miles (8000 km) of the Pacific, the raft was washed up on the Raroia reef well inside Polynesia.

The six men who made up the crew were: Thor Heyerdahl, leader of the expedition; Herman Watzinger, in charge of meteorological and technical research; Knut Haugland and Torstein Raaby, both wireless operators, who maintained contact with radio amateurs; Erik Hesselberg, navigator, who plotted the drift of the raft; and the Swedish sociologist Bengt Danielson, who acted as steward.

The object of the expedition was to test the sea-going abilities of the South American balsa raft, and to investigate whether it would have been practically possible for the original native population of Peru, the Incas and their remarkably cultured predecessors, to have reached the islands out in the open Pacific.

For more than a century scientists had debated as to whether balsa rafts were seaworthy, and to what extent it might have been possible for the aboriginal inhabitants of South America to have contributed to the peopling of the Pacific islands. The experts had finally concluded that the balsa raft was water absorbent and therefore compelled to hug the home coast where it could be beached at intervals and dried out in the sun. It was also argued that low deck of an open raft would be unprotected in the high sea, and furthermore, that the balsa raft would dissolve as soon as the big logs started chafing on the rope lashing that held the craft together. Due to the general disregard for the former means of navigation in ancient South America, it had already been agreed, for practical reasons, Polynesia could only have been reached from direction of Asia, until the arrival of European ships.

This generally accepted theory ran counter to the Pacific migration theory which Thor Heyerdahl had tried to obtain a hearing over a number of years. The Kon-Tiki expedition which he organized was an attempt to throw lights on these practical problems.

With co-operation of the Peruan authorities the members of the expedition built a balsa raft in the Callao naval yard. The raft was a copy of those used by the Indians on the coast of Peru and Ecuador at the time when the first European arrived. Large sailing rafts of this kind, with a capacity of up to 35 tons, were seen and described in detail from 1526 and on by the pioneering Spaniards who first among the Europeen discovered and colonized the Pacific coast of South America. Small raft models, and equisitely carved paddles and raft centreboards, have also been excavated in large numbers in desserts graves along the coast of Peru and North Chile, some dating back, to the very first centuries A.D.

The expedition test raft was built of medium size, consiting of nine 2-foot-thick balsa logs, ranging in length from thirty to forty-five feet, the longest in the middle, and lashed to balsa cross beams supporting a plaited bamboo deck and an open bamboo hut.

A bipod mast with a bamboo yard carrying a square sail; five centreboards thrust down in cracks between the logs; and a stout block of balsa supporting a long steering oar completed the construction.

The raft was christened Kon-Tiki”, after a legendary Sun-King who according to Inca history is supposed to have ruled their land before the coming of the Incas, after which he is claimed to have migrated into the Pacific.

In the ocean the Kon-Tiki proved to be eminently sea-worthy , with an amazing carrying capacity.

Every day the raft was driven westward and away from South America by the strong tradewind and the Humbolt Current, both of which maintained a steady course towards Polynesia.

Ample new supplies of food were also available in the Humbolt Current, every day edible flying fish and small squids would even come aboard uninvited: beneath the raft there was a constant procession of dolphins, pilot fish, sharks, bonitos, and occasionally tuna fish, as well as edible plankton.

It was possible to collect limited supplies of rainwater, and to squeeze a thirst-quenching lymph liquid from the ever present raw fish.

The raft was also at various occasions visited by whales, and two specimens of the Gempylus or snack-mackerel, a fish which never previously been seen alive by man, jumped aboard from out of the deep.

On one occasion the six men on the raft made the acquaintance, at uncomfortably close range, with the whale-shark, the world`s largest fish, which kept on swimming right under the raft.

The raft was caught in two storms, one of which lasted for five days, but the balsa logs rode the waves with incredible ease, and as mass of water crashed down on the stern of the raft, it ran out through the gaps between the logs.

The greater danger that threatened was falling aboard in strong wind, and at one such event a man was almost lost.

After 93 days at sea the expedition sighted land for the first time as the raft drifted helplessly past Puka-puka on the eastern fringe of the Tuamotu group.

Four days later the Kon-Tiki passed so close to the island of Angatau that the natives ashore paddled out to the raft with their canoes, but once again it was swept past.

When Raroia was reached after 101 days, the raft was caught in the surf and wrecked on the windward side of a coral reef just off the island.

The crew made their way ashore, and after a week they were found by native. Polynesians who lived on the other side of the wide lagoon.

The shallow raft was eventually washed right over the reef and into the calm lagoon, whence it was rescued, towed to Tahiti, and shipped back to Norway with assistance of the French authorities and Norwegian shipowners.

In 1949 a number of Norwegians, anxious to provide a future home for this unique vessel, had a suitable erected on the Bygdøy peninsula, on the outskirt of Oslo.

Since, more than 17.000 0000 have visited the Kon-tiki Museum and seen the original balsa raft kon-Tiki.

The documentary film of the story of the Kon-Tiki expedition won an Oscars in 1951 for best documentary feature. Thor Heyerdahls book“ The Kon-Tiki Expedition” become an international best seller and is translated to nearly 72 languages.

See short color film from The Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947.