The first time Thor Heyerdahl visited Easter Island his expedition team discovered depictions of reed boats with masts and sails. He subsequently wanted to show that prehistoric civilizations, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, could have been in contact with each other by means of reed boats.
In 1969 the reed boat Ra – named after the ancient Egyptians’ god of the sun – was constructed, and Heyerdahl launched the craft from the coastal city of Safi in Morocco.
He chose a crew of seven men, all from different nations. Heyerdahl wanted to demonstrate that such a manifold group could cooperate effectively under stress and difficult conditions. The crew of Ra, from left to right: Yuri Senkevitch (Soviet Union), Santiago Genoves (Mexico), Carlo Mauri (Italy), Thor Heyerdahl (Norway), Norman Baker (USA), Abdullah Djibrine (Tschad) and Georges Saourial (Egypt).
Despite its inadequate construction and a broken helm, the papyrus boat traveled 5000 kilometers in eight weeks. But the reed fiber absorbed much water, and Heyerdahl feared that the Ra would sink with its entire crew on board. They aborted the expedition, probably not more than a week shy of reaching their destination, Barbados, in the Caribbean.
Ten months later Heyerdahl launched the Ra II from the same Moroccan port.
This time he commissioned four Aymara from a region near Lake Titicaca (bordering Peru and Bolivia) to build the reed vessel. Reed boats similar to those from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were still being made by craftsmen from this area in the Andes mountains.
Roughly the same crew from the first Ra journey would repeat the expedition. The crew of Ra II, from left to right: Carlo Mauri (Italy), Norman Baker (USA), Thor Heyerdahl (Norway), Kei Ohara (Japan), Santiago Genoves (Mexico), Modani Ait Ouhanni (Morocco) and Yuri Senkevitch (Soviet Union).
The new boat was shorter than the first, but far more durable in construction. The Ra II sailed the ca. 6100 kilometers from Morocco to Barbados in 57 days. As the experiment this time had been a success, anthropologists worldwide were obliged to reject the longstanding dogma that there could not have been any contact between nations around the Mediterranean and nations in South or Central America prior to Columbus’ discovery of the continent.
During the voyage on board the Ra, the crew noted that the Atlantic Ocean was polluted – they encountered masses of oil of varying sizes on the ocean surface. They reported their findings to the United Nations (UN), and on the subsequent Ra II journey, Heyerdahl was asked by the UN Secretary-General to make daily observations regarding oceanic pollution. Oil was encountered on 43 of the voyage’s 57 days.
Heyerdahl presented reports regarding oceanic pollution on various occasions including at the UN’s third Conference on the Law of the Sea. In 1972 the organization passed a ban on dumping of waste oil in open seas.
Heyerdahl later published a book on the two Ra expeditions, and a documentary film about the Ra expeditions was nominated for an Academy Award.