Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition
Story 4 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century
Thor Heyerdahl was standing at the bow of the Kon-Tiki. It was 21 July 1947 and he and his crew were over halfway across the Pacific. Kon-Tiki was a raft made of balsa logs which they had named after a Peruvian sun-god. At the stern at the back, Torstein Raaby was at the steering oar. All seemed well, but the wind was increasing. The large sail, with its picture of Kon-Tiki, was bulging in the freshening breeze blowing from the south.
They had guessed that the wind was coming. Earlier, the sea became very calm and the air hot and humid. They knew from past experience that this was the calm before the storm. As the calm broke, they were at first battered by gusts from several different directions. But now the wind was coming from the south. And to the south, ominous black clouds had appeared over the horizon.
Apart from Thor and Raaby, everybody else was in the cabin. Everybody, that is, except Herman Watzinger. He was in charge of making meteorological, or weather, observations and measurements to do with the sea, such as the size of waves. At that moment he was measuring the speed of the wind using an instrument called an anemometer.
The wind was gusting with growing strength and the waves were swelling and crashing around the raft. The ropes and logs creaked and groaned. There was a lot of noise. But then Thor heard a different noise. It was not the sound of waves, or the wind or the creaking logs. This was the sound of a man shouting for help. The cry was barely audible and it had not come from the raft. It had come from out there, out there on the seething waves of the sea. Thor turned round and looked across the waters. Perhaps he had imagined it. Maybe there was nothing wrong. And then he froze. There in the sea, to the left of the raft, on the port side, was Herman Watzinger. He was waving his arm and shouting for help.
“Man overboard!” screamed Thor, as he ran from the bow past the bamboo cabin towards the back of the raft.
Raaby had also seen Watzinger in the water. He too shouted. Within seconds the other three crew members dashed out of the cabin to help.
Watzinger was a strong swimmer and at first it seemed he would be able to make it back to the raft. After all, he was only a few metres away. But all the time the raft was moving forward. A boat can be stopped and turned back, but rafts with a sail just keep going forward. Slowly but surely, Watzinger was being left behind. Soon, he would be just a speck in the distance. And, as the sea got rougher and rougher, not even a strong swimmer would be able to keep afloat for long in those waves.
And there was another problem. They were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And the Pacific Ocean has sharks.
Thor Heyerdahl was born in the town of Larvik, Norway in 1914. This town is located on the coast. Ferries set off from here for nearby Denmark and in the surrounding countryside many elk can be found. As a boy, he became very interested in zoology, or the study of animals. When he grew up he went to Oslo, the capital of Norway, to study at the university. His main subjects were zoology and geography.
While he was at university he developed a fascination with the hundreds of small islands in the middle of the Pacific known as Polynesia. He read lots of books about the people and animals on these islands. The professors at the university gave him money to go to the islands to study the animals. And so, in 1936, he and his wife travelled to the island of Fatu Hiva.
They stayed there for nearly a year. They lived in a small hut near the sea underneath the palms. They ate fruit from the trees and caught fish from the sea. Although he was studying the animals, Thor became more and more interested in the people themselves. Where had their ancestors, and the ancestors of the people on all the other islands in Polynesia, come from? Most experts said that the people had come from countries in Asia, the large continent which borders the Pacific in the west. But Thor had another theory.
Thor had noticed that some of the ancient statues on the island were very similar to statues in Peru. This country is in South America, which is on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. Other islands in Polynesia also had statues like those in Peru, especially Easter Island. This island has hundreds of strange statues with very large heads and small bodies. The people on Fatu Hiva spoke of how their ancestors were brought to the island by a chief called Tiki. As well as being their chief, they also believed he was a god. They said he and his people had travelled across the sea from a large country. Thor’s theory was that this country was Peru.
Thor brought back lots of specimens of beetles and fish for the university’s museum in Oslo. But from now on he would study the people of Polynesia, not the animals and fish. He spent many hours in the libraries, reading about Polynesia and South America. Then, one day he made an important discovery; the ancient people of Peru used to worship a sun-god called Kon-Tiki. The legends said that he and his followers were defeated by the Inca tribes and they were forced to flee across the sea. Thor became convinced that Kon-Tiki from Peru was the same person called Tiki by the inhabitants of Fatu Hiva.
Thor’s studies were interrupted by the Second World War which began in 1939 and ended in 1945. During the war he trained in Britain as a radio operator and a parachutist and served with the Free Norwegian Forces in northern Norway. After the War he went to New York in America to see if somebody would publish his theory. But most people thought he was wrong. And they all had the same objection to his theory. How could a primitive people, who had only rafts and no boats, travel all the way across the sea from Peru to Polynesia? Thor realized there was only one way to convince them. He would build a similar raft and sail it from Peru to Polynesia. It would not prove his theory was true, but it would prove that it was possible.
He went to the Explorers Club in New York and met explorers who gave him advice and offered him equipment. He acquired food and other supplies from the American Army. He was also given some money by the Norwegian Military Attaché. While he was in New York he met a fellow Norwegian, Herman Watzinger. He was an engineer who was working in America. He gave up his job to go on Thor’s adventure. But Thor needed more crew. Who else would come with him on such a dangerous journey?
Thor wrote to people he knew back in Norway. There was Knut Haugland, who had been a radio operator in the war. He had been part of the team which sabotaged a heavy water plant at Rjukan. Torstein Raaby had also been a radio operator in the war and his reports guided British bombers to find the German battleship, Tirpitz. And there was his boyhood friend, Eric Hesselberg. He was a painter, but he also knew all about navigation. They all agreed to join his expedition. A sixth crew member, Bengt Danielsson, a Swedish student who was studying in Peru, would also later join the crew.
Thor and Watzinger flew down to Ecuador. This is the country just to the north of Peru. It is the area where the ancient Peruvians got the balsa logs for their rafts. Balsa is very light and floats easily on water. Thor and Watzinger went into the jungle and with the help of plantation workers they chopped down several balsa trees and floated the logs down the river to the sea. They got some bamboo as well. The logs were then taken by ship to the port of Callao in Peru.
At Callao the Peruvian navy allowed them to use one of their docks to build the raft. They based their design on pictures of Peruvian rafts drawn by the Spanish when they invaded Peru in the sixteenth century. They placed nine logs together with the longest in the middle so that the raft was pointed at the front. They tied the logs tightly together using rope. They slotted a few planks down between the logs into the water to act as a keel to keep the raft stable. On top of the raft they laid planks and bamboo matting for the deck and built a bamboo cabin. They put up two masts either side of the raft which were tied together at the top to form a triangle. This design was very strong and able to support the heavy sail. But the raft looked so small compared with the ships and boats in the docks. Many people came to the dockside to look and shook their head in disbelief. How could such a small raft sail across the Pacific to the islands of Polynesia?
By April 1947 the raft, which they named Kon-Tiki, was ready. All the other crew arrived and on April 28 the raft was towed out of the harbour by a tug and then released. The first few days were exhausting. The seas were rough at and the raft was difficult to steer. Each person would have two hours on duty, spent mostly at the helm, struggling to keep the raft sailing in the right direction. They would then crawl into the cabin and have three hours rest before being called on duty again. But after a few days the seas became calmer and they were able to get more rest. But as they headed west, further and further from land, would the raft continue to float?
They knew that the balsa logs would absorb at least some water. But if they absorbed too much the raft would eventually sink. In the first few days of the voyage they kept a watchful eye on how far underwater the logs submerged. However, the rough seas made it difficult to judge whether or not the logs were going any lower beneath the waterline. There was only one thing for it, they got a knife and made a small incision into a log. The first couple of centimetres of the log were wet, but after that it was bone dry. At that rate, most of the inner part of the logs would remain dry throughout the voyage.
They had a radio which meant they could occasionally communicate with people on land, but otherwise they were alone on the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. The sun beat down from a blue sky and the sea stretched to the horizon all around them. They took supplies of food with them, but there were plenty of fish to eat. As well as catching fish with a hook and line, flying fish would land on the raft. These have long fins like wings. They leap out of the water and glide through the air. The crew would often wake up in the morning to find flying fish lying on the deck. They would then fry them for a very tasty breakfast.
After forty-five days at sea they had travelled 3,220 kilometres and were now halfway. The raft continued to perform well. One night three freak waves, their white foam glistening in the moonlight, raced one after another towards the Kon-Tiki. But the raft stayed afloat as the men clung on to ropes and poles. Two days after this a storm came, but again, the Kon-Tiki and its balsa logs rode the waves with ease. It seemed the voyage would succeed. But then Herman Watzinger fell overboard.
There was a rope coiled round a wooden drum right where Torstein was standing. He tried to unwind it so he could throw it to Watzinger. But the rope got tangled and was of no use. Meanwhile the stern of the raft had passed Watzinger. His only chance now was to grab the steering oar which stuck out at the back. But the raft kept going forward and Watzinger was finding it harder and harder to keep up.
By now, Knut Haugland and Eric Hesselberg had arrived to help. As they ran out of the cabin they had grabbed the lifebelt which was kept by the door. It had a line which attached it to the raft. They threw the lifebelt with all their might towards Watzinger. But the wind simply blew it back towards them. They tried and tried, but it was hopeless. And all the time, Watzinger was drifting further away.
While Haugland and Hesselberg were trying in vain to throw the lifebelt, Thor and the sixth member of the crew, Bengt Danielsson, got the rubber dinghy ready. This had no engine either, but perhaps they could paddle fast enough to reach Watzinger. The dinghy had a long line which attached it to the raft. But this line would slow them down. The only way they could paddle fast enough would be to do without the rope. But even if they did reach him, would they be able to paddle back fast enough to reach the raft?
As Thor got ready to step into the dinghy he knew that he and Danielsson were about to set out on a near-suicidal mission. But he was the captain of the crew. He was responsible for the lives of his men. He had to do something. And it had to do be done fast.
But then, as Thor and Danielsson were about to get into the dinghy, they saw Haugland dive into the sea. He was carrying the lifebelt with its line still attached to the raft. They watched as he and Watzinger swam desperately towards each other. At last they met and were now both holding onto the lifebelt. The four men on board the raft began to haul the line with all their might. And as they did so they noticed a dark object just below the surface behind the two men. But it wasn’t completely below the surface. There was a triangular shape attached to it above the waves. The men on the raft thought it could only be one thing. It must be a shark! They pulled even harder. They had to get the two men back as quickly as possible.
They soon hauled the men back on to the raft. Only then did they realize that the dark object was not a shark. It was an inflated sleeping bag which belonged to Raaby. Watzinger had seen it blow off the raft and he had fallen overboard trying to grab it. The sleeping bag was never seen again, but, thanks to the bravery of Knut Haugland, Watzinger had survived.
The Kon-Tiki successfully reached Polynesia on 7 August when it ran aground on a small uninhabited islet in the Tuamotu group of islands. Natives from a nearby island took them back to their village on canoes. They were eventually taken by steamer to Tahiti with the Kon-Tiki in tow.
Thor went on to lead several other expeditions. In 1955 he organized an archaeological investigation in Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island. His team carried out several digs at different sites. He also studied the statues known as the Moai. Hundreds of these were carved from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century and located around the edges of the island. They are several metres tall and have very large heads. Thor tried to work how they were made.
In 1969 he constructed a boat made from papyrus called Ra. It was based on designs found in models and drawings from Ancient Egypt. Thor intended to sail the boat across the Atlantic to show that ancient people could have migrated by boat from Africa to America. He set sail from Morocco, but he and his crew had to be rescued with only 150 kilometres to go when the boat began to break up. In 1970 he repeated the attempt in Ra II and this time succeeded. During the voyage he also took samples from the water to study pollution. He also chose his crew from different nations to try and show that it was possible for people from different nationalities to work together.
In 1978 he set sail in a reed boat from Iraq intending to sail to Pakistan. His plan was to show that people from ancient Mesopotamia, who lived in the area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East, could have traded with people in the Indus Valley, an area which includes modern-day northwest India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, he later abandoned the voyage and burnt the boat in protest at the wars which were being fought in the region at the time. After this he carried out archaeological studies in places such as Azerbaijan, the Maldives and Tenerife.
From 1981 to 2002 he made several trips to carry out studies in Azerbaijan, a country to the south of Russia next to the Caspian Sea. He had a theory that there had been an advanced ancient civilisation in this area. He also claimed that people from this area had migrated north to Norway and other Scandinavian countries. His theory was based on similarities between the names of places in the two regions and also their similar mythologies and ancient stories which were handed down from generation to generation.
Thor died in 2002. Throughout his life he was outspoken on international issues and the environment. His theories were often controversial. Even today, many experts still disagree with his claim that people came from South America to live in Polynesia. And most historians and archaeologists dispute his theory about Azerbaijan. But even those who disagree with his theories acknowledge that he was one of the great adventurers of the twentieth century. And he will always be remembered for the small raft Kon-Tiki and the brave crew which sailed her across the vast Pacific Ocean.
A particularly helpful source was:
Heyerdahl, T. (1952) The Kon-Tiki Expedition – By Raft Across the South Seas (London: The Reprint Society).