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Thor Heyerdahl. Kon-Tiki voyager. dies at 87

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #123 July/August 2002

From Ocean Navigator #123 July/August 2002

Whether you believe that an early migration from Africa to SouthAmerica took place aboard reed boats, or that ancient South Americans populated the islands of the South Pacific by building and sailing rafts of balsa, there was something about Thor Heyerdahl's personality and wandering adventure stories that made his fans want to believe in what he proposed. The Norwegian adventurer and would-be anthropologist, who died on April 19 at the age of 87, sold millions of books that detailed his efforts to prove vague theories of early exploration.

Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, pictured here at the helm of his raft Kon-Tiki in mid-Pacific, died in April at the age of 87.

Heyerdahl achieved fame and fortune with the publication of Kon-Tiki, Across the Pacific by Raft, an account of his 4,300-nm journey from Peru to Raroia in 1947. Heyerdahl and his five companions — and a parrot — averaged a miserable 42.5 nm per day. They navigated by sextant, carried no life raft, caught numerous sharks, often by hand. But the book remains, 55 years later, just as fresh, since it effectively portrays the joyful banter of a happy crew of friends at sea. (Despite criticism from the scientific establishment, Kon-Tiki was translated from Norwegian into 65 languages.)

Consider the following section, in which Heyerdahl is asking a companion, quietly reading Goethe while stretched out in the shaded cabin:

"'Bengt,' I said, pushing away the green parrot that wanted to perch on the logbook, 'can you tell me how the hell we came to be doing this?'

"Goethe sank down under the red-gold beard.

"'The devil I do; you know best yourself. It was your damned idea, but I think it's grand.'

"He moved his toes three bars up and went on reading Goethe unperturbed. Outside the cabin, three other fellows were working in the roasting sun on the bamboo deck. They were half naked, brown-skinned and bearded, with stripes of salt down their backs and looking as if they had never done anything else than float wooden rafts westward across the Pacific."

Regardless of Heyerdahl's scientific theories, Kon-Tiki holds an unquestionably important place in the literature of the sea, since it is one of the last accounts — before satellite navigation and inflatable canister-type life rafts — of a sailor who, with few safeguards, willingly sailed into the unknown.

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