Thor Heyerdahl sailed 5,000 miles across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft in 1947. He could not swim.
The Norwegian scientist and five fellow adventurers sailed from Peru to French Polynesia, a distance greater than Chicago to Moscow, in a raft they constructed from balsa wood and other native materials. They called the raft the Kon-Tiki. Based on his research, Heyerdahl was convinced the Polynesia was populated from the east, namely Peru, 1,500 years ago. The science of his day did not support this theory and his journey was meant, against all odds, and against all better advice, to prove the possibility. Heyerdahl’s clear vision and single-minded focus on the outcome made the journey possible.
For history’s sake: While Heyerdahl “proved” with his trip that the Peruvians could populate the Pacific thousands of years ago, it does not mean that they actually did. In the 1990s, geneticists proved quite the opposite when studying the Mitochondrial DNA of modern Polynesians, namely that Polynesia was populated from Asia eastward, with the last conquests reaching Hawaii about 1,500 years ago and New Zealand about 1,200 years ago.
The movie Kon-Tiki is a dramatization of Heyerdahl’s early life, and how he became obsessed with the idea of this epic journey.
Watching the six helpless men on the raft, with no backup, no possibility of rescue, and most frighteningly, no way to steer the craft, floating in the vast open Pacific Ocean, makes for a riveting movie experience. They leave with great fanfare from Peru, dressed in suits and ties. They quickly realize that the ocean does not always play along with the daring and romantic dreams of a human visionary. In the end, it’s persistence, ingenuity, and a whole lot of luck that make the journey possible.
I found myself watching the movie in fear for the life of the sailors all the time, and I kept reminding myself that I knew the outcome. Heyerdahl became famous for this stunt, so they obviously would eventually triumph.
I was reminded, albeit loosely, of Life of Pi, where an Indian boy survives a shipwreck alone on a lifeboat with a few wild animals. Another similar story is told in the book Adrift by Steve Callahan, also a very worthwhile read.
Kon-Tiki is an excellent movie adventure, with great cinematography and a captivating story that does not let you go.