After an unexpected but fortunate sequence of events, I found myself on the scene of an adventure similar to those you read about in books. I had been invited to attend the launch of an expedition which would sail two balsa rafts across the Pacific Ocean.
As I got to know the volunteers and crew, I was filled with awe — not only for their forthcoming adventure, but also for the people I met.
On October 30th, 2015, I was sitting comfortably with my legs outstretched, tranquilly taking in my surroundings. The dark blue water of the Pacific Ocean surged under my feet. Due only to good fortune, I was sitting on a raft made of balsa wood being pulled along the Peruvian coast, accompanied by a cheerful lot of sailors and boat builders. I ate pineapple and waved at the flabbergasted passengers of nearby ships.
In 1947, Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew built a balsa raft named Kon-Tiki. The vessel was modelled on pre-Columbian rafts and sailed from Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl wanted to prove that pre-Columbian cultures in Latin America had the naval technology and the skillset to sail to and settle in Polynesia–an outrageous thought at the time. But after 101 days surrounded by the vast ocean, Heyerdahl and his crew washed up on an island in Polynesia, thereby showing that a connection was indeed feasible.
To many people, this kind of adventure might seem unrealistic. It sounds too rustic, too romantic, and simply too audacious to ever happen today. After all, we live in an era in which cars drive themselves, drinking coffee is considered an exciting pastime, and health and safety reigns. Yet, more than half a decade later, such an adventure was once more undertaken. Accompanied by a grandiose ceremony held by the Peruvian navy, two balsa rafts were lowered into the water of a naval base in Callao, a port city just north of Lima. The Kon-Tiki II expedition was officially launched.
The few dozen expedition participants breathed a sigh of relief. Months of obstacles, long days and hard work had come to an end: the expedition was ready to commence across the frothing waves, towards Easter Island.
Kon-Tiki II: A Rustic Adventure
Heyerdahl’s achievement remains an important event in sailing history. Yet, the first Kon-Tiki raft was not in fact manoeuvred; there was no steering mechanism in use. The vessel merely drifted on the currents. Between then and now, however, it has been discovered that the pre-Columbian cultures used a primitive form of steering called daggerboards to manoeuvre their rafts. This time around, the Kon-Tiki II expedition is thus sailing to demonstrate that the rafts could in fact have been manoeuvred.
I have always been fascinated by adventure and sought it wherever I can, but standing on a floating assemblage of logs held together by rope gave me a new perspective on the gravity of the concept. In the forthcoming weeks, the crew members’ whole lives would be limited to a few square feet of wood, encircled by nothing but the immensity of the world’s largest ocean. Exciting, without doubt, but to any sane person, profoundly daunting. Sailing the Kon-Tiki II is not for anyone.
Among the dauntless crew are Gunvor Storaas, Kari Skår Dahl, Cecilie Mauritzen and Signe Meling. It is both noteworthy and banal that four women make up half the crew of one raft. It is nothing novel, because one’s ability to sail–or to do anything else that demands significant skill–is as much dependent on gender as it is on shoe size; in other words, not at all. Unfortunately, it is newsworthy because, as Signe pointed out to me, the sailing world has a pronounced shortage of women.
So the question is: what is it like to be a woman crossing the world’s largest ocean?
Gunvor, Kari and Signe can boast lifetimes of sailing. They have sailed everything from traditional vessels to modern rescue boats, and they all have careers at sea. Voyages have been a part of their lives for decades. Though skipper Kari wanted a gender balance on her raft, none of the women found that their gender was a factor when assessing their wish join the expedition. Instead, a recurrent emphasis was the desire to participate in an adventure and to observe pristine sunrises over the Pacific Ocean — an experience few would pass up.
But the Kon-Tiki II expedition is not only for the experienced seafarer. Cecilie is relatively new to sailing, although she is not new to the ocean itself. As an oceanographer and climate scholar, Cecilie is the expedition’s chief scientist. The area the team is sailing across is infrequently visited by research vessels, and modern knowledge of the Pacific is still poor. Thus, the Kon-Tiki II crew are not simply traversing the insurmountable depths that separate the Americas from Asia; Cecilie and the crew are also pursuing new knowledge of pollution and how climate change is affecting the sea, and helping to put the oceans on the world’s climate agenda.
The Raft Life
The women of Kon-Tiki II hold multiple university degrees, decades of sailing experience, various maritime titles and impeccable moods. If Tom Hanks had ended up on an island with this group, Castaway would have been a very short film. Still, they admit that certain, albeit small, challenges have come their way.
With their beds and storage facilities located not more than two feet above the thrashing sea, both Cecilie and Signe have unwillingly sacrificed items to Kraken. Signe’s supply of underwear has diminished from 20 pairs to five in no more than a day. More careful with her belongings, Gunvor nevertheless has had to deal with things coming up from the sea, including two squids she had to pull up and off the raft in the darkness of the night. Skipper Kari considers menstruation an interesting project at sea and has brought along a menstrual cup. A fan of this practical tool that leaves no waste, Kari passionately stressed her wish for the world to become acquainted with this product.
Female unity is nurtured through a weekly washing day, dubbed “Laugardag” after those of the Vikings, and red toenail-painting (an offer which has also been extended to the male crew). But the general sentiment is that of community for everyone, man and woman alike. Such opportunities for bonding have presented themselves in various forms, such as appreciation for more than one type of jam and listening to Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood.”
Before the expedition launched, I met with leader Torgeir Higraff, who narrated the story of how the trip came into being. The process had taken years and involved challenges that would lead the most ardent person to resignation. Yet, his calm manner made it all seem like a perfectly normal enterprise. He almost made me forget that he was soon to head out into the open sea on a self-made raft. Having met the people involved, I understand where his serenity originated. With a crew that radiates competence, temperance and good-naturedness, the expedition is a reminder that adventure is a faculty of the mind, not of physical features.
[divider] Guest Contributor[/divider]
Henrik Jenssen is Norwegian freelance journalist currently residing in Lima, Peru. More information about the Kon-Tiki II expedition can be found at http://kontiki2.com/.