This edited article about Kon-Tiki and Gypsy Moth IV originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
Thor Heyerdahl, a young Norwegian, had become convinced that there was a connection between the peoples of Polynesia and the extinct civilizations of Peru. This had come about after he had visited one of the islands on the Marquesas group, where he had listened to the tales of the oldest inhabitants, which had led him to believe that the Polynesian islands had originally been populated by refugees fleeing from Peru.
It was not until after World War II that Heyerdahl decided to put his theory to the test. It had been said that a god-like chief and his people had crossed from Peru on crude balsa rafts. If he was to prove his point, Heyerdahl had to make the same journey.
Professional sailors poured scorn on the idea. The balsa wood, they said would become waterlogged and sink. If the logs were lashed together, they would move about, chafe and finally break, throwing the occupants to the waiting sharks. But gradually their ridicule turned to admiration, when it became obvious that Heyerdahl was determined to prove his point. They now watched with the keenest interest as the raft took shape, authentic in every detail, with no sails and no metal. The only extra allowed, was a small radio.
Heyerdahl reckoned that the raft could follow the Humboldt current, which carries the cold water along the coast of Peru, and from thence towards the islands, a route Heyerdahl was convinced had been taken by the original pioneers of the sea. Accordingly, the Kontiki, as she was named, departed with her crew of six from Callao Harbour in Peru, on 28th April, 1947.
Few people expected to see her or her crew again.
For three months they sailed through weather which ranged from placid seas to terrible storms which would have overwhelmed many more modern craft. The logs moved about alarmingly, but the lashings held. They caught fish to supplement their rations, and worked continuously like slaves, until in the early August, they sighted the island of Angatau, a haven of lush vegetation, stately palms and silvery beaches.
After some considerable difficulty in getting through the reefs, the six men scrambled ashore.
They had proved conclusively that a raft made from balsa could and had managed to make the journey, proving also almost beyond doubt that the ancient people of Peru had made the journey in the same manner.
The Kon-tiki now rests in a museum in Oslo.
Another epic journey was made by Francis Chichester in Gypsy Moth IV, whose exploit was perhaps even more heroic than Heyerdahl’s, especially when one takes into consideration the fact that when he made his famous single-handed sailing trip around the world, he was already in his fifties.
Chichester’s epic voyage began on August 27th, 1966. It was his intention to follow the old clipper route, making only one stop in Australia before returning to England via the Horn.
The yacht, Chichester soon found, was a difficult one to handle, and it took him five weeks to settle down with her. 105 days and 20 hours from the time he had left England, he reached Sydney. This was an incredible feat in itself, but Chichester’s greatest moment was still to come.
Within twenty-four hours of re-sailing, Gypsy Moth IV was almost overwhelmed in the Tasman Sea by freak weather. A nearby P & O liner contemplated going to her assistance, but Chichester sent a very short message by radio, politely rejecting their help.
The journey around the Horn was a mixture of gales, rain-storms and heaving seas. With only a single sail set, and with the giant seas carrying her along, the Gypsy Moth IV rounded the Horn and entered the Atlantic Ocean. He reached Plymouth on May 28th, after having sailed 15,517 miles, the longest passage ever made by a small sailing vessel without a port of call.
The Gypsy Moth IV now rests at Greenwich.
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