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Volume 23, Number 1January/February 1972

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The Slender Reeds

Written by Thor Heyerdahl

Years ago, Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl began to wonder why it was that when 15th- and 16th-century Spanish explorers "discovered" Central and South America, they found astonishingly advanced civilizations—Aztec, Mayan, Incan—along with traditions that white men resembling the Spaniards had come to their land centuries before.

Particularly intriguing was the indisputable similarity of reed boats painted on tombs in Egypt to reed boats painted on ceramic pots in Peru—and to boats still used to this day on Easter Island on the Pacific side of South America as well as others on Lake Titicaca in the high Andes. Was it likely that boats so nearly identical had developed independently of each other? Some archaeologists said yes, but Heyerdahl thought it was much more probable that the boats, as well as nearly 60 other features similar to both ancient Egypt and ancient Peru, had been imported.

This would imply, however, that Egyptians—or someone from the Mediterranean—sailed across the formidable South Atlantic in apparently fragile, unseaworthy boats made of the reeds that once grew in profusion along the Nile. Was this possible? Heyerdahl, who had already floated across the Pacific on the now-famous balsa raft, Kon-Tiki, to prove an earlier theory, decided there was only one way to find out: build a papyrus boat and sail it to South America. After two tries, he did it, proving, as he said in an interview with Aramco World during a visit to Lebanon last year, that someone could have done it, if not that they did do it, or who "they" were.

"We always suspect that it was the Egyptians," he said. "But I'm not convinced. I built my boat in Egypt because Egypt is the country where we have the papyrus boat represented in detail on the tombs. (But) ... there is nothing to have prevented ... an expedition of mixed background—Egyptian-Phoenician, for example."

That reference to Phoenicians, and a subsequent hint that perhaps the original Mediterranean visitors to South America might have set sail from the ancient port of Byblos, stimulated speculation that Dr. Heyerdahl might be planning to build a Phoenician trireme in which to trace Phoenician trade routes. But all Mr. Heyerdahl would say in Beirut was that he wanted "to get acquainted with the archaeology of ancient Phoenicia." Maybe. But to followers of a man who crossed the South Atlantic twice, once as related in the following excerpts from The Ra Expeditions, it is more interesting to think that one day a rebuilt Phoenician trading ship might weigh anchor in Lebanon and set sail for—where? —The Editors

The Canary Islands were behind us. In eight days we had sailed the same distance as across the North Sea from Norway to England. A vessel which does not lose its battle with the seas on such a long voyage is usually regarded as a "sea-going" craft. Despite broken rudder-oars and yard, despite the maltreatment of inexperienced, non-Egyptian landlubbers, and despite storm and waves, Ra was as buoyant as ever. The whole cargo still lay safely out of reach of the ocean. We sailed on in high seas which had little in common with the serene waters of the Nile ...

Abdullah, who knew no islands other than the flat ones floating on Lake Chad, was alarmed when he heard that there were islands out here in the fierce seas, with men living on them. He wanted to know if they were black like himself, or white like us. Santiago, who had lived on the Canary Islands and was also an anthropologist, told us about the mysterious guanches who were living on these distant islands when the Europeans "discovered" them, some generations before they sailed further and "discovered" America ...

The real mystery of the guanches on the Canary Islands, was not so much who they were as how they got there. When the Europeans found them ... they owned no boats of any sort, not even log rafts or canoes. And there were large trees growing on the Canary Islands, so they were not short of timber. Both the dark and the fair guanches were typical farmers, who bred sheep. They had managed to bring live sheep with them from Africa to the islands. To leave the African coast with women and live sheep on board, you must also be either a sailor or a fisherman, at all events not just a herdsman. Why had the guanches then forgotten the boats of their seafaring forefathers? Could it be because their forefathers knew no boats other than the sail-carrying reed boats, madia, which have survived on the north coast of Morocco to the present day? A boat-builder who only knew how to build reed ships and had never learned the principle of joining flat planks together to form a hollow, watertight hull, would be left helpless and shipless on the beach when his own reed boat decayed with age if no papyrus or other floating reeds grew on the island where he had landed ...

For three days we sailed with no problems, while we repaired the other rudder-oar with patched-up bits of two different broken shafts. No spikes or nails were used. All the joints were made of rope, otherwise the wood would have splintered at once. The powerful running seas continued, drenching the windward side of Ra so that the papyrus rolls became still wetter, right up to the railing, and weighed the exposed beam deeper and deeper into the water. As long as the seas were running so high we were not going to risk putting out the other repaired rudder-oar, but we kept it ready in case the one strengthened with the spare mast should break, for now and then it bent ominously in its worst encounters with the sea. On the other hand, we did risk setting the full sail, and that went well. The wind was from the north and bitterly cold, although we could still glimpse the low sky ceiling along the coast of the Spanish Sahara. As far as possible we re-stowed the cargo on the port, or lee side, which was as high above the water as when we set out. Under full sail our heavy, broad reed bundle picked up speed again and moved westward at a steady rate of about 60 nautical miles in 24 hours, or 2.5 knots, and we could clearly see our own wake behind us. After 11 days' sailing we had covered 557 sea miles, or more than a thousand kilometers as the crow flies, and we had to put our watches back an hour.

For two days, ships had been constantly appearing round us. Once we could see three big ocean-travelers at the same time. We must be on the great circle route round Africa. The brightest of our paraffin lamps had to be hung at the masthead to avoid collisions at night. But soon the sea was empty of human voyagers and only schools of dolphins danced about us, some so near that we could have patted them. One or two lethargic moonfish drifted past, and the first flying fish began to shoot up under our bows. The sky was empty of living things. Only the occasional lost insect blew aboard and a pair of small petrels flew in rapid darts between the wave-troughs. This little seabird sleeps on the water, because it floats over the highest seas as lightly as papyrus. In the last few days masses of small brown beetles had begun to creep out of holes in the papyrus and we only hoped that the sea water would kill off eggs and larvae so that we would not be eaten away from within. The skeptics who had seen the camels trying to eat the side of our boat had prophesied that the reed might well be fodder for hungry marine creatures. Up to now neither whale nor fish had tried to feed off our floating sheaf, but we were not at all happy about these emerging swarms of little beetles.

Sun and moon rolled westward in turn to show us the way. The lonely night watches gave us in full measure that timeless perception of eternity that I had experienced on Kon-Tiki. Stars and night-black water. The immutable constellations sparkled above us, and just as brightly beneath us the shining phosphorescence glittered: the living plankton glowed like sparks of neon on the soft dark carpet on which we were floating. With the sparkling plankton beneath us we often seemed to be riding under the night sky on a billowing mirror, or perhaps the sea was crystal-clear and bottomless, so that we could see right through it to myriads of stars on the other side of the universe. The only thing that was firm and near in these omnipresent stellar heavens was the supple bundle of golden reeds on which we rode, and the big, square sail which stood like a shadow against the stars, broader above, by the yard arm, than across the bottom, near the deck. This ancient Egyptian outline of the trapeze-shaped mainsail in the night was enough in itself to turn the calendar back thousands of years. Silhouettes of sails like these are not seen against the sky of today. Strange squeaks and snorts from papyrus, bamboo, wood and rope did the rest. We were not living in the age of the atom bomb and the rocket. We were living at a time when the earth was still large and flat and full of unknown seas and continents, when time was the common prerogative and no one was short of it ...

Westward progress of over one hundred kilometers (or nearly sixty nautical miles) could be plotted on the chart every day, even though the horizon never changed. The border line between sea and sky was the same every day and at all times of day. The horizon moved with us and we were always its focal point. But the masses of water also moved invisibly with us. The Canary current was a fast-moving, salt-water river flowing towards the setting sun, keeping eternal company with the trade wind, westward, air and water and all that floats and blows. Westward with sun and moon ...

We gradually began to learn interesting lessons from our testing the papyrus boat. The slanted rudder-oars had been the first to disclose their secrets, showing themselves to be a missing link in the evolution of man's earliest steering mechanism from oar to rudder. Next the wash-through bundle-body of the raft-ship itself began to reveal its true qualities. In addition to an almost unbelievable loading capacity, the papyrus reeds possessed both a toughness in rough seas and an enduring buoyancy which quite contradicted the preconceived verdict of modern man. Yet it was the rigging that revealed the most significant secrets about this ancient vessel's forgotten history, showing that it had been originally developed as something more than a mere river craft. In the design we followed, Landstrom had copied all the details of mast and rigging from the ancient Egyptian wall paintings. A strong rope ran from the masthead to the bow of the boat. But no corresponding rope ran from masthead to stern, although one rope forward and one aft would have been the logical requirement to hold the straddled mast erect on a river boat in calm waters. The ancient Egyptian ships' architects, however, carefully and strikingly avoided any rope running from the masthead all the way aft. Instead they secured five or six ropes at different heights on each of the two straddled masts and these ropes were stretched diagonally down in parallel lines to either side of the vessel a little aft of midships. In this way the whole sternmost part of the boat was free of mast stays and could rise and fall on the waves with no attachment to the mast. No sooner had Ra begun to pitch on high seas than we realized how extraordinarily important this special system was. The stern hung behind the rest of the boat like a trailer which must be allowed to ride up and down freely over all the bumps. Had it also been secured by a stay to the masthead the mast would have broken as the first big ocean rollers surged beneath us. In our dance over the high wave-crests the middle section of Ra was rhythmically thrust upwards while the full weight of bow and stern sagged simultaneously in the wave-troughs on either side. Had both ends of the hull been attached to the mast, it would have broken under the pressure. As things were, the mast was well able to support the curved prow while holding the central part of the soft deck suspended in a straight line. Everything which lay farther aft was allowed to follow the motion of the sea.

We all daily praised this ingenious arrangement and special function of the rigging. Norman, the naval expert, in particular, saw at once what it meant. There was no mistake about it. The creators of the old Egyptian rigging had prepared their flexible reed boats for the meeting with ocean swells. After the third day at sea I was already writing in my diary: "This rigging is the result of long experience in navigation on the open sea; it was not born on the calm Nile."

But there was another detail of the special Egyptian ship design which we took longer to understand; and for that, we were to pay dearly. Every day we looked admiringly at the broad, in-turned curl on the high-peaked stern. What purpose did it serve? We placed no reliance on the general conviction that this curl was simply intended to beautify the shape of a river boat. Yet as the days passed we ourselves were as unable as the Egyptologists to detect any practical function for it whatever. We did constantly make sure, however, that the curl was not beginning to straighten out. It remained in perfect shape, so our friends from Chad seemed to have been right in thinking that they had done their work so thoroughly that it would keep its curve without having to be fastened to the deck by rope. The only mistake we could see we had made so far was in stowing the cargo as for an ordinary sailing boat in those first days. No living man, only our own costly experience after long sailing in the trade-wind belt, could have taught us that a papyrus boat should have its heaviest cargo concentrated on the lee side. Now we were already so waterlogged on the windward side that the starboard gunwale was inexorably approaching the water level ...

On June 4th the rough seas about us began to calm down, and next morning we awoke to a new world. It had turned nice and hot, and the sea was a procession of long, shining rollers. We received another quick visit from five big whales: a majestic assembly. Perhaps they were the same ones which had called on us before. They were beautiful and friendly in their own element and we thought with horror of the day when mankind would have succeeded in launching its harpoons into the last of the sea's warm-blooded giants, so that in the end only the cold steel hulls of submarines would be frolicking in the ocean depths where the Almighty—and most men—would rather have seen the whale suckling its young.

It was so nice and hot that Georges tore off his clothes and dived overboard with his lifeline on. He disappeared under the Ra in his diving mask and came up again with a shout of delight which made Yuri and Santiago dive after him, each on his lifeline, while the rest of us watched and waited our turn ...

The exhilarating salt-water bath made everyone feel new-born again. And to see Ra from below was among the greatest of all thrills. We felt like little pilot fish swimming under the curving belly of a gigantic yellow whale. The sunbeams were reflected like search lights from the depths and played up against the papyrus bundles over our heads. Sea and cloudless sky together created the bluest blue round the big, shining yellow whale which glowed above us ...

Here and there on the underside of the papyrus hull, small, long-necked barnacles were beginning to grow, waving from their blue-black shells with orange gills like soft ostrich feathers. But there was no sign of verdancy or seaweed to be seen anywhere. The papyrus reeds, which in the Sahara sand had been greyish-yellow, shrunken and dry, had swollen under the water into smooth, shining stalks of gold and when we pressed them they were no longer brittle and fragile as before, but hard and resilient as motor tires. Not a single reed had worked loose or broken. The papyrus had now been in the water for three weeks. Instead of dissolving by decomposition after two weeks it had become stronger than ever, and there was no sign of the reeds losing buoyancy. The list to windward was due to water absorption above the ship's water-line, amounting, in effect, to added cargo ...

Next morning the weather was still wonderful and I clambered over the jars aft for a morning bath. There sat the morning watch, Yuri, happily enjoying himself washing his underclothes, but on board, without the canvas bucket. Every roller sent a little ripple over the papyrus gunwale at our lowest point, where the steering-oar weighed us down, and the rhythmic trickle was just enough to keep a little pool at the deepest point aft.

"This yacht is getting more and more practical," observed Yuri happily. "Now we have a washstand with running water."

We hastened to launch the heavy rudder-oar [which we had repaired] so that the waves would support most of its weight, but our lowest corner continued to let in the ripples and as long as it simply provided us with a wash basin this was generally popular. We checked the curl on the stern. It was just as before and showed no signs of straightening out. For safety's sake Georges swam underneath Ra and discovered for the first time that the bottom was beginning to sag just aft of the basket cabin. But the papyrus bundles were just as whole and strong and when he squeezed the reeds air bubbled out. The reed was just as buoyant as before. We must simply have been carrying too much weight aft.

Now we moved all the cargo from the afterdeck so that the only weight left behind the cabin was the heavy crossbeam on which the two steering oars rested and the steering bridge itself, which stood on poles and sheltered the crate containing the life raft.

The ripples continued to wash in over the starboard quarter. We made another thorough inspection both above and below water. It was obvious that Ra had preserved her original shape perfectly, from the bows back to the exact point where the backmost pair of stays ran down from the masthead and were secured to either side of the boat. Aft of this point there was a visible kink where the whole after part of Ra began to tilt gently downwards.

We began to ponder again. It was the freely trailing section of the boat which had taken a downward turn, while everything which was attached to the stays held up by the mast was still as it should be. The prow was as high as ever. Our proud golden swan still stretched her neck; only her tail was beginning to droop. If the mast could only have supported the strain of a stay to hold up the stern as well, this would not have happened. But if we tried to hoist the stern up with such a rope, the mast would break when the first roller passed under us. The stern must be allowed to undulate. But it must not be allowed to sag at a permanent angle in this way. We tried to pull it up with ropes stretched diagonally to either side of the cabin. We tried to fasten thick stretchers from the stern, over the guard-rail on the bridge and on across the cabin roof to poles erected on the foredeck. This was the Egyptian method of lending rigidity to wooden ships, but there were no such horizontal hawsers shown on paintings of papyrus boats. And however much we strained and hauled on all these ropes we did not succeed in heaving the afterdeck up again ...

The days passed. More water washed in over the stern every day. While its lower section slowly gave way beneath it, the fine curl at the upper end of the stern arched as elegantly inwards as ever, showing no sign of losing its decorative shape. But it served no purpose, and as it became sodden it began to overload the weak afterdeck which supported it. All the storm waves which had washed over the peaked stern had caused it to absorb quantities of sea water over the water line. Since the stern was broad and thick and stood taller than the cabin roof, it must now, in its waterlogged state, weigh at least a ton. Should we lop it off? Then perhaps the bottom would float up again. But it was like cutting the tail off a swan. We had not the heart to cripple our proud craft.

But how, how, how the devil had the creators of this extraordinarily ingenious vessel succeeded in keeping the flaunting tail in the air without a rope to pull it up? On the contrary, it had had a rope which pulled it down towards the deck. The boat-builders from Chad had fortunately dispensed with that. We had not missed it up to now. Or? Or! I threw down the coconut which I was scraping out and began to draw frantically. Well, blow me down! I shouted for Norman, Santiago, Yuri, Carlo, the whole crew. I had found the mistake. We had not known how to put the curly tail to its intended use. Only bitter experience could have shown us that, too, because all those who had learned the purpose of the curly tail from its inventors had been in their graves for thousands of years. The peculiar arch over the afterdeck was not built for beauty. The rope, which everyone thought would serve only to hold the cocked tail in tension, had a completely different function. The cocked tail stood by itself. The rope was not intended to pull the tail-tip down, but the afterdeck up. The high, harp-shaped stern was meant to act as a powerful spring, supporting the free-swinging afterdeck as the stays to the masthead supported the rest of the papyrus boat. To enable the papyrus ship to sail the open sea without breaking, its brilliant architects had divided it into two linked components. The forward part was kept up by the straddled mast with its parallel stays, the after part was allowed to move independently, but always returned to its place, thanks to the bowstring attached to the big spring arching above it.

We tied the bowstring in position, but it was too late now. After three weeks the afterdeck had developed a kink and without a fixed point in the air over the tailtip no rope could repair the damage. We were the sufferers because we, like all the others, had assumed the peculiar arch of the tail to be the ancient boat designers' end whereas it had been their ingenious means.

Yuri and Norman stood in the puddle of water astern, staring at the slowly sinking golden tail. Suddenly they began to sing with one voice:

"We don't want a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine" . . .

They did not want a yellow submarine and neither did we, so soon all seven of us were standing in the stern, singing Yuri's refrain in chorus. No one took it more seriously than that. Indeed, the rest of the boat was bobbing like a champagne cork, so Yuri and Norman set about washing socks and trying to find a rhyme for "submarine" . . .

While the weeks passed with the seven of us in the cramped cabin crowded together as if we were at a non-stop party, Ra rolled on in the center of an unchanging horizon which accompanied us like a magic circle. From June 4th to 9th the sea ran in gentle combers, the wind was fitful, and some of the men felt the urge to sleep at all hours of the day. The papyrus had stopped whining and growling and had begun to purr like a cat enjoying the sunshine. Norman disclosed that he was worried. We were drifting slowly south-westward and unless the wind returned there was a risk of our being caught in the eddying currents off the coast of Mauritania and Senegal. We had come into one of the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes, constantly sighting passenger steamers and cargo vessels far and near, and on the night of June 6th a big, lighted ocean liner headed straight for us. It was steering so directly towards us that the officers on the bridge could not possibly have spotted the glow from our little paraffin lamp at the masthead, so we gesticulated violently with our torches. The reluctant wind gave us very little chance of escaping with the help of the rudder-oars. The monster racketed along, lights blazing, and was beginning to loom threateningly over us when it suddenly turned towards our starboard beam and silenced its mechanical thunder. Some angry reprimand was flashed at us from the bridge, so fast that we could only catch the word "please" before the giant glided silently past under its own impetus, a few hundred feet from the papyrus bundles. Then the propellers were churning the water again and the steel giant rumbled on its brightly lit way to Europe.

Next day we were sailing in slack winds through an ocean where the clear water on the surface was full of drifting black lumps of asphalt, seemingly never-ending. Three days later we awoke to find the sea about us so filthy that we could not put our toothbrushes in it and Abdullah had to have an extra ration of fresh water for his ritual washing. The Atlantic was no longer blue but grey-green and opaque, covered with clots of oil ranging from pinhead size to the dimensions of the average sandwich. Plastic bottles floated among the waste. We might have been in a squalid city port. I had seen nothing like this when 1 spent 101 days with my nose at water level on board the Kon-Tiki. It became clear to all of us that mankind really was in the process of polluting its most vital well-spring, our planet's indispensable filtration plant, the ocean. The danger to ourselves and to future generations was revealed to us in all its horror. Shipowners, industrialists, authorities, they would all have seen the sea gliding past at a fair speed from an ordinary ship's deck and would never have literally dipped their toothbrushes and noses in it week after week, as we had. We must make an outcry about this to everyone who would listen. What was the good of East and West fighting over social reforms on land, as long as every nation allowed our common artery, the ocean, to become a common sewer for oil slush and chemical waste? Did we still cling to the medieval idea that the sea was infinite? ...

On June 13th an icy north-northeast wind was howling through the stays and whining in the wickerwork cabin walls, while the seas rose higher and boiled more savagely than anything we had seen up to now. There were howls, creaks and groans from every section of the heaving vessel and breakers running across each other and over one another's backs crashed aboard aft. A few wave peaks sent tons of water surging over us at a time and we could actually see the stern section sinking gradually deeper under the pressure of the heaviest cascades. There was nothing we could do but wait until the masses of water had rushed out again on both sides of Ra, leaving us with our once popular bathing pool now knee-deep in water. Abdullah was in high spirits and assured us that this misfortune aft was unimportant. We would not sink as long as the ropes held ...

From June 14th to 17th the sea was constantly seething round us and inexplicably high waves crossed one another from two or three directions at once, an interplay of currents and counter-currents from unseen coasts. Georges had pains in the back and had to be helped to bed. Abdullah was sick, but cured himself with a concoction of twelve boiled garlic cloves. The bridge began to creak and sway and had to be hastily reinforced with fresh ropes and stays. Yuri had the bright idea of moving Sinbad the duck aft, where she swam about happily in the inboard pool. Safi was so cross that she got diarrhea, but kept to the outer edge of the papyrus rolls as always on such occasions. She had become incredibly clean. Suddenly a school of tunny fish, about six feet long, shot out of the water, frightening Safi into hysterics so that she hid in a basket and no one could persuade her out of it until Georges put her in her special sleeping box inside the cabin, after dusk.

Once again the masts were jumping in their flat wooden shoes, while Ra writhed about in the wildest gymnastics to follow the chaotic dance of the waves. She was making a new, hoarse sound we had not heard before. It sounded like a mighty wind roaring to and fro as our ten thousand bundled reeds bent in the water. The floor, walls and ceiling of the basket hut were also twisting and heaving with a new sound. The boxes beneath us jammed askew, so that the lids stuck, and we could lie, sit or stand on nothing which did not twist us with it. The stays were holding the masts in ominous tension, but we dared not slacken or tauten them in these powerful seas. It was bitterly cold, but Georges, Yuri and Norman all took a swim under the reed bundles for safety's sake. They came up and assured us with chattering teeth that the papyrus below us was in perfect condition, but now the sagging stern section was exerting a real braking action. Something must be done.

Then the starboard rudder-oar tore itself loose from the steering bar and danced madly in its efforts to wrench itself free of the steering bridge as well. There was a fierce battle in the deluges of water before we captured it and bound it in place with our thickest rope. There were fish everywhere and Georges managed to spear a dorado in the chaos. Something must be done to check the water which was at last breaking in with insane fury aft. How long would the stern section support this mighty strain? A wooden boat would have broken in two.

We must try to stem the flood of water. We collected all the spare papyrus we had and Abdullah, assisted by Santiago and Carlo, stood up to the thighs in water aft, tying on papyrus rolls as a bulwark against the seas. The water rose to their chests when the worst seas sent their crest surging on board. Abdullah was washed overboard several times, but clung to his life line and only laughed as he scrambled on board again. After all, he was wearing his magic belt. When the work was finished he gave thanks to Allah ...

On June 17th the storm reached its height, the wind turned westward and the high seas grew calmer. We found flying fish everywhere; there was even a little creature floating in the coffee pot. We must have returned to the main current, for, thanks to a momentary gap in the heavy cloud ceiling, Norman was able to report that we had sailed 80 nautical miles, or 148 kilometers in the last twenty-four hours, even with a broad, sagging stern slowing us down like a lobster's tail. That counted for something, even on the map of the world.

During the worst of the storm we moved about 500 nautical miles off the West African coast, heading straight for the Cape Verde Islands west of Dakar. Both the north wind and the current were carrying us straight towards this large group of islands which might loom up around us at any moment, and this gave us an uncomfortable feeling of insecurity as we drifted and struggled in the storm with an intractable stern section behaving like a yellow submarine. One late evening, when the thought of the islands out in the darkness was haunting us badly, Norman took out the US Sailing Directions for the area we were in and read aloud to us by the light of the paraffin lamp. It swung from the heaving ceiling, making our shadows dance about us, distorted and elastic, in time to Ra's deafening spectral orchestra.

We learned that cloudbanks and haze could lie so thickly round the mountainous Cape Verde Islands that the surf against the rocky coast often appeared before land itself had been sighted, although the highest peaks reached 9,000 feet. In addition there were powerful currents round the islands, so treacherous that they had caused innumerable shipwrecks. The heavy rollers round the island group were most active when the moon was changing. "Great caution is therefore necessary when navigating in the vicinity of these islands," Norman concluded his reading.

"Listen to that; be cautious, chaps," remarked Yuri, pulling his sleeping-bag up and his leather cap down until they met at his nose.

It so happened that the moon was changing just then. The night was as pitch black as the day was misty. For the last four days the islands had lain straight ahead in our line of drift and now they must be lying somewhere just in front of us. They might appear that night or next morning, if we were caught by a strong southerly crosscurrent. Rain was failing from low clouds and neither sextant nor "nasometer" could tell us where we were.

June 18th was a dramatic day. The Cape Verde Islands must lie somewhere ahead or across the port bow, swathed and hidden in fog and rain-clouds. Just two weeks ago we had passed the Canary Islands at close range without seeing them through the cloudbanks. But today more serious problems were brewing up than the ones which lurked beyond our decks. We had been together in tolerance on the papyrus bundles for twenty-five days and the reed had been floating in sea water for at least a month. Despite all our adversities Ra sailed over 2,000 kilometers round the whole north-west coast of Africa and now the voyage across the Atlantic from continent to continent was to begin in earnest. If the Egyptians had sailed as far from the mouth of the Nile as we had now sailed from Safi harbor they would have been far up the Don, in Russia, or beyond Gibraltar. The Mediterranean was obviously not big enough to exhaust the range of a papyrus boat.

But damn that stern section! If only the ancient scribes had left directions, we would have understood the principles of the papyrus boat in advance; then we could have looked forward to crossing the ocean without problems. Now the waves were not slipping under us and lifting us up anymore. They were creeping over our stern and pushing us down. The night before, a big sea had crept right over the cabin wall and I was awakened by getting a bucket of cold water on my head. Salt water was running down inside my sleeping-bag.

"We are starting with a handicap," I admitted to the others.

It was then that Santiago threw a match into the powder keg.

"Let's cut up the life raft," he said suddenly.

"Of course," I said. "Now we have broken up the two little papyrus boats, so just let's cut up the rubber raft as well."

"I mean it," said Santiago. "We must try to raise the stern. We have no papyrus left, but the life raft is made of foam rubber. We can cut it in strips and use it in the same way as the Egyptians would have used spare papyrus."

"He's mad," came mutters in several languages.

But Santiago was obdurate and refused to give in.

"You brought a life raft which only takes six men and there are seven of us," he challenged me. "You explicitly said you would never get into it yourself."

"The next size up was a twelve-man raft," I explained. "That was too big. But it's true that I shall stay on our nice big reed smack if you six decide to move to that tiny little rubber thing there."

"Me too," said Abdullah. "Let's cut it up. The wooden case is just gnawing away our ropes."

"No," I said. "The rubber raft is meant to give everyone a feeling of security. This is nothing but a scientific experiment. Without the rubber raft no one on board would be able to leave the papyrus boat."

"Come on, where's the saw, what's the good of something we will never use?" insisted Santiago provocatively.

The rest of the crew were indignant, but everyone went aft to have a look, at least, at the heavy packing case which Abdullah wanted to get rid of.

There was no ship behind the back wall of the cabin anymore. The only thing which projected out of the water there was the curved tailpiece which rose in lonely majesty, separated from the rest of Ra by the rippling waves which swept across from one side of the boat to the other. The case with the life raft in it was sloshing about in green water between the legs of the bridge.

Abdullah seized the axe which hung ready, but Yuri protested furiously. It was absolutely crazy! We must think of the people at home. Norman agreed with Yuri: our families would despair if we had no lifeboat. Georges took the axe from Abdullah. Carlo began to waver. He wanted me to take the decision. For the first time on the voyage a serious breach was opening. On a vital decision, opinions were sharply opposed and both parties grew steadily more bitter in their uncompromising claims.

We sat all together on the foredeck, on our goatskin containers, sacks and jars, while Carlo served salt meat, onion omelette and Moroccan sello. But this was the calm before the storm. The dry reeds in the papyrus deck at our feet bent and straightened like strips of paper, keeping time with the seas which were still high and choppy. The reed was stronger under water where it was wet. With our two spliced rudder-oars lashed fast and her lobster tail hanging down and acting as a brake, Ra steered herself before the wind. Yuri, Norman and Georges resembled the murky thunderclouds hanging over us on all sides, as they grimly cracked almonds in their fists, prepared to defend their position. It was essential to lance the boil.

"Lots of odd things could happen," I said, trying to keep my voice cheerful. "Let's think about all the situations where the life raft might be useful. I'm most scared of someone falling overboard."

"I'm most scared of being rammed by a ship," interjected Norman, "and then of fire on board."

"The bows are floating splendidly, but not the stern," said Yuri. "No one knows if we will still be afloat in another month's time."

"True enough," I admitted. "And it's still theoretically possible that the skeptics are right and the papyrus will gradually rot and disintegrate in the sea water."

"What I'm scared of," came quietly from Georges, who was never afraid of anything, "is a hurricane."

No one could think of more than these six good reasons for keeping the life raft in reserve. But six reasons were enough. We therefore agreed to find out what each man would do in each of these six eventualities. We counted on our fingers.

First possibility: man overboard. Everyone felt safe because we were all roped up like mountaineers. We also had a life belt trailing on a long rope astern. If a lonely night wanderer stumbled over the jars and fell overboard, launching the life raft would not help him. First of all, the life raft was intended for extreme emergency and could not be launched without cutting down the entire bridge. Furthermore, it was deep and rectangular, with two inflatable tents which opened both below and above deck, no matter which side came uppermost. It was thus not intended for fast sailing and would be left far behind Ra even if we lowered the sail. The life raft would be of little avail if a man fell overboard. No argument about that one.

Second possibility: collision. Everyone agreed that if Ra were split in two we would not have time to launch the raft, and if it was already afloat we would still all prefer to clamber back on the much larger remaining portion of Ra.

Third possibility: fire. In the Sahara, Ra would have burned like tissue paper, but here it would be difficult to set fire to her. In any case we had a fire extinguisher. Smoking was only allowed on the lee side, where sparks blew overboard, and the windward side was so soaked with water that it would float, fire or no fire elsewhere on board. No one would prefer the little life raft to the large, wet, unburned portion of Ra.

Fourth possibility: the papyrus might sink under us. One month's experience showed that even if the papyrus absorbed water, it sank so slowly that there would be plenty of time to send out an SOS. But we would also have to send out an SOS if we transferred to the crowded lifeboat. We would all rather be able to stretch out in our comparatively spacious basket cabin than sit squashed together in that little lifeboat tent, waiting for rescue.

Fifth possibility: the papyrus might rot and disintegrate. We already knew from sight and touch that the papyrus experts had miscalculated on this point. Their laboratory experiments had certainly been made in standing water. Everyone agreed wholeheartedly that both the papyrus reeds and the lashings were stronger than ever, so we were absolutely unanimous in ruling out that emergency.

Sixth possibility: hurricane. More than likely, as we neared the West Indies. A hurricane might carry away masts and oars and steering bridge, might even rip off the sunken stern. But we had lived through more than one storm on Ra now and were certain that the tough wicker cabin would continue to cling to Ra's central reed bundles, leaving us a raft with more room, water and food on board than the little foam rubber raft could possibly provide. Nobody would move to the rubber raft in a hurricane.

Before we had finished we were all in high spirits. No one had preferred the life raft to Ra's reed bundles in any conceivable situation. Yuri was visibly relieved. He grinned and shook his head, marvelling. Carlo laughed. Norman drew a deep breath and was the first on his feet.

"OK. Let's find the saw!"

Everyone wanted to make for the stern, but such heavy seas were breaking over the submerged deck that three men made quite enough extra load there. Norman, Abdullah, and I waded out. With axe, knife and saw we attacked the heavy packing case and threw the nailed planks and plastic container overboard. That sort of thing was out of place on Ra. The green foam rubber raft came into view. Under it Abdullah was appalled to see that several of the ropes holding Ra together had been chafed through by the movement of the case under the pressure of water. Rope-ends bristled from the papyrus like ghastly skeletal claws. Only the swelling of the reed had prevented the ropes from slithering through and allowing the whole stern to break apart. Abdullah fell on the loose ends and tied them together with extra rope. We stood knee-deep in foaming water and Abdullah showed us how the skin on his legs was peeling in wet white flakes, after all the work in sea water over the last few days. Then I felt one of the mightiest of the towering waves crashing against Ra, lifting us up and twisting us abruptly sideways. I was staggering in an attempt to regain balance when I heard the deafening roar of tons of falling water and breaking timber. The sea surged in up to my waist from behind, while wood and rope yielded to the power of the ocean and slowly collapsed. I was swept to port by the torrent of water and stooped to grab a papyrus rope before I could be washed overboard, when I felt a great weight of broken timber thumping over my back. I heard Norman's voice bellowing: "Look out, Thor!" and had not a moment's doubt that this deafening sound of breakage came from the entire bridge subsiding in its lashings and collapsing over our heads. As our foundations rocked and broken wood held me down in the flurry of water, I expected at any moment to find ourselves being towed along behind Ra on our lifelines while bridge and stern were left floating in our wake. Then the floods subsided and we were left knee-deep as before, I with broken timber pressing me down.

"It was the double rudder-oar that went," shouted Norman, helping to free me.

Above us bobbed the splintered ends of two big logs lashed together. The thick, round original oar-shaft and the rectangular balk of the spar mast, bound to it as reinforcement, had broken off side by side. The big oar-blade was left hanging on the ropes, lashing like the tail of an angry whale, but in a flash Norman was there with Carlo and Santiago to haul it in, while Abdullah wrestled alone with the rubber raft, now floating freely, and I myself struggled with a 200-pound keg of salt meat which had suddenly broken loose among the bridge poles and threatened to cause disaster unless it was prevented from crashing about in the cascades of water.

That night Abdullah assured me, when I came out for the change of watch, that we were now surrounded by nice big waves with no nasty little waves on their backs. Ra rode smoothly and rhythmically, with two small rowing-oars temporarily attached where the big port rudder-oar was missing. When we switched our torches on we could see squid swimming as though behind glass as the water rose again on the lee side under us. The Egyptian sail occasionally stood out clearly against bright gaps in the cloud ceiling, but the horizon was invisible in the darkness. What sometimes seemed to be twinkling stars low on the horizon often proved to be plankton twinkling brightly at our own eye level, carried up on an invisible wavecrest.

It certainly felt very odd next day to begin attacking our undamaged life raft with a saw. Norman and I looked at each other and I paused uncertainly for an instant before sending the saw rasping through the canvas cover and into the foam rubber. Then we all set about dismembering our only means of getting away from the boat we were standing on, knee-deep in water.

"People would think we were crazy. No one would understand," said Yuri, grinning.

But the decision was unanimous and well-weighed. The life raft was reduced to narrow strips, the shape of papyrus bundles, then pushed under water and lashed fast to the surface of the sunken deck. The miracle happened. The stern began to rise. It lifted enough to give us better steering control over the boat, and once again the waves slid under us without filling our swimming pool with such floods of water. The event was appropriately celebrated. Little did we dream then that the sea would gradually steal on board and pluck the sawn-up foam rubber away bit by bit, until only the natural papyrus stems were left. Neptune might have been telling us: "No cheating. Pharaoh's men had no foam rubber." So our delight was short-lived, but with the disappearance of the heavy cradle holding the life raft we had removed a dangerous load from the afterdeck.

On June 19th we found ourselves dancing in heavy rollers augmented by counter-waves from cliffs on shore which stirred the sea into indescribable turmoil. The deck of Ra billowed like a carpet and in some places dry papyrus crinkled itself into little curls on top of the bundles. Between mast and cabin, where two men could usually walk side by side, one man had to watch out before slipping through alone, and the little gap between bridge and cabin wall opened and closed like a nutcracker. If we sat on the narrow crack between two of our sixteen boxes in the cabin, we were nipped in the bottom. For the first time a clay jar was crushed to pieces and the nuts ran out, to Safi's delight. We discovered that another was empty of water because friction with the neighboring jar had ground a round hole in its side. The starboard rudder-oar was repaired and launched, while water gushed round our bodies, but soon afterwards there was another crack and the blade was floating astern again, while the sail swung round and imprisoned Carlo and Santiago, who were busy tapping water from a goatskin. They were bowled over towards the open railing and would have finished up in the sea had they not been roped up. A big flying fish sailed on board and swam happily round for a long time in the pool aft while Abdullah floundered about vainly trying to catch it.

In the struggle with rope and sail and broken rudder-oars I got my hand pinched and it was hurting even more that night when I came on deck to relieve Santiago. He pointed silently to a light to port. We clung to the guard rail, legs braced, so as not to tumble over while we stared. Cape Verde? No, a boat. It was heading straight for us. It was signalling. The flashes were too fast for us to read, but it was asking about something.

"Ra OK, Ra OK," we flashed back in Morse. The boat was close to us now and we guessed that it was a patrol boat from Cape Verde. It was rolling violently, while we were calmly undulating with the waves.

"Ra, bon voyage," it finally flashed slowly. Have a good trip. Then it turned away and the comforting lights vanished in the darkness.

"Have a good trip," I said to Santiago as he went to bed.

Two hours later I had already begun to whistle guardedly through the bamboo wall to waken Yuri in all the noise. He was to relieve me, but the others must be left to sleep. Then I felt as if Neptune himself had taken hold of the oar blade out there in the blackness of the sea. Vast forces wrenched the oar from me and the whole vessel heeled, while white furies thundered out of the darkness and buried everything under my legs. The bridge vibrated and the crack of breaking wood was loud in my ears again. Was it the bridge collapsing this time? No. It was the other rudder-oar Now we had nothing to steer with. I had to yell through the wickerwork and rouse everyone. The sail thrashed. The water seethed. Ropes and timber screamed louder than shouted orders. It began to rain. We threw out both our sea anchors. Then all was well.

"They wished us a good trip," said Santiago, staring out into the night. We felt alone as never before. There was no light to be seen now from land or ship. At last the whole Atlantic lay open ahead of us.

"Good watch, Yuri. You have no problems—nothing to steer with."

This article appeared on pages 20-31 of the January/February 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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