The Believers

Olav Heyerdahl: Upstart Mariner

Dec 1, 2005
Outside Magazine
Olav Heyerdahl

RESPECT YOUR EDLERS: Heyerdahl aboard the legendary Kon-Tiki, in an Oslo museum.


IF YOUR GRANDFATHER is one of adventure's most celebrated mavericks, taking any expedition is perilous for the ego. Such is the predicament of 28-year-old Oslo, Norway–based Olav Heyerdahl. In 1947, his grandpa Thor and five fellow Scandinavians drifted 4,300 miles, from Peru to Polynesia, on the balsa raft Kon-Tiki to prove that the South Pacific could have been settled by pre-Inca mariners. Academics dismissed the stunt, but the 101-day journey ignited a raucous popular debate about Polynesian history and catapulted the amateur anthropologist into the spotlight—exactly where Heyerdahl hopes to find himself next April, when he and five other explorers launch a bid to re-create the journey. What can we learn from the reenactment of a legend? A lot—as DAVID CASE discovered when he caught up with the aspiring mariner.

OUTSIDE: How will your journey differ from the Kon-Tiki expedition?
HEYERDAHL: For starters, we'll build the raft my grandfather would have built if he was setting out today. We're adding a system of centerboards that archaeologists now believe the ancient Peruvians used to steer, rather than float with the currents. We're going to navigate to Tahiti—not just crash into a reef like the Kon-Tiki.

What will you do all day?
I'm the expedition diver, so I'll be taking under-water photos, plus taking shifts steering and cooking. We're going to gather data about marine organisms and currents. A slow-moving raft is like a mini coral reef—as barnacles colonize it, the fish come to feed, then come sharks, and so on. So we can really study the life up close and then compare our observations with my grandfather's. Also, a fisheries biologist will take water samples. He's researching drifting pollutants that are changing the sex of fish.

How will you get the word out?
We'll be filming a documentary to alert people to the drastic changes over the last 50 years, both in the ocean and on land. The jungle where my grandfather got his wood for the raft has been overrun by a city of 130,000, and the river he used to float the logs to the Pacific has all but dried up.

So will you still use balsa wood?
Yes, but we'll have to buy it from a plantation.

Isn't it a bit flimsy for an ocean crossing?
Actually, it's virtually indestructible. A fiberglass boat might sink if it gets a hole, but a balsa raft can lose two-thirds of its hull and stay afloat. The biggest threat is an attack by shipworms—they can eat the whole thing.

Six guys on a small raft for 100 days sounds rough.
We're planning to have a quiet spot—a base where you can just sit there and shut up and no one will bother you.

Do you have any experience building rafts?
No, but it's the same situation as my grandfather in 1947. At least I'm a carpenter.

Have you ever even been on one?
The Kon-Tiki, but only in a museum. It wasn't very dangerous.