In the Footsteps of Heyerdahl

by Richard Poe
Sunday, August 18, 2002

12:00 am Eastern Time
1 Comment

WHEN THOR HEYERDAHL died in April, the mass media fell oddly mute. Some readers told me that they learned of the great Norwegian explorer’s death only a week later, by reading my eulogy on the Internet.

Such apathy seems hard to fathom. Every schoolboy once read Kon-Tiki and dreamed of conquering the waves as Heyerdahl had done. Perhaps, imbued with the modern philosophy of “safety first,” today’s journalists no longer wish to encourage such dreams.

Media apathy has likewise greeted Dominique Goerlitz — Heyerdahl’s apprentice and heir apparent.

On July 20, this 35-year-old German schoolteacher landed in Alexandria, Egypt, after sailing 1,164 nautical miles in two and a half months, on an ancient Egyptian-style reed boat.

The global media responded with deafening silence. Until Goerlitz himself finally answered my e-mails last week, I could only guess whether he had landed alive or been swallowed by a whale.

Goerlitz seems unfazed by the world’s indifference. He seeks knowledge and adventure, not praise.

As a boy, Goerlitz was enthralled by Kon-Tiki — Heyerdahl’s account of his 4,300-mile voyage on a balsa-log raft in 1947.

Later, as a grade-school biology teacher, Goerlitz wondered how certain Old-World plants — such as long-stem cotton — had managed to find their way to America before Columbus.

One clue seemed to lie in the mysterious step pyramids scattered across the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Sardinia — and even as far west as the Canary Islands in the Atlantic.

As described in my book Black Spark, White Fire, Greek archaeologist Theodore Spyropoulos discovered one such monument in 1971, near the Greek city of Thebes. The so-called Pyramid of Amphion is an immense, terraced, pyramid-like structure, honey-combed with shafts, tunnels and stairways. Heavily weathered and overgrown with trees and bushes, it lay undetected for centuries, mistaken for an ordinary hill.

Goerlitz agreed with Heyerdahl that a race of pyramid builders — perhaps pre-dynastic Egyptians — might have sailed the Mediterranean and even reached America.

But how did they cross such distances? Heyerdahl suggested one method. In 1970, he crossed the Atlantic in 57 days, in the Ra II — a 45-foot papyrus boat of ancient Egyptian design.

Yet many scientists scoffed. Heyerdahl had just gotten lucky, they said. He had drifted all the way on a friendly current. But the Ra II could not sail against a contrary wind.

In the Mediterranean, strong winds blow constantly, in ever-shifting directions. The pyramid-builders would have needed to buck these winds, in order to reach places like Greece and Sardinia. How did they do it?

Goerlitz studied 5,000-year-old Nubian rock paintings of papyrus boats. He concluded that the so-called “oars” in these paintings were not oars at all. “Instead I argue these were keels, which are a must in a sail boat to keep it balanced in the water,” Goerlitz explains.

The keels proved to be a critical improvement over Heyerdahl’s design. Goerlitz made contact with Heyerdahl in 1995. The old man gave him coaching and encouragement. But, sadly, Heyerdahl died before Goerlitz’s final triumph.

After many experiments and false starts, Goerlitz launched the Abora II from Alexandria, Egypt in May. Aymara Indians in Bolivia — experts at reed-boat construction — had built the vessel, which was 38 feet long, 11 feet wide, and six tons in weight. “Abora” was a Canary Island sun god whose emblem, according to Goerlitz, appears on step pyramids throughout the Mediterranean.

Originally, Goerlitz planned stops in Beirut, Turkey and Rhodes before returning to Alexandria. Bureaucratic and other delays forced him to shorten the voyage. From Beirut, he sailed to Cyprus, then back to Alexandria.

Like the prehistoric mariners, Goerlitz and his crew faced many perils, including 34-knot winds. At one point, the yard broke.

“This situation was really exciting, but not totally dangerous for the crew,” Goerlitz told me by e-mail. “The only danger was the modern navigation during the night. Quite often, big merchant ships came very close. This was really dangerous, because we were almost invisible on our papyrus-like raft.”

Goerlitz pronounces his experiment a success. “In front of the African coast, we tacked 80 nautical miles against the wind, from Port Said to el Burrullus,” Goerlitz boasts. At times, the Abora II crossed the wind at up to 85-degree angles — proving beyond doubt that a prehistoric reed boat could navigate the Mediterranean.

Who will dream for us now?” asked Norwegian singer-poet and broadcaster Erik Bye, following the death of his friend Heyerdahl.

Each of us must wrestle privately with that question. A happy few, like Dominique Goerlitz, have already found their answer.

Posted to 08.16.02
Cross-posted to 08.18.02


One Response to “In the Footsteps of Heyerdahl”
  1. Richard Poe says:

    See reader comments at
    Posted on 08/16/2002 1:32:09 PM PDT

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!