rafting competitions were inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 Pacific raft expedition. This article, published in The Scout on 17 April 1952, reveals the link between the Kon-Tiki expedition and Scouting. Although Heyerdahl's theories of South American colonisation of the Pacific are generally discounted today, the expedition itself is still an inspiring story.)
Roy Burnham interviews Thor Heyerdahl - an old Scout and proud of it
If you heard that ominous cry when your Patrol were on a 45 foot balsa wood raft in shark-infest waters of the Pacific somewhere between South America and the South Sea Islands, what would you do?
A gale has sprung up, lashing the sea into giant waves and sending the raft scudding along faster than any man can swim. In that fleeting second you realise that, struggling in the water, is the fellow who, a moment before, was standing near the rubber dinghy with the anemometer. Before he can swim back to the side of the raft he has fallen astern.
What would you do?
It is life or death! A grim moment requiring quick though and resourceful action - a situation which only a good scout, well trained, can meet before it is too late.That was just one of the situations which Thor Heyerdahl and his five companions faced during their historic post-war voyage across the Pacific on the raft the "Kon-Tiki". It is described in his book Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft
, one of the greatest true adventure storied, an epic of courage, comradeship -and Scouting.
If B-P had been alive to-day I think nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to meet Thor Heyerdahl, as I did the other day. This stocky, fair-haired Norwegian ethnologist knows what Scouting really means. One often hears it said that we Scouts of the younger generation miss much of the magic which our older brothers found in the early days of our great Movement. Then Patrols met under lamp posts, or in Tom's shed, or in Farmer Brown's outhouse before venturing forth into the open air. Now, we are told, there are too many clubroom Scouts; there is too much provided on tap for modern youth; the Patrol system has become a mere easy framework for a game of dog and bone.
That wasn't B-P's way. It isn't the good Scout's way - not a Scout like thor Heyerdahl, at least.
There were cinemas, radio and all the other attractions when he joined the Eagle Patrol of the 1st Larvick Troop, Norway, not very long before the last war. But the Eagles spent the week-ends and evenings out in the open where the forest swept down to a lake and they had built their own log cabin. There they were pioneering, camping, cooking,studying signs, getting ot know the ways of Nature which never change though the ways of cities are never constant. They were a patrol, each member with his own jobs, going out on expeditions, using their own initiative, playing the game of Scouting as B-P shows us in Scouting For Boys.
"It was this that gave me a love for the outdoors, and for exploration and pathfinding," Thor Heyerdahl told me. And so while at College and the University he spent every vacation camping and hiking. "It helped me to become practical and appreciate Nature," he said. "You have to get out and live with Nature to understand it.You have to get out into the open where you learn to use your eyes and your senses to read Nature's signs and interpret their meanings."As I listened to him talking so earnestly, I though of all the stories which B-P has told -those little signsm which the ordinary person does not see, but which have saved many a life or brought water to the parched and food to the hungry.
And that was how the voyage of the "Kon-Tiki" all began. While out on a lonely Pacific island, collecting animal specimens for Oslo University, Thor Heyerdahl saw carvings so similar to those in South America that he was convinced that somehow the two peoples must be in some way connected. Then he became conscious of the trade winds and the equatorial currents sweeping ever westwards to the islands, all the way from the American continent.He devoted his energies to a study of the history of these primitive people.
They built their raft, an exact replica of the ancient Inca craft, lashing the balsa logs together and building a plaited bamboo cabin, roofed with banana leaves, aft of a square sail slung between two masts lashed together.
Examining it before the sailed from Callao experts and sailors condemned their craft. It was so small, they said it would founder in a big sea, yet it was long enough to be lifted up by two lines of waves at the same time and would break under the strain. They should have used wire ropes, they were told, the sail was wrong, the bows wrong. In fact the experts found a reason in every knot, piece of wood and measurement to prove that they would founder.
But always Thor Heyerdahl had a tremendous faith, a faith springing from his understaning of Nature. Just as B-P showed us that we, who consider ourselves civilised and educated, can learn much from primitive people, so Thor Heyerdahl knew that primitive man understood Nature even better than we of this modern word, for he lived by Nature. The Incas built their rafts in this style becuase they knew and understood the Pacific and he was content to copy in exact detail the vessel of A.D. 500.
They set out, and the story of the voyage is there for all to read. But Thor Heyerdahl told me much that was not written in his book. "We were organised like a floating Patrol camp. A good Scout never roughs it in camp, and we were always comfortable even in the worst storm. It was natural that we should put Scouting in to daily practice throughout hte expedition, much of it as pure habit," he said. "So much depended on having the right men, each with his particular responsibilities, and able to see them through."
The Navigator was Erik Hesselberg, who first studied the stars on camping trops with Thor Heyerdahl when a boy. Bengt Danielsson was Q.M Herman Watzinger was weather man. Knut Haugland and Torstein Raaby looked after the radio and maintained contact with the United States.
As in all good camps there was a daily programme. "It varied because circumstances varied," Thor Heyerdahl explained, "but each day every man had two houra steering watch day and night, and we took our turn to cook. There was the log book to keep, fish to catch, the radio messages to get through, and various tests wer were carrying out for Services and organisations. We were very busy all the time except in the evening. Then we did the obvious thing, we had a camp fire- without the fire. Erik would get out his guitar and there would be singing and music before we went to bed."
When I have spoken to people about the "Kon-Tiki" expedition they have seemed surprised that six strangers could spend four months together on a small raft, and face danger and death -and boredom- without quarrels and temperamental outbursts. The answer is in a single prhase known throughout the Scouting world; " The law of this camp is the Scout Law"
"We had no rules or regulations except for one or two necessary safety precautions," Thor Heyerdahl told me. "The expedition began with our being strangers; we came out as firm friends. The spirit and comradeship was wonderful."
So it is easy to imagine the chill of fear which gripped all of them when Herman Watzinger fell overboard when they were more than half-way across the Pacific. Knut Haugland threw out a lifebelt but the fierce wind blew it straight back on to the raft. Thor Heyerdahl and Bengt Danielsson began to launch the rubber dinghy. They would have to discard the line to reach the swimming man, and the chances of regaining the raft were small; but even as they got the dinghy into the water, they saw Knut Haugland dive in, a lifebelt in on hand, and heave himself through the heavy seas, Herman Watzinger swam desperately to meet him, and, when they met, the four on board hauled on the life line for dear life, and brought them both to safety.
"That incident," said Thor Heyerdahl, " and the time the 'Kon-Tiki' landed on the reef in the South Sea, were the only two serious moments when lives were at stake. The landing was as tough as any man could experience, but we hung on through it all and the raft held."
Yes, the raft held. It confounded the experts whose advice, experience proved, would have sent it to the bottom long before the Pacific had been crossed.The six adventurers built it with their own hands. They had learned knots and lashings, they had plaited boughs and shelters when they were Scouts - and in the moment of crisis under the tremendous force of the mighty seas piling up on a coral reef, their knots and lashings held. Their bamboo cabin, though sadly bent, withstood the tremendous strain and saved them from death. They had succeeded.
"When the tow rope was cut outside Callao, we knew there was no turning back," Thor Heyerdahl said. "We had to go on to the bitter end. If we had not been confident it would have been hopeless. I never doubted for a moment that it would work out successfully. The moment you start to wonder then events begin to beat you. It is the human mind which is stronger than the human body. If you make up your mind to see a thing through you will do it. It is the mind which decides how you will use your muscles and strength and agility - and until a time of crisis you may never realise just how much your body can really tackle."
I said goodbye to Thor Heyerdahl and walked out into the bustle of the city. I looked up at the night sky as constant as the trade winds and equatorial currents.
I wished B-P could have been with me. I thought that if our Founder had never given us this great game of Scouting and shown us how to understand Nature; if he had not created the Patrol system and all it implies, and shown us hot to be prepared and keep alert in mind and fit in body - then there might not have been a "Kon-Tiki" expedition and the world would have been poorer.
For Thor Heyerdahl set out, not to seek notoriety with a hare-brained stunt, but to add a new chapter to the world's knowledge and the understanding of its peoples. And Scouting had much to do with his success.