Life & Leisure

50 years ago: explorer sails papyrus boat across Atlantic

By Fatima Zohra Bouaziz

Rabat, May 18 (efe-epa).- A papyrus boat sailed across the Atlantic Ocean 50 years ago, a journey that took two months and which is still commemorated today.

The voyage was led by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, noted for his Kon-Tiki expedition across the Pacific Ocean on a raft in 1947, who wanted to show that early civilisations could have made long sea trips.

Ra II was built by Aymara, an indigenous people from Bolivia, based on ancient Egyptian designs and powered only by trade winds and ocean currents.

Heyerdahl chose the Moroccan coastal city of Safi as the starting point because it is one of the oldest documented ports in Africa, built by the Phoenicians in the sixth century BC.

Only one of the eight crew members is still alive: Moroccan Mohamed Ait Ouhanni.

The 80-year-old says he can still remember every detail from the adventure “confined on the high seas”.

“It was a historic expedition, a challenge that Heyerdahl managed to meet, and an experience that marked my life forever,” he tells Efe in a phone interview from his home in Casablanca.

He says expedition faced several challenges, including a failed first attempt in 1969 which had to be abandoned because the boat was taking on water.

Heyerdahl was interested in similarities between the ancient Egyptian and Mesoamerican civilisations, such as sun worship and mummification of corpses.

He was intrigued by the discovery of archaeological objects in the Atlantic and wanted to prove that contact between these two continents could have been possible.

The boat was named Ra after the ancient Egyptian sun god.

The first version of the ship was built in front of the pyramids in Egypt before being transported to Safi but sank in the Atlantic after completing more half of the trip.

Heyerdahl commissioned a second papyrus boat, which was built in Safi.

Ra II was built using 15 tons of papyrus from the Ethiopian Nile by five Aymaran reed boat builders from the Lake Titicaca region in Bolivia.

It took six weeks to construct the vessel, a stronger and shorter model than the first, 15 metres long and six metres wide.

Ait Ouhanni was not originally part of the crew but worked at the hotel where Heyerdahl was staying and became intrigued by the project.

“I discovered the works by chance when one day I secretly followed Heyerdahl because I was very curious to know where the man disappeared every day,” he says.

He adds: “When he proposed I join the team, I didn’t think twice.

“I had travelled by sea in my life but it was quite a challenge to be able to accompany the great Kon-Tiki explorer and in addition to represent my country.”

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