(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Does this not sound like a script for disaster? An international crew of eight men, most strangers to one another, sails a 64-foot ship made of reeds 2,500 miles from Chile to Easter Island. None has experience navigating on the open ocean or in handling a two-masted vessel. Few, in fact, are sailors. Their communications equipment is unreliable. Their ship, the Viracocha, is based upon a traditional Bolivian freshwater boat design and untested at sea. Experts denounce the attempt.

Nevertheless, the experimental voyage succeeded. As Nick Thorpe, one of the crew members, describes it in Eight Men and a Duck, however, it sounds as if it were as much a matter of luck in the weather as skill, as much a stunt as a controlled scientific experiment. The book is billed as “travel/adventure” and, to be sure, there is adventure and exotic travel, but what is most striking in Thorpe’s treatment is not the daring or the historical background—or even the boat itself—but the human drama among an ill-prepared, cliquish, and sometimes querulous crew.

Thorpe introduces readers to the world of adventurers in maritime anachronism, people who, inspired by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage in Kon Tiki, set to sea in frail replicas of ancient craft with the excuse of scientific investigation, but mainly, it seems, just to see if they can do it. Thorpe relates their behavior without the careful prettifying common in previous accounts of anachronistic voyages, and if readers are still as baffled by the Viracocha crew’s motivation—and success—at the end of the book as at the beginning, he at least puts a believable human face on the “intrepid maverick whose prescience shows the impossible to be possible” caricature that began with Heyerdahl’s accounts of his voyages.

In fact, Heyerdahl hovers over the story like an ancient, inscrutable deity. His theories provide the scientific background for the voyage of the Viracocha. One important part of Heyerdahl’s work involved travel between the South Pacific islands and South America. Specifically, he believed that Easter Island may have received one group of colonists from the Andean region, or vice versa. The proposal is controversial, at best; most scientists dismiss Heyerdahl’s theories. Unfortunately, Thorpe relegates his summary of the theories and their critical reception to an appendix, although alluding to both in the text, a source of possible frustration for readers new to the whole topic.

Heyerdahl was a hero and role model to Phil Buck since childhood. Buck conceived of theViracocha expedition to help test Heyerdahl’s Easter Island theory. If Buck could sail a reed boat there, then he would demonstrate that communications between the continent and the island had indeed been possible. For the design he chose the type of reed boat used until recently in Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes on the Peru- Bolivia border. There he found Erik Cotari and his family, who preserved the ancient method of building reed vessels. On the Bolivian shore in the village of Huatajata, the team constructed the Viracocha, named for an Andean creation god that Heyerdahl believed was identical to the Polynesian Kon Tiki. Thorpe heard of the project while staying in La Paz and went to Huatajata to write an article about it. He became so intrigued by the plan that, in an uncharacteristically reckless impulse, he volunteered for the crew.

Even while the ship was under construction, however, storm clouds of controversy were building on the horizon. For the voyage to be a true experiment, the ship had to use the same materials that were available to ancient shipwrights. In a hurry to get started, Buck and Cotari used synthetic cord instead of natural fiber rope to bind bundles of reeds for an interior core. When a jealous rival adventurer, Spaniard Kitin Muñoz, heard of it, he denounced the whole project as a fraud, giving press conferences and sending around faxes to that effect. Even Thor Heyerdahl dismissed it as unscientific. None of these critics objected to the Viracocha’s laptop global positioning system (GPS) receiver, satellite phone, radio, video cameras, cassette player, solar panels, power generator,...

(The entire section is 1739 words.)