Thursday, February 8, 2018

Why Easter Islanders Did Not Sail to South America – Part II – The Ingenious Ancient Peruvian Balsa Rafts

Continuing from the last post regarding how early Peruvians, as no doubt the later Inca, built balsa rafts to sail westward into the ocean to land, at least, on Easter Island. 
    First, it should be noted that aboriginal navigation in Peru and adjoining sections of north-western South America is a subject that is little known and still less understood by today’s modern boat builders and anthropologist. The apparent reason is that the Peruvian Indian boat building was based on principles entirely different from those of our ancestry. Consider that to the European mind, and that of the Arabic and Middle Eastern craftsman, the only seaworthy vessel is one made buoyant by a watertight, air-filled hull, large enough and with a high enough freeboard that it cannot be filled by the waves. However, it appears that to the ancient Peruvian, a seaworthy craft was one which could never be filled by water because of its open construction formed no receptacle to retain the invading seas, which washed right through the craft.
The construction was not solid, even the decking, like in European or modern shipping, but open spaces allowed water hitting the deck to drain through and back to the sea

Such rafts, when built of balsa logs and forming an exceedingly buoyant craft, that would rise and fall with the water level, in rough seas, with such tight lashings that they would withstand the forces of weather and wave impact. In this way, the rafts could travel as far as the off coast islands hundreds, even a thousand miles away. It is doubtful the lashings would withstand constant pounding of waves and storms in the deep ocean, but in current flow stood up well in the Kon-Tiki.
    Such rafts were encountered by European seamen as early as the 16th century. In 1524, Francisco Pizarro made his first voyage to the New World, but after numerous hardships and skirmishes with natives in Panama, returned to Spain empty handed. On his second voyage in 1526, with a much larger expedition, two ships and 160 men and several horses, he sailed southward down the Pacific coast of South America. In command of the second ship was Pizzaro’s Pilot and friend, Bartolomé Ruiz del Estrada, who was in the lead when he encountered a north-bound large, native balsa raft out to sea far to the north of the present border between Ecuador and Peru.
    Upon seeing the Spanish ship bearing down on them, eleven of the natives jumped into the sea to avoid capture. When the Spanish boarded the raft, three men were taken captive and later trained by the Spanish as interpreters, since the conquest of Mexico had taught the Spaniards that a good interpreter was more valuable than a company of soldiers. The rest of the crew were set ashore.
    In addition, the Spanish were excited at seeing the craft’s huge triangular cotton sail, something neither Mexican nor Mayan craft had possessed. In searching the raft, they found it was a trading vessel, laden with “very find gold,” silver pieces, precious stones and intricately woven fabrics. It also contained tiny weights with which to measure gold. Through sign language, the captives told Ruiz that their gold came from a land far to the south, a land of wonders.
    It should also be considered that the large ships Hagoth built in his shipyard near the narrow neck of land and launched into the West Sea (Alma 63:5), were likely European style ships, rather than balsa rafts the later natives were known to construct. This is likely because they carried large numbers of men, women and children, as well as “much provisions” meant to provide the means for family settlement in an unknown land to the north (Alma 63:5). In addition, Joseph Smith, in his interpretation, used the term “ship” not “raft.”
The 24” thick balsa logs are both soft and light, making them extremely buoyant despite their size and mass because their low density is much less than the density of the water, thus making them the perfect floating base for a raft

These ancient balsa rafts, like the ones that Pizarro encountered off the coast of Ecuador, were composed of nine two-foot thick Balsa logs, ranging in length from 30 to 45 feet, the longest in the middle, lashed to cross beams, covered by a bamboo deck on which was an open hut. A two-legged mast, carrying a triangular sail, five centerboards, and a steering-oar completed the construction.
    The reason the Balsa logs did not chafe the rope lashings, was that the surface of logs became soft and spongy, and the ropes, made of henequen from Agave plants, were left unharmed as if pressed between cork. The ropes proved to be tough enough to resist the assault of storms with towering seas. The secret of the safety and seaworthiness of the unprotected Balsa raft, in spite of its negligible freeboard, was primarily its unique ability to rise with any threatening sea, thus riding over the dangerous water masses which would have broken aboard most other small craft.
    On top of the logs were light canes forming a deck and tied together with more henequen ropes, that while the logs were awash in the sea, this cane deck remained dry. This gave the raft an ingenious wash-through construction which allowed all water to disappear as through a sieve. Neither towering swells nor breaking wind-waves had any chance of getting a grip on the vessel, and the result was a feeling of complete security which no other open or small craft could have offered.
    Each raft had a mast of good wood set in the largest log in the middle, and a lateen-rigged sail that could he hoisted with good rigging of henequen ropes. In addition, the shallow construction of the raft, and the flexibility allowed by all the independent lashings, made it possible even to land directly on an exposure reef on the windward side of a dangerous archipelago.
    The early Spanish who saw these rafts claimed they “sailed and navigated all along the coast, and were very safe vessels because they could not sink or capsize, since the water washed through them” (Miguel de Estete, Noticias del Peru, Boletin de la Sociedad Ecuatoriana de Estudios Historicos Americanos, vol.1, no.3, 1535, 1918, pp312-335)
Before the 1700s, these rafts had a curved mast allowing for elliptical sails, which severely limited the raft size, which at most could only be about 35 feet long; however, after the 1700s, the rafts had European-style square sails which allowed for taller masts, increasing raft length to over 70 feet long

In order to withstand the applied stresses on the craft, the overall raft must have correct dimensions and material properties, sufficient buoyant force to support cargo and crew, and shaped somewhat like a hand, with the middle log longer than those to either side, with always an uneven number of logs, such as 3, 5, 7, or 9. In addition, the rafts had centerboards, used in tandem with the sail for steeringthere was no rudder. The use of these centerboards allowed the raft to be turned sixty degrees into the wind by lifting the stern boards, so the force of the wind makes the raft pivot on the bow boards; the procedure is reversed reversing the in order to turn away from the wind.
The centerboard or guara was instrumental in steering these ancient rafts

An interesting advantage of using centerboards was that five centerboards, six feet deep and two feet wide, when securely attached, were enough to permit the raft to sail almost at right angles to the wind. It was also ascertained that by raising or lowering the centerboard fore or aft, the raft could be steered without using the steering oar. On this expedition an attempt to tack into the wind failed completely.
    It is also interesting that Heyerdahl did not know how to use the guaras when building Kon-Tiki, although he knew from sketches that they existed, and so he put them on his raft—without knowing their true function. As for the professors who said the rafts could not work, or did not exist, they were not the right ones to ask for the function of the guaras or centerboards.
    Later, in 1953, after further study and discusson with Polynesian natives, Heyerdahl experimented on a smaller test raft constructed like the Kon Tiki of nine Balsa logs lashed together. He found that a correct interplay between the handling of the sail and the centerboards enabled him to tack against contrary wind, and even to sail back to the exact spot from where he had set off. The centerboard method of steering a raft was astonishing through its simplicity and effectiveness.
    These experiments proved that the early Peruvian high cultures were very advanced in marine matters, and that an entire reappraisal of early Peruvian seamanship and navigation was necessary. None of this is really surprising because in 1748 two Spanish naval officers became sufficiently intrigued by the navigation technique employed by the local Indians to look further into the history of the indigenous centerboards. Part of their report read as follows:
    "Hitherto we have only mentioned the construction and the uses they [the raft] are applied to, but the greatest singularity of the floating vessel is that it sails, tacks and works as well in contrary winds as ships with a keel, and makes very little leeway. This advantage it derives from another method of steering than by a rudder, namely, by some boards three or four yards in length, and half a yard in breadth, called guaras, which are placed vertically, both at the head and stern between the main beams. By thrusting some of these deep in the water, and raising others, they bear away, luff up, tack, lay to, and perform all the other motions of a regular ship. The method of steering by these centerboards is so simple, that once a Balsa is put in her proper course, one only has to raise or lower as occasions require, to keep the Balsa in her intended direction." 
    In 1852 Balsa rafts were observed visiting the Galapagos Islands, some 600 miles off the mainland coast. There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that Thor Heyerdahl, who was not a sailor, proved that some watercraft used by man a very long time ago in Andean Peru, were actually more seaworthy than the ones that brought Europeans to America.
Thor Heyerdahl through his brilliant experiments rediscovered the secret of how the Peruvians could sail their rafts into the wind, and like all the ingenious inventions the trick was exceedingly simple once it was learned. With sail and centerboard he was able to turn the raft all about and resume a new course into a contrary wind, thus proving for all practical reasons that there is no limits to the range of indigenous Peruvian water craft in the Pacific Ocean, and that no longer can we deny the likelihood that long voyages were undertaken by the coastal Peruvian population.

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