Rafting Across the Pacific

Five weeks ago, an eight-person crew set sail from Arica, Chile. Their destination: Sydney, Australia, 19,000km to the west. They are covering this enormous distance in Viracocha III, an 18m-raft constructed from 2.5 million freshwater totora reeds from Bolivia and Peru. The journey will take up to six months.

Inspired by Norwegian Thor Heyderdahl’s iconic Kon-Tiki and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) voyages in the 1940s and 1950s, the aim is to demonstrate the capabilities of reed rafts and how ancient South American civilizations may have used them to migrate across the Pacific.

Heyerdahl argued that the Polynesian Triangle — formed by the three island groups of Hawai’i, Easter Island, and New Zealand at its corners — was first settled by early voyagers unintentionally drifting on the easterly prevailing wind and currents. He reasoned that going against these natural forces would have required more advanced boat design and navigational skills than was available at the time. In 1976 the Polynesian Voyaging Society disproved this theory by piloting the Hōkūleʻa — a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe — for 4,400km from Hawai’i to Tahiti. On board was Micronesian Pius “Mau” Piailug who navigated the entire distance without instruments and by reading the night sky and ocean swells.

Viracocha III’s team spent nearly three years meticulously building the craft from all-natural, South American-sourced materials, thought to be the same used by ancient mariners from the region. Work on the hull began in 2016 and was crafted over five months by 10 Aymara reed raft experts from Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. Forty kilometres of Brazilian sisal rope bound the reeds together.

This is the third journey for the Viracocha Expedition, which was founded by American explorer Phil Buck. Buck completed his first reed raft crossing in 2000, covering the 4,000km between Arica and Easter Island in 44 days. Viracocha I — his earliest raft — thus became the first primitive vessel to reach the island in modern times.

In 2003, Buck attempted his current route from Arica to Sydney, but damage to the raft during the launch forced them to abandon the trip after reaching Easter Island a second time.

The crew of Viracocha III, including their four-legged member, Chuño. Photo: The Viracocha Expedition.

After one month, they are now 3,300km offshore, with months of open ocean ahead. You can follow their progress via their live tracking map or on Facebook.