Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kon-Tiki and the heroic nerd

"Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.

If, for example, you put to sea on a wooden raft with a parrot and five companions, it is inevitable that sooner or later you will wake up one morning out at sea, perhaps a little better rested than ordinary, and begin to think about it."

Years ago, I found a yellowed copy of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft among the crammed, cramped shelves of a strip-mall used bookstore. Giving it a second glance--mostly just wondering who would name their kid Thor--I read those first lines and found myself drawn into a very odd situation.

Kon-Tiki tells a true story. In 1947, Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnographer, was studying Polynesian culture. Noticing similarities between the crops, sculpture techniques, and myths of Polynesia and South America, he got the idea that, around 500 A.D., refugees fleeing a war in Peru populated Polynesia.

But no matter how much evidence Heyerdahl gathered to build up his theory, his colleagues insisted it would have been impossible. 4,300 miles of rough ocean separate Peru from Polynesia, and at the time, the sailors wouldn’t have had ships, just balsa wood rafts held together by hemp rope.

Finally, Heyerdahl was left with two choices: either give up on his theory or build a stone-age raft himself and prove it could be done.

The Kon-Tiki expedition was a balls-out adventure, no question, but it's the men who took it on that really fascinated me. None of Heyerdahl’s crew had experience sailing or ship-building. They were scientists and wanderers, linguists and radio operators, all risking their lives for a theory. Specifically, a theory based on the global distribution of yams.

They were a type of character I’d never encountered before: the heroic nerd, men so driven by the urge to know, to see and understand, they make bold, mad leaps into uncharted territory.

The creed of the heroic nerd is, No experiment is so insanely dangerous that it can’t be made slightly more insanely dangerous with a side experiment. Over the course of their 101-day journey, storms howl and the sun beats down, two men are almost lost at sea, and they must fend off a whale shark that nearly capsizes their raft. And when all that gets boring, they decide to try catching sharks with their bare hands.

"When the shark turned quietly to go under again, its tail flickered up above the surface and was easy to grasp. The skin was just like sandpaper, and inside the upper point of the tail there was an indention which might have been made solely to allow a good grip. Then we had to give a jerk and get as much as possible of the tail pulled in over the logs. For a second or two the shark realized nothing, but then began to wiggle and struggle in a spiritless manner with the fore part of its body, for without the help of its tail a shark cannot get up any speed."

This man has doctorates in zoology, ethnography, and total badassery.

For the purposes of this article, I ran the numbers through multiple computer simulations. It turns out that the only thing more macho than catching a shark with your bare hands would be storming a Nazi machine gun nest using you own lit farts as a flamethrower.

Heyerdahl doesn’t waste time bragging, though. He’s a scientist, and through the book, he writes with the steady observational eye of a scientist, a genial, almost disturbing calm better suited for detailing the mating habits of the golden-rumped elephant shrew. Even when describing the lonely beauty of the ocean, Heyerdahl keeps verbiage to a minimum, letting the scene speak for itself.

"The sea curved away under us as blue upon blue as the sky above, and where they met all the blue flowed together and became one. It almost seemed as if we were suspended in space. All our world was empty and blue; there was no fixed point in it but the tropical sun, golden and warm, which burned our necks."

The author’s copy of Kon-Tiki, scrawny chicken leg.

A couple years ago, while re-reading Kon-Tiki, I decided to get a tattoo of the Tiki image painted on the raft’s sail. I wanted to think that I had a bit of heroic nerd inside me, that wild urge to see and know. I’ve never been to Polynesia or caught a shark with my hands, but I’ve made expeditions to the west Texas deserts, the Louvre, and elsewhere. I’ve worked on an ambulance and in a mental hospital, glimpsed sights as awesome as the blue upon blue sea, and once spent a long night in Heathrow Airport with four stitches in the back of my head.

And every time, sooner or later, the words come. Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation...


Colleen said...

I have drifted past Kon Tiki sooo many times Kris - this post has convinced me to read it.

And your tattoo (and reason for getting it) is so many kinds of awesome, I don't know where to begin.

Stay cool.

david elzey said...

Aw, hell yeah! I totally forgot that I first picked this book up as a teen... and have owned a copy ever since (not the same copy, I've loaned and lost a few over the years).

This led to a fascination with Easter Island, one where I seriously (for a 20-something) considered building a daily comic strip (?!) around those great stone faces.

Great post.

John Haslett and Voyage of the Manteño said...

HI Folks,

Glad to see people still read Kon-Tiki. If you'd like to read a more recent story of voyaging on the open sea aboard balsa rafts, you may want to pick up a copy of my first book, Voyage of the Manteño. Among other things, we bulit the sister ship to the Kon-Tiki, which we named Illa-Tiki. You can download and read the first chapter at our website,, or you can go to youtube and see some of our vessels voyaging on the Pacific. Hope you like it!

Very best wishes,

John Haslett
Illa-Tiki Expedition
Manteño Expedition
To read the first chapter of Voyage of the Manteño just click: Chapter 1 The Worst Day ...and The Best

gonovice said...

Yeah, I loved Kon-Tiki so much that my grandparents gave me a kit to construct a model of the raft. I lashed together the balsa logs with twine. It was really cool. My dad asked me, "Want to blow it up?" "Sure!" So we bored a hole, planted a cherry bomb midship, poured lighter fluid on the raft, and set it afloat. I tossed a match onto it, ran 20 feet or so, turned around and... BOOM! It flew up in the air, split in half!

From a Library Journal review of a video biography of Thor Heyerdahl: "While he has proven that it was technically possible for early humanity to have carried culture across the seas, he has not provided sufficient proof to refute the skepticism of those who point out the lack of linguistic links between those cultures."

Joe Cottonwood said...

Thanks for a good laugh and a great review. And for reminding me of the pleasure of reading Kon Tiki so many years ago.

Heroic nerds, indeed! May they flourish and multiply.

A Paperback Writer said...

To the author of this post:
If YOU had written Moby Dick, I would've liked the book.
Oh my heart, but this was fun to read!
Sure I've heard of Kon Tiki and the other rafting exploits of Thor, but I've never read the books. Maybe I'll have to go do that now, but I doubt it'll be as much fun as this post was.

Colleen said...

John - thanks so much for letting us know about your book (and expedition).

Anonymous said...

This man has doctorates in zoology, ethnography, and total badassery.

LOL, that was all I needed. I'm sold!

Kristopher said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. I'd also like to point out that there's a Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Never been, but it looks really cool.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Y'all should check out this modern day raft adventure going on now. These guys are sailing a raft made from plastic soda bottles and half a Cessna to Hawaii in order to raise awareness of all the plastic junk mucking up our Oceans.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Just wanted you to know that I reviewed this book (finally) after first learning about it from this year a while back. Here's the link in case you want to check it out:

Thanks so much for recommending this book!!!

Colleen said...

Glad you liked it, Heather!