Sailing to Spain
A boat made of reeds has the moxie—and is waiting for the money
by Anthony Suchon
Nov 17, 2009 | 1990 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photos by Dominique Goerlitz
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If the financial stars align for a courageous and determined explorer, Jersey City residents will be able to leave their handprints on history.

A German experimental archaeologist, Dominique Goerlitz, hopes to recruit them to build another boat inspired by Neolithic petroglyphs (rock engravings) from around the Mediterranean. He and his international crew are seeking more conclusive evidence that millennia before the moon was seen as a destination rather than a mysterious deity, mankind sought to travel into the unknown.

Prehistoric sailors conquered the treacherous North Atlantic and established merchant routes between the Americas and Europe, according to Goerlitz and fellow scientists. Gorelitz maintains that ancient carvings depict Atlantic currents and wind patterns. He also says that traces of tobacco found in Egyptian mummies prove that tobacco, not indigenous to the Mideast, came from the Americas.

The crew’s previous reed boat, the 33-foot Abora III, left Liberty Harbor Marina in July 2007 and survived two heavy storms and assaults by 25-foot waves and ferocious 50-knot winds. Trouble began in late August when they were 2,400 miles out and close to their first planned landfall in the Azores.

A huge wave damaged the stern and they were forced to cut it free to save the rest of the boat. They were able to sail an additional 220 nautical miles before Goerlitz decided that increasingly bad weather made further progress too dangerous. He radioed for a rescue yacht from the Azores and abandoned ship on September 5.

Yet he and his crew are driven to answer more questions and definitively nail down their theory.

Goerlitz is seeking sponsors for Abora IV, which he plans to build at the Liberty Science Center with the help of students and residents. He’s shooting for construction next year and hopes public involvement will attract sponsors for a launch in the summer of 2011.

Abora is the name of an ancient Canary Islands deity and was suggested for these boats by Norman Baker, the navigator for all expeditions led by the famed Thor Heyerdahl, who traversed the Pacific in papyrus boats based on ancient Egyptian maritime depictions.

“We plan to make Abora IV with larger beams to lengthen the hull,” Goerlitz said in a phone interview from Germany. “And once we make it to Spain, we may consider sailing back to Jersey City. Maritime experts have told me that the trip back would be a holiday compared with the west-to-east voyage,” since the prevailing winds would be behind them and the currents more favorable.

The first two craft were tested on the Mediterranean. The hull of Abora III was built of roped-together reeds from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and transported to the science center. Two small wood superstructures were lashed down with wicker and rope. The vessel had a square sail and high-tech navigation and GPS tracking equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard.

A replica of Abora III was tested for seaworthiness in a wave tank at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

“Abora IV will be too big and costly to transport from Bolivia, so we’re bringing the reeds to Jersey City and will assemble the boat there,” Goerlitz said. “Of course, there are reeds in North America but they are biologically different and don’t provide the flexibility and strength to withstand such a voyage.”

Goerlitz is testing a replica of Abora IV on the Baltic Sea and is focusing on the underwater binding of the reeds—the strong, yet vulnerable, platform that keeps the adventurers from becoming flotsam in the immensity and indifference of the cold and unforgiving North Atlantic.

For Goerlitz, the expeditions are meant to disprove the assumptions of most scholars who contend that people of the ancient world did not know how to sail against the wind, preventing them from returning to any trading port they ventured from and thus ruling out cultural exchange across the Atlantic.

Goerlitz says his studies of ancient petroglyphs led him to include adjustable leeboards to prevent sideways slippage when “beating,” or sailing, into the wind.

“Rigged up in this manner,” he said, “it was possible to take on high seas. On the bow and stern, there were several pairs of leeboards that were indispensable for navigation.”

Goerlitz and his crew have learned from being a speck on the ocean that a reed boat can overcome high waves and storms. “We were able to rebuild a damaged boat whose maneuverability was severely constricted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without any help from outside, allowing us to continue.

“That we did not arrive at the coast of Spain is by no means proof that it is or was impossible to make transatlantic sea voyages. The successful repair job was an important experience and demonstrates that prehistoric people were not necessarily at the sea’s mercy even after considerable damage.”

Most academic presumptions about prehistory are necessarily speculation, but there are still some brave scientists who come down from the safety of the ivory tower and put their lives on the line for science and truth.—JCM Learn more about these expeditions, past and future, at abora.eu and about Abora III at http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/episode/lost-on-the-atlantic-4202/Overview#tab-Videos/06716_00.

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