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Sailing the Deep Blue Sea—On Reeds!

Sailing the Deep Blue Sea—On Reeds!

 Sailing the Deep Blue Sea​—On Reeds!


IMAGINE yourself embarking on a long ocean voyage of thousands of miles. But instead of your ship being a sturdy ocean liner decked out with all the comforts of a modern hotel, it is a seemingly flimsy sailing vessel made of reeds and tied together with rope! True, the ship may weigh as much as 50 tons, but how reassuring is that when you are out in, say, the middle of the Pacific Ocean being pounded by huge waves?

Amazing as it may seem, a number of such voyages have already been attempted. Although many have ended in failure, they have established at least one thing​—that considering their composition, reed ships are remarkably robust. Would you like to see how these vessels are made? If so, then come along with us as we visit a shipyard that is world famous for their manufacture.

A Visit to Lake Titicaca

Our trip takes us high into the Andes Mountains of South America to Lake Titicaca. At an altitude of 12,500 feet [3,810 m], Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. As we travel the lakeside, we come across adobe, thatched-roof cottages belonging to the local Aymara people, some of whom are master builders of reed ships. When we approach the cottages, we are greeted by two women weaving beautiful, heavy woolen cloth designed for life on the cold Altiplano. The women stop their work and introduce us to their husbands.

After giving us a warm welcome, the men invite us to go across the lake with them on their launch. As we skirt the shoreline, we observe vast beds of totoras. Growing up to seven feet [2 m] tall, these reeds are hardly thicker than a pencil, easily bent and, according to our guides, highly water resistant. All these attributes make totoras ideal for reed ships, which is why Lake Titicaca is a magnet for those who want to build such ships.

“Several of our ships have sailed thousands of miles across oceans,” our Aymara hosts tell us with proud smiles as they show us models and photographs of their work. How do they get the ships to the ocean? When the size of a ship permits, they truck it whole to the Pacific Coast. Otherwise, they take the raw materials to the coast and construct the ship there. Because of their skills, the Aymara shipwrights have been invited to build reed ships as far afield as Morocco, Iraq, and Easter Island​—but with reeds grown in those places.

We learn that a single ship may consist of many tons of reeds, especially if it is to go on a long voyage. Why? Because reeds gradually become waterlogged. So the longer  the proposed voyage, the more reeds are needed and the larger the ship has to be. For example, a vessel weighing about seven tons should be buoyant for about two years. “But how,” we ask, “can ships made essentially of dry stalks withstand the relentless stresses of the open sea?”

A Marvel of Reeds, Ropes, and Bamboo

The sturdiness of reed ships lies not just in the hidden strength of the raw materials themselves but in the ingenious way these are assembled into the final product​—an art that has been passed down from generation to generation. Our guide, wearing a poncho and a woolen cap with ear flaps to protect against the cold, revealed some of these ancient skills to us.

The first thing the builders do, he explained, is tie sheaves of reeds together into bundles that are as long as the proposed ship. (See photos 1 and 2.) Next, they pack a number of these together to form two very large bundles that can be many feet in diameter. Then they lay these two bundles together to form a twin hull​—a particularly seaworthy configuration.

At the same time, they position a third, thinner bundle between and below the two larger ones. The larger bundles are then tied individually to this third one by means of a long rope that coils around the two different-sized bundles for the entire length of the ship. (See photo 3.) As many as 12 men tension the rope, thus compressing the reeds into two tight, rigid hulls that are now bound together. (See photo 4.) Indeed, the rope is so taut that you cannot even force a finger between it and the reeds​—a design feature that enhances water resistance.

When the hull is complete (see photo 5), the men add a keel, steering oars, double masts (each in the form of a narrow inverted V that straddles the two hulls), boom sails, and usually gunwales, which are also made of reeds. Finally, they erect a superstructure of bamboo and palm leaves to protect the crew from the elements. (See photo 6.) Amazingly, the final product does not have a single metal component!

After the ship is launched, the reeds inside the already taut coils of rope swell, making the hull even firmer. The end result is definitely not a nautical wimp but a robust vessel. That brings us to a key question, What are the people who now sail these primitive craft on long oceanic voyages trying to prove?

Exploring Mysteries of Migration

The reed ships of Lake Titicaca bear a striking resemblance to the crescent-shaped reed vessels depicted in ancient Egyptian art. Some of the latter even appear sturdy enough to have plied the open sea. Are these similarities a coincidence, or was there contact between the two peoples in early times? While it is difficult to determine when reed ships first appeared in South America, evidence suggests that they may predate the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

Understandably, migration theories have fueled debate about the relationship between the cultures of South America, the Mediterranean, and Polynesia​—especially considering their geographic separation. “There was regular trade between Peru and Panama,” said one modern explorer. “So, why not between South America and Polynesia?”

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s theories have won little support. It stands to reason that even if modern mariners demonstrate that the ancients could have sailed on reeds to distant shores, as Heyerdahl did with the Aymara-built reed ship Ra II, the question still remains, Did they? Time may shed more light on this intriguing mystery. Whatever the case, the humble ship of reeds shows that a hardy vessel can indeed be built with even the most basic raw materials.

[Pictures on page 22]

Cross section of the hull

Before tension

After tension

Gunwales and deck added

[Credit Line]

Source of sketches: Dominique Görlitz,

 [Pictures on page 23]


[Credit Lines]

Foto: Carmelo Corazón, Coleccion Producciones CIMA

Steps 1, 2, 5, and 6: Tetsuo Mizutani (UNESCO); Step 4: Christian Maury/GAMMA

[Picture Credit Line on page 21]

Top: Tetsuo Mizutani (UNESCO)

[Picture Credit Line on page 22]

Foto: Carmelo Corazón, Coleccion Producciones CIMA