Eight Men and a Duck – Nick Thorpe

Phil Buck is an American adventurer and admirer of Thor Heyerdahl who conceived of a plan to sail from Chile to Easter Island in a primitive reed boat back in 1999, something Heyerdahl himself never managed, and this is the story of how eight men (and a duck) amazingly made the 2,500 mile journey in 44 days starting in February 2000. Nick Thorpe was travelling round South America submitting pieces of journalism back to his home in the UK when he found out about this great adventure and wangled himself aboard on the basis of having a little sailing experience but more importantly being able to document the trip after the original journalist pulled out. The book, Nick’s first, is a surprisingly candid story of how eight men, from various nationalities and wildly diverse personalities came to bond together in adversity as their ship, the Viracocha (named after the creator god of Inca mythology), slowly became waterlogged and started sinking around them. That the boat was going to get waterlogged and either sink or break apart at some point was well known to all who sailed on her, the hope was that she would do so after completing the voyage rather than during.

The ship was just 64 feet long and 16 feet at its widest point so it was pretty cramped on board especially with all the provisions and extra reeds and wood needed to make emergency repairs stashed on board and this inevitably led to conflicts between the crew which needed to to be sorted out as soon as possible because of the lack of space and the need for everyone to work together as much as they could but largely the crew got on with each other although Nick doesn’t shy away from discussing issues that did arise between them. Having said that the book is largely positive and is a fascinating tale of daring do by a group of men who had little if any seafaring experience just a lot of determination to be the first to sail a primitive boat across the South Pacific in modern times, not so much to prove that it had been done in the distant past leading to the original settlement of Easter Island but to prove that it could be done. Sadly for the non human part of the crew they started off with two pet ducks but one escaped and jumped ship about a thousand miles from the South American coast so only one duck made the complete journey, hence the title of the book.

Phil Buck has since had two more goes at crossing the Pacific in reed boats, in Viracocha II (2003) and Viracocha III (2019) both of which intended to get all the way to Australia from Chile. The second vessel was damaged during launch but still managed to get to Easter Island whilst the third sailed for 86 days before being caught up in a storm and eventually abandoned as no longer seaworthy near Tahiti. Sadly there doesn’t appear to have been any follow up books documenting these voyages, Nick Thorpe wasn’t part of the crew for either trip and neither was anyone else on board up to writing a companion volume. Thor Heyerdahl would not have been impressed, his books led to his worldwide fame and whilst his theories about early migration are, to say the least, not widely accepted the books raised money and his profile to enable funding of further voyages and other projects.

This book was a paperback original published by Little, Brown in 2002.

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