With the Viracocha III reed raft, we are attempting to replicate masts, sails, and rigging that were likely commonly used along South America's west coast. Drawings made by the Spanish conquistadors were the first to depict sailing rafts along the South American coast outlining triangular sails with double poled masts that were bent to the stern. It is unknown when this mast and sail type along with its rigging first appeared or if it was brought from another continent.
Sout American Raft Drawing by Joris Van Spilberger, 1619
Raft Model at the New York Natural History Museum
Although ancient South Americans left behind beautiful ceramic drawings and sculptures of reed and balsa log raft hulls, strangely, they did not leave artwork of their sails, masts or sail type with one exception, a mud representation in the Peruvian Mochica ruin at Túcume, in the “Huaca las Balsas” which I visited with much curiosity in 2014. Thor Heyerdahl uncovered worked this site in his latter years and has a very nice book about it called Pyramids of Túcume which inspired me to go there.
The masts and sail type that we are using on the Viracocha III have never been tried in modern times as far as we know. We used bipod masts and lateen rig style sails on our first two reed rafts, Viracocha I and II. Our new masts would differ as they would be two wooden poles roped together at the middle, bending in an arc, 15 meters in length with triangular sails cut to fit the curve. I think these triangular sails made even reed or balsa log rafts able to sail into the wind, most likely the first to do so in South America.
Viracocha I, 2000
Viracocha II, 2003
Viracocha III, 2003
To make curved masts you must start with a tree that is already naturally bent or you must bend it yourself. I purchased eight straight, mast poles in El Alto, Bolivia just above the city of La Paz and transported them down to the sea by truck on top of the hull of Viracocha III. Finding the right trees for masts in the driest place on earth here in Arica, Chile would be very challenging. We had a series of barrels welded together and filled them with water, (a wooden box would have likely been used in ancient times, with steam filling the box). A fire was built underneath and the poles were boiled for a four day period fired by beach wood we collected from the shore which was conveniently deposited on the beach from the flooding San Jose River right in front of the Viracocha camp. We then pulled the steaming hot the poles from the barrel system and tied them to the corner of our beach house and bent them slowly into the shape that was needed. We left the poles to dry another four days to help retain their curve.
I angle cut the poles where they joined and we wooden doweled them together. Natural fiber rope was tightly wrapped and tied around the union of the two poles. The main and middle masts were joined together in this way; the stern or mizzen mast was a single eight-foot pole in length and required no cutting or tying to another pole.
We stepped the masts using several machete sharpened poles, driven into the reed hull by sledgehammer, encircling the bases of the three masts. We used sisal rope wrapped around the poles and bases of the masts to lock them in.
More info on our sails and rigging to come in my next post.
Bending the Mast Part 1
Bending the Mast Part 2
- "Aboriginal Sail in the new World" (Clinton R. Edwards)
- "Aboriginal navigation off the West Coast of South America" Review by H.D.S (The Journal of The Polynesian Society)
- "Construction and sailing Characteristics of a Pre Colombian Sailing Raft Replica" (Cameron M. Smith)
- "Ancient Maritime Trade Between Ecuador and western Mexico on Balsa Rafts: An Engineering Analysis of Balsa Raft Functionality and Design" (Leslie Dewan and Dorothy Hosler)