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02. Atlantis Expedition

Article featured in YTM #3, Autumn 2010.

In 1984 five Argentineans crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a rudderless raft just like the Africans used to sail over 3.000 years ago.
The idea for this adventure would come from a book that the leader of the expedition, Alfredo Barragán, had read as a young child: “The adventures of Kon Tiki” by Thor Heyerdahl. In this novel, the writer tells the story about his 1947 voyage on a replica he made of an old Polynesian raft known as Kon Tiki from El Callao, Perú, all the way to Polynesia in an attempt to prove that thousands of years ago Polynesians had reached America.
Barragán had heard about the discovery of some basalt statues made by the Olmeca tribe in the Gulf of Mexico. These statues, which date back 3.500 years and are named “Cabezas Colosales”, reveal distinct African features that are believed to have come from Africa via the Atlantic Ocean. “Africans sailed along the coast with the help of ocean currents on rafts made out of tree trunks held together with vegetable-made ropes, no helm and a sail made of fiber. I always wondered if it would have been possible for any of these rafts- willingly or not- to have made it all the way here,” explains Captain Barragán.
So, almost forty years after Heyerdahl’s voyage, Barragán and a group of four venturous Argentineans set out to emulate the heroic feat of the Norwegian sailor, to prove that Africans had sailed to America some 3.500 years ago.
The expedition was formed by Alfredo Barragán, Jorge Manuel Iriberri, Oscar Horacio Giaccaglia, Félix Arrieta and Daniel Sánchez Magariños. The first three members would eventually get together again to cross the Caribbean Sea on kayaks, and they all now joined this endeavor because of its sportive and scientific appeal, and also for its universal positive message: “Men need to know that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to”.
The Atlantis raft took five months to build by very simple means: nine Ecuadorian tree trunks lashed together with vegetable-made ropes, with a bamboo deck cabin and a wooden mast flying a single linen sail. In 1983 Barragán, Iriberri and Arrieta traveled to Ecuador in search of the right trees to make the raft, similar to those that grew in the African savannah. They delved deep into the heart of the jungle and brought back to a boatyard in Mar del Plata, Argentina, twenty 57 feet long trunks that together weighed 35 tons. Only nine of these twenty trunks would be used to build the raft, which would carry a bamboo deck cabin measuring 12 feet long, 8 feet wide and 3.5 feet high.
The raft sported no rudder in the fashion of the primitive African rafts. The only steering system was sail trim and nine dagger boards that would allow them to make course changes, making navigation maneuverability very challenging. As an example they recall the need to start maneuvering two days before reaching an island, especially if they needed to avoid it…
Atlantis Expedition departed Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, on May 22nd 1984 and in their first days out sailing on their modest 45-foot long raft with a 5.5 beam they faced a storm with 12 to 20 ft waves. The trade winds and the Ecuatorial current served as their engine during the entire trip. The only goods aboard were fresh and bagged food, 400 gallons of mineral water, two 190 lbs. lpg containers, survival rations, manual desalinators, VHF and SSB radios, a compass, sextants and nautical charts.
They faced a second storm along the American coast and forty days into the expedition they could see the first signs that Atlantis was approaching land: branches and oil stains floating nearby. The current had pushed Atlantis towards the Venezuelan port of La Guayra and on July 12th thousands of people welcomed them ashore. It had taken them 52 days to cross over 3000 nautical miles.
Remarkably, in spite of having an extremely rudimentary steering type, the Atlantis crew amazingly remained within 20 nautical miles of the projected course. “This is proof that anything that drops in the water and floats off the Canary Islands will drift towards the Caribbean. This usually takes four to five months and of course with a sail even less,” explained Captain Alfredo Barragán.
Twenty six years have gone by since this extraordinary endeavor and at YTM we think it’s worthy to remember their feat and Barragán’s motto, the wise and humble words he pronounced upon his arrival in America: “Men need to know they can achieve whatever they set their minds to”.
Congratulations, Atlantis. And thanks for believing!