Sailing Against the Tide

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In 1932 Eric de Bisschop, a 42-year-old French anthropologist, wanted to discover what effect ocean currents might have had on the migration of populations from eastern Asia to the Pacific islands. He was in China at the time, where he met a businessman named Joseph Tatibouet. Tati, as Bisschop called him, began to assume an important role in Eric’s life. He not only helped finance Fou Po, a 60-foot junk de Bisschop used to learn more about the currents that flowed through the Pacific islands, but also sailed aboard as crew.

Unfortunately, Fou Po was lost when a cyclone blew it ashore on the north coast of Taiwan. De Bisschop, undeterred, designed and built a second, somewhat smaller junk he called Fou Po II. Between February 1933 and October 1935, de Bisschop and Tati set off to determine whether the 9,000-mile Pacific equatorial countercurrent might have offered early ocean voyagers a viable route from Asia to America. But de Bisschop’s boat wasn’t very seaworthy and was wrecked twice, in Australia and New Guinea, leaving both men exhausted from severe malnutrition.

They eventually sailed to Hawaii, landing at the leper colony on the island of Molokai in October of 1935. There they were taken ashore, and, while they were being nursed back to health, a devastating two-day storm smashed Fou Po II to bits on the rocks and destroyed all the notes de Bisschop had made during their explorations. Restored to health by the resident French missionaries, the two men began planning other voyages that might shed light on early trans-Pacific migrations. Almost a year later, de Bisschop completed construction of a catamaran based on the Polynesian double canoe; he named it Kaimiloa. He planned to sail this unconventional craft from Honolulu west to Indonesia, to the Cape of Good Hope, and finally on to Cannes, France. This time he was successful.

From what is known about Kaimiloa’s construction, it is clear that de Bisschop’s concept was to build the two hulls first and then tie them together with a combination of heavy beams and boards. The flexible beam fastenings were derived from Polynesian building methods. Kaimiloa weighed in at about 20,000 pounds, a far cry from the ultra-light cats of today. When he and Tati finally sailed into Cannes after an 11-month voyage, the French press hailed de Bisschop as a nautical hero. This time he had built a reasonably seaworthy catamaran.

De Bisschop settled in Tahiti after the Second World War. Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his voyage aboard the raft Kon-Tiki reignited de Bisschop’s interest in proving that the Pacific’s equatorial countercurrent might have carried migrants from Asia to the tropical archipelagos of the Pacific a thousand years earlier. In 1956, then 66 years old, de Bisschop decided to prove that a well-designed raft with proper centerboards could tack and sail into a prevailing wind just like any other sailboat, rather than simply drifting downwind. He put his lifetime of experience into the design and construction of a bamboo raft he called Tahiti-Nui.

After making one false start from Papeete, de Bisschop and a crew of three headed southeast toward South America. Even though he made good a course toward Chile, the voyage was slow. After 3 months at sea, more than 2,500 miles remained, and the bamboo was approaching the limits of its buoyancy. On March 7, 1957, the raft came within 350 miles of Easter Island and the crew asked him to stop for repairs. De Bisschop refused, and the raft continued to drift east for another month as water rations fell to dangerously low levels. By May they were still 800 miles from Chile, and the raft’s 4-inch bamboo logs were starting to break up in 50-knot winds. They ended up being rescued by the Chilean Navy.

De Bisschop refused to give up. A year later, in February 1958, he christened Tahiti-Nui II, a raft he hoped would take him from South America back to Polynesia along Heyerdahl’s track. This time his luck ran out. He was fatally injured when the raft was wrecked on the reef at Rakahanga in the northern Cook Islands.

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