Australia Celebrates A World-Record Ocean Crossing

The 1973 Las Balsas expedition was the first, and so far only, multiple-raft crossing of the Pacific Ocean. It is the longest known raft voyage in history, covering 9,000 miles. The people of northern New South Wales in Australia have organized a festival this month to celebrate the anniversary of the Las Balsas expedition.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

And now to Australia, where this weekend residents of a small seaside town are celebrating the 40th anniversary of a great maritime adventure. That voyage could be considered as challenging as Charles Lindbergh's first transatlantic flight, or as the first climb of Mount Everest. But this particular feat of human endurance remains virtually unknown. Stuart Cohen reports from the town of Ballina.

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STUART COHEN, BYLINE: On November 21st, 1973, twelve skinny and scruffy looking men sailed into the northern New South Wales town of Ballina and received a hero's welcome.

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COHEN: The men have spent nearly six months crossing the Pacific in three handmade balsam wood rafts, sailing more than 9200 miles from Ecuador. The journey remains the longest raft voyage in history, more than double the distance of the legendary Kon-Tiki Expedition in 1947. It was one of the biggest events the sleepy little fishing town of Ballina had ever seen.

Maureen O'Mara was just 5 at the time.

MAUREEN O'MARA: The town was chockablock and abuzz with excitement. We were used to fishing trawlers up and down the river, so this was just, well ridiculous to see something like that coming up the river, you know. And all we saw was lots of wood, lots of canvas, lots of rope.

MIKE FITZGIBBONS: What was remarkable was to be that long, non-stop on the ocean, on a raft sailing it and survive.

COHEN: Mike Fitzgibbons was one of three Americans who were part of the crew, all former college classmates from Philadelphia.

FITZGIBBONS: To make it to a location in spite of the storms, in spite of lack of food or whatever, yeah, again, that's remarkable, but I think it's more remarkable that you were able to trust each other, trust the rafts, and trust the oceans and make it. That really was a tremendous opportunity for us to be part of that.

COHEN: The expedition was the brainchild of Spanish adventurer Vital Alsar. He set out to prove a theory that ancient mariners used similar rafts to travel the Pacific on voyages of trade and colonization, reading the prevailing winds and ocean currents like modern travelers use road maps.

VITAL ALSAR: If we could come to Australia on balsam rafts, the people of South America could have done the same, even better than us.

COHEN: Despite the historic achievement of Las Balsas, the expedition quickly faded from memory. One of the rafts was left to drift down the Australian coast and eventually burned as scarp. Robin Bancroft lived in the area at the time and remembers what happened to the other two.

ROBYN BANCROFT: Then the sad thing was the rafts just sat in the open, they were actually put in a fenced yard, left in the open for many, many years, and just gradually fell to bits.

COHEN: Eventually, the town of Ballina scraped together enough money to save the rafts. Salvaging the best bits of the remaining two, they reconstructed one complete raft and built a small museum to house it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Go down and have a look at the raft, girls.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Yay. Look how big it is...

COHEN: But even many local residents don't know it exists and for the handful of visitors who do come every year, the Las Balsas raft with it's huge canvas sail rising more than 30 feet to the ceiling comes as quite a surprise.

RON CREBER: If this was in the maritime museum in Sydney, everyone would know about it. Because it's come to Ballina, it is a little bit out of the way.

COHEN: Ron Creber is the museum curator. He admits if the expedition had ended up somewhere else, the world might better know of their record-breaking adventure.

CREBER: I don't think that it's been promoted enough when you consider there's only two rafts in museums anywhere in the world. And there's the Kon-Tiki raft which is in Oslo, and the Las Balsas raft which is here in Ballina. And I guess in a way that's just our way, you know. Most people in Australia would think, oh, we have something but we don't necessarily blow our bugle about it.

COHEN: But former crewmembers say the remaining Las Balsas raft belongs where they landed 40 years ago, even if it does mean their historic achievement languishes in obscurity. Mike Fitzgibbons is now a package deliveryman in southern New Jersey. He says to this day even he rarely talks about the expedition.

FITZGIBBONS: I didn't find myself anything more remarkable then anybody else. Inside it was an accomplishment that I could keep, but for the most part I don't want it - I don't want there to be an old war story, you know, and I didn't find any reason to bore people to death with it. But if you're interested, I'll tell you about it.

COHEN: This weekend, a handful of the Las Balsas crew are reuniting for the first time in four decades as the celebration organizers try to remind local residents and the rest of the world about the historic raft tucked away in their sleepy little town. For NPR News, I'm Stuart Cohen in northern New South Wales.

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