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Sail of the Centuries

Illustration Dawid Ryski

dispatchesSixty-five years ago, a swashbuckling Norwegian named Thor Heyerdahl published Kon-Tiki, the tale of his quest to re-create the presumed journey of pre-Columbian explorers by sailing a historically accurate (i.e., terrifyingly flimsy) raft from South America to Polynesia. Not only did Kon-Tiki become a global bestseller, but just this year its feature-film adaptation was up for an Oscar—underscoring the fact, perhaps, that old-timey voyages still float a lot of people’s boats. Just ask the seafaring reenactors below.

BEAGLE’S-EYE VIEW: A 2009-2010 Dutch TV series retracing Charles Darwin’s 19th-century Beagle voyage featured a clipper ship twice the Beagle’s size and outfitted with a TV studio. But what the ship lacked in verisimilitude it made up for in passenger pedigree, as Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter, a biologist and botanist, came along for the eight-month ride.

COOK’S SPECIAL: In 2001, volunteers and historians aboard a replica of Capt. James Cook’s Endeavour spent six weeks following his 1768–1771 journey from northeast Australia to Indonesia. The modern swabbies had to navigate with period instruments and sleep “like a tropical bat colony” on 14-inch-wide hammocks slung 18 inches apart.

SHIVERING TIMBERS: A six-man team last winter retraced Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 bid to get help for his stranded crew by rowing 920 miles of icy Southern Ocean, then hiking 32 frostbitten miles. Nods to historical accuracy include an exact replica of Shackleton’s lifeboat, reindeer hides, woolen clothes and lots and lots of pemmican.

BLIGH TIMES: During a 2010 reenactment of Capt. William Bligh’s 4,400-mile survival voyage in the South Pacific after he was chucked from the Bounty in 1789, four modern-day sailors had onboard tensions of their own. “He makes me want to rip off my arm,” one crew member said of another, “just so I’d have something to throw at him.”

PILGRIMS’ PROGRESS: In 1957 a full-scale copy of the original Mayflower sailed from Brixham, England, to Plymouth, Mass. (after the crew shooed off a stowaway by dumping dirty water and potato peelings on him). On board was a descendant of an original 1620 Mayflower passenger, plus a black kitten outfitted with his own life jacket.

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