Viracocha III is unlike any other vessel – this 60ft reed boat was built on a remote Chilean beach for a transpacific voyage. Andy Dare explains all...
Adventurer Phil Buck is no stranger to reed boats, having twice before sailed from Chile to Easter Island non-stop. However, his latest project aims to sail more than twice that distance, bypassing Easter Island, aiming for Mangareva Island in French Polynesia, in a boat that will start sinking as soon as it’s launched.
“Nobody has done it – at least [not since] ancestral rafts. We are using a very different sailing system that nobody has tried in modern times that I know of,” explains Buck.
As the reeds will be continually absorbing water, there will be little time for celebrations in Polynesia, before they head off again, on another 5,000-mile leg to Sydney, making a total voyage of some six months.
A professional adventurer, Buck cycled from one side of America to the other aged just 17. A few years later, he kayaked coast to coast, then spent ten years climbing the highest mountains in the Americas.
When he was 11, Buck read about Thor Heyerdahl, and ever since has dreamt about making his own expedition across the Pacific. Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki was a balsa raft, but Buck was fascinated by the reed boats of Lake Titicaca and wondered if it would be possible to recreate the voyage on such a boat.
The most renowned reed boat builders in the world today still live and work on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, specifically the Limanchi family. Heyerdahl had taken the Limanchi family to Morocco to build Ra II for his successful expedition across the Atlantic in 1970.
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Buck also sought out the Limanchis and they have built all three of his Viracocha boats. “I learnt from my father at seven years old. I built models, then bigger and bigger boats up to 8m,” explains Juan Limanchi, one of the builders from Huatajata, who is now in his 80s.
Buck’s first reed boat took two years to build. Setting off in 2000, he sailed from Arica, in the extreme north of Chile, 2,850 miles westwards to Easter Island, arriving after 44 days – relatively fast for such a boat at an average speed of 2.7 knots.
Based on this success, Buck built another boat with the aim of showing it was possible to sail across the Pacific to Australia. They set off from Via del Mar, some 1,000 miles further south, to make better use of the Humboldt Current.
They arrived in Easter Island after 76 days – much slower than expected, running low on food, with a severe list to one side and with the boat sitting about 1m lower in the water than at the launch. Buck sensibly decided not to continue.
Now, on his third boat, Buck’s experiences have led to some changes for Viracocha III. A system of longitudinal ropes will keep the boat tensioned in the swells, and it also has taller masts and much more sail area.
He is keeping the whole boat as authentic as possible in its construction, so there is no metal, no plastic, and no nails. The boat is built with simple wooden dowels, together with ropework and knots – lots of knots!
“I have managed to make three blocks or pulleys to install on the very top of our three masts, critical pieces of equipment as we will need to raise and douse sails quickly through the many storms we expect to encounter from South America to Australia,” says Buck.
“I could have installed metal pins and fasteners for added security but that would have compromised my no metal, self-imposed rule. Will they last the whole six-month voyage? Only time will tell.”
Reeds and knots
To make a reed boat, you simply tie more and more reed together until you get the size of boat you want, but it takes a lot of reeds: about 22 tons. Even for ten experienced Aymaran builders, this process has taken five months.
After being dried in the strong altiplano sun for two to four weeks, the reeds are gathered and tied into ‘amaros’, or large bundles of approximately 500 reeds, about 50cm wide by 2m long. Hundreds of amaros were then joined together into ‘chorizos’ along the 18m length of the boat.
Thirty of these chorizos were then laid along two sides of a platform, each being tied to the next, to form two giant cylinders. In the centre is a smaller inner core, called the ‘corazón’, or heart.
Here Buck has added wooden poles, hoping to stiffen the boat against the Pacific swells. Next, two smaller cylinders of reeds are tied to either side, before the ‘estera’, or skin, is wrapped around the outside of the whole boat.
The whole boat is joined together and tensioned using very long sisal ropes, each 685m in length. These ropes are spiralled around one of the bundles and the heart, spaced every 30cm over the entire length of the boat. The same is done on the other side.
They’re then tightened using a block and tackle, while being hit with a wooden bat to promote an even compression. The two hulls are not directly tied to each other, but each is tied to the heart under tension, holding the boat together, deep inside its core.
On land, reeds dry and shrink over time, yet the fibrous rope stretches as it dries, requiring more tightening. Fortunately, the opposite occurs at sea as the reeds expand with the absorption of water and rope shrinks, further tightening and creating an amazingly rigid boat.
Finally, two further large reed bundles are tied to each side to form the ‘sawi’, similar to gunwales. These widen the boat, and thus the deck, giving the rigging more stability, as well as helping to break the rolling ocean waves.
The rigging is the only thing that looks remotely similar to something seen in a ‘modern’ boat, using traditional wooden blocks to tension the natural fibre ropes.
Along both sides are many ‘guaras’ or leeboards. These can be independently raised, lowered, or even removed completely.
Stowage is difficult, as there is no interior due to the hulls being solid. The gap between the hulls and the deck has some limited space, but there are three cabin structures built onto the deck.
The smaller forward one is for stowage, the largest central cabin is the main accommodation area, with four double-level and four single bunks. The aft cabin houses the navigation area, galley and additional stowage.
From the aft cabin crew can climb out of a small opening onto a raised deck area, where the helmsman will access the tiller.
It was only fitting for Viracocha III to be launched in a traditional way, and in February 2018 Buck arranged for a ‘test run’ to prove it could be done. Using local media to drum up interest, he managed to gather thousands of volunteers.
First the boat was lowered from its platform by hand and, with just the muscle power of about one thousand men, women and children pulling on ropes, the boat was moved along a system of wooden rails and rollers toward the sea. It was rather like a Ben Hur film – but 100 per cent real.
LWL: 18.0m (60ft)
LOA: 22.5m (74ft)
Beam: 4.9m (16ft)
Weight(circa): 2,200kg (4,850lb)
Draught at launch: 1.0m (3ft 4in)
Draught after one week in the water: 1.25m (4ft 2in)
First published in the June 2018 edition of Yachting World.
Viracocha III was successfully launched in March 2019 and reached Tahiti four months later. The boat has remained here ever since, having suffered severe hull damage in the Tuamotus. You can follow their adventures on the Viracocha Expidition Facebook page.