On the edge of Lake Varna in Bulgaria, an unusual looking vessel is under construction as a team of Europeans and Bolivians race to complete their work, binding, packing and cutting reeds under the burning Bulgarian sun, reports Deutsche Welle.
The aim — to complete the reed boat and sail it 3000 kilometres to Cyprus.
A crescent-shaped sailboat is being constructed primarily of reeds imported from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. The head of the team is Dominique Görlitz, a 53-year-old German experimental archaeologist leading his fourth such expedition, Abora IV.
Görlitz and his team aim to sail from Bulgaria to Cyprus, crossing three seas to prove that ancient Egyptian merchants sailed north into the Black Sea and back.
Egyptian seafarers brought iron to Egypt from the Caucuses in order to build the pyramids, says Görlitz. He was part of a group that studied iron traces in the mammoth blocks of the Great Pyramid of King Khufu, dating back to the third millennium B.C., 1,000 years earlier than the generally understood beginning of the Iron Age.
The team plan to sail the 14-metre reed boat later this month from Varna, Bulgaria, 3,000 kilometres to Cyprus, crossing through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles and into the Aegean Sea.
“This is the most stable vessel you can imagine,” explains Görlitz, pointing to a pre-dynastic drawing of a boat with leg-like structures from Egypt from which he drew inspiration.
Prehistoric vessels could navigate and even tack against the wind thousands of years ago by employing what Görlitz calls “a secret weapon”: leeboards, a type of adjustable keel, bound to the hull, which can be raised or lowered 1.5 meters underwater to control and stabilise manoeuvres.
The boat’s construction is being overseen by a team from Bolivia: Fermin Limachi, 50 and his son Yuri, 25, ethnic Aymara from South America and experts in the construction of totora boats, the traditional reed sailboats and canoes used on Lake Titicaca. They are part of a boat-building family. Fermin’s father was part of the team that constructed Ra II, which Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl famously sailed 6,100 kilometers from Morocco to Barbados in 1970.
Limachi grew up on small island on Lake Titicaca and says he started to learn his craft at the age of 7, making totora boats with his father and grandfathers.
“There are very few people who still know how to build totora boats,” he explains. He’s been working with Görlitz since 2001, helping to build seaworthy reed boats.
“This is the first time we’re constructing a boat with Lake Titicaca materials in another country,” says Limachi. The three previous boats were built on Lake Titicaca and transported to the departure point, he explains.
Reed boats are constructed by bundling and tying reeds into columns, which are eventually bound and shaped like a banana. Once constructed, the builders spend hours tightening the columns by striking them strategically with a baseball bat-shaped device to compress the grasses, while simultaneously further tightening the binding ropes until much of the air between is reduced, giving the boat more durability and flotation while decreasing water absorption rates.
“It’s quite exhausting, hammering all day and pulling,” says Mark Peels, a 42-year-old Dutch electrician and windsurfer who says he learned about Heyerdahl’s expeditions as a child and dreamed of making such a trip. For Peels, the adventure will continue at sea, which he compares to ascending high mountains like K2 or Kilimanjaro. “The whole time it’s hard work, but it’s worth it,” he said.
Team member Heike Vogel, a 35-year-old German from near Chemnitz who has been cooperating with Görlitz since 2002, spent the better part of a day binding a rope along the side railings. She employed a V-shaped, handcrafted wooden tool used in Bolivia to make space between the reeds in order to weave the rope though the reed bundles.
“Normally, I’m sitting at the computer and on the telephone with customers,” says Vogel, who works for a parcel-shipping company. “This will be my first time on such a big boat at sea.” She plans to sail with the crew for two weeks before she has to return home. “I don’t want to go back to work.”
(Photo from Deutsche Welle)