Crown Jewel of the Fleet: Design, Construction, and Use of the Seagoing Balsa of the Pre-Columbian Andean Coast
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CitationEmanuel, Jeff. 2012. "Crown Jewel of the Fleet: Design, Construction, and Use of the Seagoing Balsa of the Pre-Columbian Andean Coast." In Proceedings of the 13th International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology (ISBSA 13), Amsterdam, Netherlands, October 8-12, 2012.
AbstractThe seaworthiness of the balsa sailing raft, and the seafaring aptitude of those who built and sailed it, has been the subject of critically biased, often conflicting accounts over the nearly five centuries since contact. This paper objectively marshals historical evidence to recover the preColumbian design and construction of this ‘Crown Jewel’ of the coastal Andean fleet. Sailing balsas were constructed of balsa tree (ochroma spp.) trunks lashed together with henequen, covered with one or more decks of cane or reed, and fitted with crescent-rigged sails and guaras, or centreboards. The balsa trunks used for the deck, which maintained excellent long-term buoyancy after an initial period of water absorption, kept the raft afloat on rolling seas and allowed seawater to wash through the structure, preventing the craft from capsizing. The upper decks allowed for sensitive cargo to be kept dry during ocean voyages, and the straw huts and cooking pits on many balsas allowed seafarers access to subsistence and comfort while afloat. Finally, the sail-and-centreboard combination made the balsa a highly manoeuvrable craft that may have been capable of efficiently sailing in any direction with respect to wind. Through this evidentiary reconstruction, it will be shown that, though these rafts appeared primitive to many of the Europeans who saw and wrote about them, the aboriginal balsas of the Andean coast were both well-designed and extraordinarily capable of performing their assigned tasks, which included fishing and coastal trade, and may also have included lengthy voyages of commerce and exploration.
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