There’s an almost irresistible romance to it. Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that the fantastic civilizations and architectural wonders of Central and South American cultures were handed down from Egyptians who’d sailed from Africa westward, some 5,000 years ago. After all, the pyramid shape was used on both continents. Hieroglyphic writing and sophisticated astronomical timekeeping too. What if ancient mariners were more advanced than we know, sailing great distances on rudimentary ships, an ancient world far bigger and more connected than we ever could have dreamed? You can imagine Heyerdahl, fresh off his legendary voyage on the Kon-Tiki, sailing from Peru to Polynesia, excitedly laying this all out over cocktails to a fellow seafaring man he’d just met. A man who would become close friends with Heyerdahl, whom Heyerdahl would, some years later, ask if perhaps that man would like to join Heyerdahl on another oceangoing expedition, this time from Africa to the Americas, to see if ancient Egyptians could have made that voyage on the reed rafts of their day.
That man would, in fact. His name was Norman Baker, and he shied from no adventure.
He seemed cobbled together from the memory of somebody who sat down with a stack of old National Geographic magazines and in a dream reassembled a series of adventurous characters into one man.
Baker, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 89, lived a globetrotting adventurous life that seems as though he’s several men at once, cobbled together from the memory of somebody who sat down with a stack of old National Geographic magazines, pawed through a few, fell asleep, and in a dream reassembled a series of adventurous characters into one man.
He climbed mountains. He flew airplanes. He surveyed deserts. He sailed across seas. He panned for gold. He wore tuxedos and entertained guests as a fellow and a director of New York’s venerated Explorer’s Club.
Not bad for an urbanite kid with an appetite for reading and a big imagination.
Baker was born in Brooklyn in 1928, the son of a father who worked for a cruise line. Early financial hardships pushed the family out of New York into Connecticut, where the senior Baker farmed for a bit, before heading back to the city where he founded a construction company that would go on to help build the World Trade Center and Trump Tower.
Norman, however, had more precocious dreams. He was fascinated by pirates as a young age, inspired to fall in love with seafaring and travel after reading a comic strip called “Terry and the Pirates” as a young boy. At the age of 13 he started taking flying lessons after winning them as the prize in a model airplane building contest. Just four years later, at the age many kids are just learning to drive a car, Baker qualified for and registered his first solo flight, igniting a lifelong love of aviation that would one day kill him. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
He studied civil engineering at Cornell, clearly for a time considering following his father’s footsteps, but quickly veered from that path after graduation. Baker’s nose for adventure led him to a first job far from the concrete towers of New York. He moved to Alaska to mine for gold. First, as a simple laborer, then eventually as an engineer. After his stint as a goldminer, he headed south and worked as a surveyor helping to map the state line between Colorado and New Mexico, one of the last unsurveyed boundaries in the nation.
While in the desert the Korean War broke out and Baker entered the Navy, serving on board a destroyer, a taste of the sea that stuck with the restless man.
Something about the boundless open sea clearly spoke to Baker, and after the war he returned to the Pacific, sailing and captaining yachts; it was on a layover from a yacht captain gig that he met Heyerdahl in Tahiti. Eventually Baker wanted to put down roots. He moved back to New York, started working briefly in construction, and was married. During his honeymoon, Baker climbed the Matterhorn, a lifelong dream.
The sea, however, still called. A decade later, Heyerdahl tapped Baker to be the celestial navigator for his ambitious plan to sail from Africa to the Americas.
Ambitious yes, romantic indeed, crazy—quite possibly.
Heyerdahl was obsessed with Polynesian culture and sailing and was convinced the island region was populated by people sailing west from South America, not southeast from Asia. His most famous voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki, sailing more than 4,000 miles from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands, proved, in his mind, that ancient mariners were capable of navigating tremendous distances on sophisticated reed boats.
Buoyed by his success in the Pacific, Heyerdahl had turned his attention to the Atlantic.
Heyerdahl procured great quantities of papyrus reeds in Egypt and in dramatic fashion had his boat, the Ra, built at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
In 1969, With Baker in charge of navigation, the crew set out from Safi, Morocco, aiming for Barbados. After 2,000 miles, and only a week from their destination, the Ra began taking on water, the reeds waterlogged, and the boat started to sink. They radioed for help and bobbed listlessly for 8 days until it arrived.
10 months later, they set off in the Ra II. This time Heyerdahl had his boat built by indigenous Aymaras who live near Lake Titicaca in Peru. Heyerdahl believed that the inhabitants of that area had been taught building and sailing by a vanished race of white-skinned gods; the Aymaras, regardless of Heyerdahl’s odd theories, were master reed boat builders and made a second boat far sturdier than the first. The Ra II was 40-feet-long, with a wicker cabin, and a single cloth sail, a surprisingly seaworthy craft.
This time the small crew made it.
For 57 days they battled 30-foot seas, feared for their lives, and ultimately showed that, yes, it was theoretically possible ancient Egyptians could have sailed from Africa to the Americas given the materials they had on hand. Of course whether they did or not can’t be determined from a nautical experiment.
Because of their intimate contact with the water, the Ra II hung low in the waves, the crew documented some of the first signs of transoceanic pollution. They collected blobs of oil from boats that vented their waste at sea, and noticed plastic scattered across the water surface.
“For weeks at a time there was no sign of man,” Mr. Baker told The Boston Globe after returning to his family, then living in New Rochelle, N.Y. “Just his garbage.”
Baker sailed again with Heyerdahl on another reed raft, this time in the Red Sea, in 1978. Political skirmishes scuttled that voyage before it concluded. It was Heyerdahl’s last great raft voyage.
In the years after his Heyerdahl voyages, Baker rebuilt an old schooner with his wife and three children and sailed the boat, the Anne Christine, around the Caribbean, teaching his children about life at sea, carrying out the odd research mission, and likely reminiscing about life aboard a tine 40-foot raft.
He also continued to fly. And to ski. And to ride horseback, well into his 80s.
At age 87, Baker fell from his horse and fractured his neck. Was that going to stop a man who twice sailed a reed raft across the Atlantic? It was not.
“When he got the operation, he told the surgeon to make an extra turn with the wire because he planned to continue to jump horses,” his son Daniel Baker told the boston globe“>Boston Globe.
In November, 2017, a day before Thanksgiving, he was flying his 1966 Cessna, solo, above the snow-blanketed hills of Vermont. It’s not clear what happened, but Baker lost control, the plane hit the snow, and he was killed.
His daughter, Elizabeth Atwood, summed up her father’s life, and death, this way:
“My dad was prepared and fearless and never let anything get in the way of his curiosity and joy in exploration. He would never have wanted to die in any diminished way, and as deeply sad as we are, my dad died doing something he truly loved.”
Wanna read more about the Ra expeditions?
“The Ra Expeditions” by Thor Heyerdahl, is a first-hand account of the voyages and the theories that spawned them.
“The Kon-Tiki Expeditions” is another of Heyerdahl’s personally written travelogues.
Photo top: Ra Expedition. The crew members, from left, are, Georges Sourial, Egypt; Santiago Genoves, Mexico; Abdoulaye Dji-vrine, Tehad; Norman Baker, U.S.A.; Carlo Mauri, Italy; and Heyerdahl. Kneeling in foreground is Yuri Cenkevitch, U.S.S.R. (AP Photo)