Archaeological Experiment Requires a Sail Back in Time

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Archaeologist Dominique Gorlitz conducts sea trials on a precursor to Abora III, the 40-foot reed boat he plans to sail across the Atlantic.Dominique Gorlitz

Most people give Christopher Columbus credit for discovering the New World, but one archaeologist is out to prove that people not only crossed the North Atlantic from Europe to North America, but also sailed back to Europe as early as 6000 B.C.

As part of his thesis project to get his doctorate from the University of Bonn, Dominique Gorlitz will set sail in July from New Jersey on the reed boat, Abora III, and he hopes to make landfall first in Spain and then in North Africa. He estimates that the trip will take about two months.

Though based on ancient drawings, Abora III will be equipped with modern navigation equipment. "We're not crazy enough to sail across the open ocean without any navigational equipment," Gorlitz said. The boat will have a galley, which is situated in the middle of the ship, and two "basket cabins" will provide sleeping accommodations for his crew of nine. There are no heads on board, but Gorlitz seems unconcerned about that minor inconvenience. "We have the biggest bathroom in the world right off the side of the boat," he said.

Gorlitz gathered his diverse crew from magazine and television ads and on the Internet. He describes them as ordinary people from five different nations. There's a doctor, a teacher, a student, and a 69-year-old man along for the ride. Gorlitz was much more concerned with the potential crew's personality than with their sailing experience. "They must have humor," he said.

Gorlitz and his crew are in New Jersey busily rigging Abora III for her journey across the sea. Prior to launching, there will be test-sails on the Hudson River. The sight of this 40-foot vessel, built out of 12 tons of bundled reeds, might even make jaded New Yorkers do a double take. A sister ship, Abora II, is currently on display in New York City at the Circle Lines Terminal at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue. It arrived May 18, on a container ship from Germany.

Gorlitz is out to disprove the theory that it would have been impossible in prehistoric times to sail across the North Atlantic and back due to heavy seas, sudden wind changes, and strong storms. Experts say that prehistoric boats would have been unable to sail against the predominant winds, a necessary component in successfully sailing the North Atlantic from west to east.

Gorlitz has collected evidence that native plants-some used to make early medicine-and food was traded between North America and northwest Spain, which in turn, was imported into Africa. The plants and food had to get transported to each continent somehow, and Gorlitz is convinced this occurred by boat.

He used stone drawings-estimated to date from 6000 to 4000 B.C.-that were found in upper Egypt to determine lines and have the reed boats constructed in Bolivia. In the depictions, the boats are drawn with conspicuous lines on the bow and stern that Gorlitz surmised were keelboards. The keelboards are aligned along the centerline, and on the bow, they're far enough in front of the mast to allow the boat to sail into the wind. Gorlitz says that Abora III can sail 70 degrees off the wind.

If the Abora III mission succeeds, Gorlitz will be instrumental in rewriting history, which will be a sweet payoff for a project that's been 16 years in the making. Or as Gorlitz puts it, "I've been working on this for half my life."

To download of brochure about the project, click here.