Life in Salt: An Interview with Mike Fitzgibbons of Las Balsas, the Longest Raft Trip in Recorded History
by Owen James Burke
“There’s been something about water — I think all my life — I just like it. It sounds sort of silly to say. But I don’t care if I’m in the shower, doing the wash, in the water swimming…there’s something that sort of scares you a little.”
– Mike Fitzgibbons, Las Balsas
In May of 1973, 12 men gathered in Ecuador to built three balsa wood rafts without a single plate, screw, or wire, or any other metal substance, which they would sail nonstop across the Pacific Ocean from Ecuador to Australia. The rafts were designed by the Spanish explorer, adventurer, and leader of the expedition, Vital Alsar, whose vision was to replicate the vessels and the journeys that pre-Columbian Native Americans might have sailed to prove that, before Columbus, such a journey was not only possible, but likely.
Mike Fitzgibbons had just turned 24, graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and married his first wife. He was visiting Central America with his friend Tom McCormick when they happened upon a story and a name that would provide for them the best graduation present anyone could ask for: a free trip across the Pacific Ocean (so long as they were willing to work relentlessly for six months straight while risking their lives). Vital Alsar saw the two Yankee boys fit for the expedition, and offered them positions on one of his three rafts, provided that they could speak three languages, learn to navigate, and build a perfect model of his rafts with his plans and his materials.
The Rafts: “Guayaquil,” named for the point of departure, “Mooloolaba” (intended point of arrival), and “Aztlan” for Mexico, where the expedition was first organized.
On May 26th, 1973, the crew sat down to their last table-side dinner to exchange goodbyes with family and friends and share anticipations about the voyage with their crewmates. The next morning, the three rafts — carrying twelve men, three cats, two parrots and two monkeys — set out on a course for the Galapagos Islands with nothing but a navigation chart, a sexton and the Humboldt Current to guide them. 9,213 miles and 179 days later — without having set foot on terra firma once — they were in Ballina, Australia.
Scut: Can you give us a bit of your background story? What first drew you into the sea, and how did this opportunity arise?
MF: All we were were rowers; I grew up along the sea, but, had never been out to sea. The opportunity arose once I graduated college to travel…we ran into a person while we were in Mexico City who put us up for a few days and told us about their uncle who was a friend of Vital Alsar and what he had done…he had a good feeling about Tom McCormick and myself and he notified Vital…We appreciated it and went to see Vital, and when we did meet him, he was just a very powerful spirit and an energy comes out of him.
Scut: So, you’d spent most of your life in school up to this point, but you’re a swimmer and you were a rower. How did you feel you were prepared when first presented with the opportunity?
MF: I think, when we met Vital, there was certainly a feeling of warmth, but also he was examining us…he wanted to see whether you were a good candidate. Anybody can be up when they’re feeling well and not tired, but when you’re down, I want to see what you’re like. The three Americans, coming from the Irish Catholic background…we’re parochial school kids, and we thought, ‘We can handle it!’
So, we went back [home], built our models, and trained. We left during our winter and arrived in the warmth of Mexico City in February and started our preparations. Neither of the three Americans had had any time at sea other than maybe a little fishing trip or rowing…but we believed firmly in what he was doing, and the adventure, as we saw it through Vital’s eyes, would be something we could accomplish.
We did some initial preparations and training in Mexico City and then down to Acapulco to get some sun. He really wanted these newcomers to be somewhat accustomed to the sun before we got out on the ocean, we didn’t want to have any sunburn issues out there…by the time we did leave, we had enough base so that we could handle the sun. The hard part was to keep your head covered and to try to wear sunglasses, although we didn’t.
Scut: How would you describe the way you felt when you were taking off from South America, watching the land disappear behind you?
MF: You were busy just in the commotion of leaving, and then as the days settled in, the worst parts would be when there wasn’t any wind and you weren’t making movement. Even at one point, Vital had us take some of the long planks we had, lash them to the side, and not row, but try to keep the raft in a certain position to grab a little bit of the wind, and I thought, “This’ll be a long goddamned trip if we gotta do this.” Again, I think sometimes — when I look back — Vital was seeing what we would do…He must have been having a good laugh, I think, too.
Scut: What was the first major setback or obstacle you encountered — maybe the first thing that made you question what you were doing, if that happened at all?
MF: I think the first storm, when it came. It was just a gale. It blew in really quickly and it was impressive how it puffed the sails out…you were concerned if all the lines would hold because it really put tension on the mast, which was held up by the stays in the back. They were vibrating because it was so tight.
Actually, the rafts handled beautifully in the storm…once you’ve got it down, you could sail these things pretty well…I think as we got to Polynesia — the Marquesa group — was when we had a bad storm…we followed Vital’s raft. He was the lead raft and he was heading into the island — into the breakers — but not having any luck of trying to get out of that course until the last 30 minutes, when the wind changed and he was able to avoid the island. That was difficult. I don’t know what would have happened had we had to make shore — they were pretty solid rafts, but I don’t think they could handle being pushed into shore.
Losing a Raft
Then we had a storm that lasted eight days, and for six of those days there was very, very heavy wind and rain and waves. The [other] rafts disappeared. You couldn’t see the raft in the trough of the wave, so they had to be anywhere up to 30-35 foot seas, but they were big rolling seas, so we kept sailing. It was scary, but you were tired, and everything was wet. You weren’t cold, but it was enough so that you spent all day man-handling the sails and trying to feed people. As exhausting as it was, I think if you didn’t have it, you would not have valued the idea that this was an expedition — this was what you were supposed to have — not that we wanted it — but this is was made it true, and we made it through okay.
At one point during that storm, we lost contact with one of the rafts…The area was around Tonga, and there are uncharted reefs and we weren’t sure if they had bottomed out or hit a reef…it doesn’t take much. Turns out what had happened was that the winds had been so strong that they lost a few of their lines and the sail had been blowing free. They had to let it down and make some repairs to the boom of the sail. In the meantime, we moved out of their visibility.
Vital had clearly told the other captains and even the crew, “No matter what happens, you know where we’re going. We have a predetermined route planned out if something does happen to anybody and we’re separated,” and that’s what we did. They continued on the route and we continued on the route, and four or five days later, there they were.
Vital did not assign roles, that’s not his way…You picked up what you would do on a daily basis to make yourself useful. The Americans — we did a lot of fishing — we fished all the time with these harpoons. They were just pieces of rebar with a point that we would throw at whatever fish came close.
A lot of stuff would grow [on the raft], and you would have to get all this seaweed off the top of the logs or you’d be slipping all over the place. Then there was a lot of time spent talking — about your own life, and what your plans were.
Everybody reread On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s book. I don’t know why. We kept passing it around. We did take the Kon Tiki. I know what he’s lying about, because I know what we could lie about: certain things like the raft. It just doesn’t crash around; it’s too big.
Scut: So along with your food rations of rice, beans, preservatives and cigarettes, you had two monkeys and three cats with you? Was this strictly for entertainment?
MF: Before we left, all of these people were coming down and bringing odds and ends. There were two monkeys and I think two parrots — the parrots didn’t get very far. One monkey was crushed underneath the raft. It would go between the cabin floor and the logs underneath. It was nice and cool. There were plastic water barrels under there that we had taken with us, and I think what happened was that he was crushed. That was sad.
Then, one of us (who’ll remain unnamed, for fear of coming under the scrutiny from PeTA) thought it might be nice — about 500 miles offshore — to let a parrot out of the cage. It flew maybe 50 feet, and dropped into the ocean. The other parrot, we don’t know whether the monkey picked up the cage and threw it —with the other parrot — overboard, but it was gone, with the cage.
The cats did fine. They made it all the way to Australia, and they were great. They were clean, and they weren’t bothersome and they had plenty of fish to eat. The monkeys didn’t last though, and both were an accident. The parrots, I’ll never admit in court what happened to them.
The other monkey…had had a harness to keep him from going crazy. He’d go up on the top of the mast and piss on us, and a lot of other little things, too. He had a bad infection and you could see it was raw. He had nipped Gaston [Colin], and Marc [Modena], and Vital thought, ‘We don’t know what’s wrong with the monkey, we don’t have the technology to take care of the monkey.’ So, they decided to euthanize the monkey. It was a decision that they made, and we abided by it, but it was a tough time. The monkey was one of us; it was one of the members. That was the only time there was that type of drama.
Scut: So there you were out in the middle of the ocean with eleven other men and no women; were there any conflicts between any of the crew members that you can recall?
MF: There were only two people who were from opposite ends of the poles and it was fun to watch these two. One was the American [Tom Ward], and one was the French Canadian [(Fernand Robichaud)]. One was a complete hedonist and had no discipline, and the other one was completely disciplined…They tolerated each other, but they certainly didn’t have a lot of praise for one another; it was actually fun to watch them — like the odd couple, just like that.
Scut: So how about you? Did you get along with all the other crewmen of the voyage?
MF: Yeah, yeah. I think I had a little difficulty with Gabriel Salas, only because he was so political…and I think he had the impression of Americans as being children, which is okay, but we’re not all children.
I always found politics an obstacle on land, let alone a raft. My comment with him one day was, “I won’t say it, because you’re gonna be here, and I won’t go there.” It was easier to be quiet, do some work, and let it go.
Mahimahi (dolphinfish, or dorado) were constantly clinging to the raft, which was a steady source of food for them. (Photo: Fitzgibbons with a large bull mahimahi)
Hunting for Food
Scut: How often would you catch a fish?
MF: Everyday, if you could. We made the mistake of eating fish we’d caught the day before and everybody got sick. If you didn’t catch a fish everyday, you at rice and beans. I can still eat a lot of rice and beans.
Everyone had to spend so many hours per day on the sail, and every four days you were the cook…your main concern was that you did the best you could to make the meals.
…I can recall one morning I had the late night to the morning sail, and I could hear what sounded like water rippling, or water going over rocks. When the light finally did come up, for as far as you could see on the water — which is I guess 2 miles or so when you’re standing at set sea level — it was nothing but baby tuna. You could walk on them, it was that packed…it was an abundance I couldn’t believe. We ate tuna, but not a lot because it was a little heavy, maybe only twice. Mostly, it was dorado (mahimahi) that was boiled, pan fried, or — we couldn’t bake anything — we made ceviche with it, and we also sun dried it with salt, and that was great.
Appeasing the French palate was no easy task. (Photo: Fitzgibbons, Chef du Radeau)
Scut: What was the worst or weirdest thing you ate?
MF: We had an excessive amount of jellies and preservatives from Ecuador and and one of the Americans tried some on the dorado that had been coated in flower and pan fried and he said it tasted like a pancake. Well, we started doing that, much to the disgust of the Frenchmen. They couldn’t believe we were eating fish with preservatives, until they tried it.
Scut: What was the first thing you did when you landed?
MF: Drank milk. Hehehe. We hadn’t had milk or cheese, and we talked about that a lot. It was kind of nice to have some milk. You didn’t care if you needed alcohol or beer, but it was nice. It was a glass of milk, some butter or some bread — things like that. Those little comfort foods…You’d sit there talking to another guy about milk and doughnuts.
When we were being towed in — they knew to tow us in because we wouldn’t get past that little entranceway — one of the prawners, came up close and a big guy, like Bluto out of the Popeye movies, yells over to us, “Anybody want a beer?”
We weren’t quite sure if we should do that because Vital hasn’t given us the go-ahead. I said, “I’ll take one.” He just pointed to me and said “You’ll fit in.” I loved Australia.
Scut: I think I know the answer to this, but would you do it again?
MF: Yeah, I would certainly do it again. I don’t need to do it to prove anything, but I think I would enjoy the experience again for sure.
Scut: What’s your favorite tool to have at sea?
MF: My favorite tool is still the tool that was my favorite on the raft: the harpoon. You fed everybody. It was your worth. There was a challenge. You’d wait, you’d wait, and wait, and they’d get close and you’d throw it. The harpoon was my favorite. It was just a piece of rebar that we fashioned a point on it. There was also a trident; it looked good in the pictures, but it was lousy throwing.
Scut: What’s your favorite book about the sea — who describes the sea the best?
MF: Shackleton [South: The Endurance Expedition]. I can’t imagine the ice and the ugh…it startles me when I read him and learn of his voyage. Anybody who goes around the horn — that’s remarkable. I think I admire any of the people who are able to travel on water. There’s just something about the people…There’s been something about water — I think all my life — I just like it. It sounds sort of silly to say. But I don’t care if I’m in the shower, doing the wash, in the water swimming — I do ocean swims…there’s something that sort of scares you a little.
Scut: It puts you in your place?
MF: It’s fun.
Mike Fitzgibbons now lives in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, where spends his summers sailing and competing in triathlons.
(All photographs courtesy of Mike Fitzgibbons)