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The Abora IV, based on the ancient Egyptian reed boat. Source: Mission ABORA

Oceanic Indiana Jones Attempts to Sail the Black Sea in an Ancient Egyptian Reed Boat

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Described by the New York Times as “part P. T. Barnum and part Indiana Jones” an eccentric former German school teacher, Dominique Goerlitz, has told reporters at AFP that he has assembled a team of brave sailors to specifically prove an ancient navigational hypothesis “lent credence by Herodotus.”

The ancient Greek writer Herodotus said, “Egyptians sailed through the Black Sea to get materials that they could not have from the east Mediterranean,” and to prove this was a factual statement Goerlitz is going to undertake this voyage in reverse, in a specialty reconstructed Egyptian reed boat.

Later this month his team of about two dozen volunteers and researchers will join him on a sailing expedition from the Bulgarian port of Varna, some 700 nautical miles through the Bosphorus, then through the Aegean, with their destination being the island of Crete.

The Abora IV was built to resemble the famous Ra II reed boat. (

The Abora IV was built to resemble the famous Ra II reed boat. (

The New, Ancient Egyptian Reed Boat

The Abora IV resembles the famous Ra II reed boat which was sailed by the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl in his 1970 transatlantic attempt, which according to a report on, “the 14-metre (46-foot) boat’s design was derived from ancient rock drawings from upper Egypt and the Caucasus.”

The construction of Abora IV was controlled by two members of the Aymara indigenous community from Bolivia's Lake Titicaca, Fermin Limachi and his son Yuri, the former having also built Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II.

The main body of the vessel required lashing 12 tons of bundled totora reed together with two kilometers (a mile) of ropes, before two reed sleeping compartments and a wooden mast were added. The boat requires two and a half weeks in the water so the reeds can soak in between five and 10 tons of water, which acts as ballast at sea.

According to Goerlitz, the boat has two sails; one measuring 62 square meters (670 sq. ft.) and the smaller one coming in at 40 square meters (430 sq. ft.) and he hopes these will haul the boat across “the difficult island shelfs of the Aegean Sea” and when they land on Crete he will have proven his initial hypothesis, “that the Minoan civilization which flourished there from 2,700 to 1,200 BC traded with Egypt.”

To Boldly Go…

Mark Pales is a 42-year-old electrician from the Netherlands who is volunteering on the research mission, and his comment to AFP makes it clear that he is not familiar with the 1914 Titanic incident, having said, “I am 100 percent sure that this ship will never sink.” And this unheard of comment among sailors was supported by Goerlitz who dared to say, “Thanks to the billions of air chambers inside its porous construction material, the boat cannot crack or sink.”

And this sheer ’tempting of fate’ comes from a man who in 2007 attempted to sail the ‘Abora III’ from New York to southern Spain in what a New York Times report called “a bid to prove that Stone Age man made similar trans-Atlantic journeys.” Goerlitz's team left the Big Apple and cut crests in the high seas for 56 days before “a storm ripped apart his boat 900 kilometers (560 miles) short of Portugal's Azores Islands.” Yet he insists “the boat [Abora IV] cannot crack or sink.”

The Mission ABORA team on the Abora IV. (Mission ABORA)

The Mission ABORA team on the Abora IV. (Mission ABORA)

In this instance Goerlitz argued that “traces of nicotine and cocaine were found with the mummy of the Egyptian pharoah Ramses II” and that ”Spanish cave drawings show that people 14,000 years ago had intricate knowledge of ocean currents.” Reacting to this, Jonathan Miller from the New York Times described the adventurer as “part P. T. Barnum and part Indiana Jones” and said that while “a few stray samples of cocaine and tobacco inside a tomb might be intriguing, they were not enough to construct a grand theory of prehistoric trans-Atlantic trade.”

Whether Goerlitz’ inspirations and motivations align with mainstream science or not is secondary to the point that while so many qualified archaeologists and engineers are bound to classrooms lecture halls and labs, this guy is out there, putting his life on the line, discovering, learning, failing, trying again, and again, and again. Just like the ancient navigators of prehistory.

May your sails find the winds they need, Captain Goerlitz.

Top Image: The Abora IV, based on the ancient Egyptian reed boat. Source: Mission ABORA

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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