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In the Wake of Ancient Mariners Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by John F. Haslett and Cameron M. Smith

Riding on replica sailing rafts, modern-day navigators retrace the routes of ancient Ecuadorian seafarers.

Excerpt from notes taken by John F. Haslett, morning of October 13, 1998

I was glad to sleep. I was tired, seasick, worn out. It was the end of my first day aboard the balsa sailing raft Manteño-Huancavilca. At 4:00 a.m. Tyler, the expedition photographer, woke me; he was worried. "We've got a real problem," he said.
   "What...huh?" I was barely coherent, my head still spinning from seasickness.
   "We're not going to be able to navigate around La Plata Island."
   "No way. Just take it easy," I said. It's just his first night on a balsa sailing raft; that's unnerving for anyone.

We were 12 hours out of the fishing village of Salango, Ecuador, where the seafaring Manteño lived from A.D. 800 until the time of the Spanish conquest. These ancient people had routinely sailed out to La Plata, 25 miles from the mainland. When we left Salango, we had set the sailing raft on a course due west to get some distance from the coastline. I knew in advance that we would pass close to the island.

In half an hour, Tyler was back. This time there was real fear in his voice. "John--you've gotta get up," he said, "we're in trouble." I went on deck. The dim light of dawn made everything appear gray and black, but I could see that La Plata was just a mile away. The sailing raft's speed and the ocean current had combined to steer us on a collision course with the island. I could see killer breakers hitting the rocks, waiting to chew us up.

The rest of the six-person crew rushed out on deck from the raft's bamboo hut. Only one crew member and I had any experience on a balsa raft, and that was critical. A Manteño sailing raft doesn't have a rudder; it steers using a series of dagger boards called guares. To compound our predicament, when designing the vessel we had agreed to use triangular lateen sails described by early Spanish chroniclers instead of square sails used on other modern reconstructions. Unless our experimental lateen rig worked perfectly in concert with the guares system, it would be all over for us in roughly 15 minutes. The 20-ton raft was going to have to make a 90-degree turn with the precision of a conventional sailing boat. If it couldn't, we'd have to abandon ship immediately.

The crew began hauling ropes, pulling canvas, and climbing masts. Sails were moved from one side of the mast to the other, guares were raised, then lowered, then raised again. In this kind of work, fingers get smashed, skin tears off hands, and hard falls on the deck are common. I was afraid the new, inexperienced crew could not move fast enough to complete the turn in time. After a few frightening minutes, however, we turned, running parallel to the shore and passing just one-quarter of a mile in front of the island. It was very, very close.

How many times had the great Manteño executed that same maneuver, in that same spot? Probably not often. Had I been a Manteño pilot, I would have known that setting that course from Salango in those conditions always puts you on top of the island. It was a dangerous way to learn.

The Manteños were masters of the sailing raft. According to anthropologist James A. Zeidler of Colorado State University, seafaring had played a prominent role in the life and economy of western Ecuador since at least 2000 B.C. By A.D. 800, the Manteño chiefdom of western Ecuador had created a vast maritime trade network. Their most lucrative market was to the south, where the Peruvian nobility depended on the Manteño to provide them with the ritually important Spondylus (thorny oyster) shell. But the Manteño also appear to have had direct contact with the people of West Mexico, 2,400 miles away by sea. A variety of independent lines of evidence strongly suggest this link.

Our project, the Manteño Expedition, was first formed by co-author John F. Haslett in 1993 in an effort to retrace the coastal trading route plied by the great Manteño mariners. In 1995, the expedition constructed and sailed a raft 600 nautical miles in 38 days, from Ecuador to Panama's Azuero Peninsula. Building on this experience, the project launched a second sailing raft, Manteño-Huancavilca (the Huancavilca were a people closely related to Manteño), in 1998. With co-author Cameron Smith of Simon Fraser University aboard as project archaeologist, the expedition remained in the field for a year, gaining significant insight into the capabilities of the Manteño navigators. Prior to our expedition, others had used Manteño-like rafts to drift across the Pacific toward Polynesia, but no one that we know of had tried to sail from Ecuador to western Mexico in centuries. The great balsa rafts were designed to operate off the Pacific coast, and we knew that we'd never really understand their capabilities until we sailed the raft in its home waters.

Cameron M. Smith is a lecturer in the anthropology department at Portland State. John F. Haslett, a former futures trader, is currently writing a book about the Manteño Expedition.

* The Manteño Expedition's web site is

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America