About the Heraclitus
The Research Vessel Heraclitus is a ferro-cement ship modelled on a Chinese junk which has been sailing the world’s seas for over forty years as a ‘floating platform for scientific studies, ecological understanding and multicultural, multidisciplinary projects’. Its expeditions, workshops and training programmes are designed to champion the ocean, ‘and the species and cultures which inhabit it’. To date it has sailed over 270,000 nautical miles. Three crew members who have been intimately involved in the ship and its voyages over the years answered some questions for ISF.
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Q. You once said that ‘the sea is my country’. What did you mean by this, and is it a reflection of the freedom you feel on the ocean waves?
CLAUS TOBER (Captain)
Did I say country? I probably meant home, as in: ‘Home is where your heart is…’
When people ask me, ‘Of all the places you have sailed to, what is your favourite?’ I usually reply, ‘My favourite place is the middle of the sea, as far away from land as one can be…’
The oceans are the only areas on this planet that are under no nation’s jurisdiction. Crisp, clean, and clear. Truly wild and truly free.
A sense of great freedom and the joy of feeling profoundly connected to the universe accompanies a sailor’s heart on a long voyage across a large ocean.
So much of modern life is so driven by commerce and so mediated by technology. Voyaging on the Heraclitus has given hundreds of us the unique chance to experience a totally different way of life; to know what it feels like to approach a new continent from the deep blue, driven only by the elements; what it is like to turn off all electronic aids and learn how to navigate by the stars, to connect to the celestial bodies and to the cosmos.
This romantic but very essential part of our seamanship training programme is possibly more important than ever before…
Remembering the old ways, the ancient skills and trying to teach appreciation for our marvellous planet.
Q. Do you find there’s a similarity between maritime people the world over — a sense of fraternity — or are seafaring cultures very different from one another?
Of course there is similarity of the people that choose to live where life is salty and wet, and I like to believe that there is a profound romantic fraternity or sisterhood between all seafarers around the planet, a common love and appreciation for the sea and its mysterious inhabitants… but maybe that is just an old fashioned view of what might be the source of an ancient call that true mariners can’t resist.
On the Heraclitus we give toasts on Sunday nights during dinners at sea and an all-time favourite of ours is, ‘To the sea our great master, for she accepts no bad art’. It expresses what all genuine sailors and seafaring cultures have learned to accept and respect.
The sea is a formidable force of nature, life-giving and life-taking, calm and lovable, violent and frightening at times.
We have all fallen in love with a savage beauty that can never be tamed…
Q. There’s an almost folkloric attraction to Heraclitus, as though she’s out of the pages of A Thousand and One Nights. For you, has the sense of adventure been tied to an almost literary sense of romance?
CHRISTINE HANDTE (Expedition Chief)
I grew up by Lake Constance in Germany and always longed to sail the oceans. So when the call came to join Heraclitus, I went for it. In fact it was because of an epic love story with a sailor that I visited the Heraclitus and never left. At that time the ship was docked in the old port of Bonifacio, Corsica. I stepped on board feeling instantly at home and as if I was entering Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le Voyage’.
It is magical to be propelled around the world by the power of nature as in ancient times and maybe as in times to come, without burning fossil fuels, when we will rediscover and make use of the full potential of wind and water.
Q. What are the challenges involved in reconstructing Heraclitus? Looking back on the original plans, would you say the ferro-cement and junk sail design were inspired?
The junk is a 3,000-year-old design. They were the first sailing ships to use ‘bulkheads’. Heraclitus was built out of a modern composite material, ferro-cement, combining Eastern sailing tradition with Western technology. The ship is also a magnificent floating sculpture, that speaks to the heart of an artist.
Recreating the ship’s ferro-cement structure has been very work-intensive. We are now nearly done with rebuilding the new improved version of the hull. Ferro-cement construction techniques allowed us to involve skilled amateurs, so basically the ship was handcrafted by Heraclitus volunteers, including some of her original builders.
One of the benefits of junk sails as opposed to a Western sailing rig is that the sails are relatively easy to handle in heavy weather. On the other hand, the traditional junks cannot sail very well upwind. We always have to choose our sailing route very carefully, according to patterns of regional winds and currents so that we will get to where we want to go.
Heraclitus covered 270,000 nm in forty years, survived hurricanes, wreckage and all kinds of adverse conditions: it’s been an accomplished life for a ship. Hundreds of former crew members and an emerging new expedition team have helped to shape the new ship and are pushing now to complete the last phase of a total rebuild for decades of more sailing and research. We are recreating Heraclitus onto her original keel from 1974 San Francisco Bay, to keep the voyage going, going, going – and never gone.
Q. If there’s a project you dream of for Heraclitus, which has not been yet fulfilled, what would it be and why?
I dream of a Heraclitus expedition studying the sea people of the Atlantic Ocean. We would follow its great ocean currents, voyaging north and south of the equator covering the coasts of West Africa, South America, the Caribbean, North America, Greenland, Iceland and the coasts of Northern Europe.
This route would tie together a fantastic variety of sea-cultures whose lives, practices and future prospects we wish to document before they disappear. Navigating, boatbuilding, fishing and trading go back thousands of years. They are representing ancient arts and traditional knowledge that are such an important part of humanity’s heritage. Mariners often work together in multicultural crews and on long sea voyages. They harness the forces of nature with their ships and depend with their lives on knowledge accumulated since the earliest days of seafaring, such as nautical charts and weather observations. Traditional ecological and cultural knowledge may hold keys to tackling some of the looming challenges of our future.
The people who live by the sea are among the first to get their feet wet with global climate change. They see horrendous amounts of trash washing up on their shores that often might have travelled for many thousands of miles. They see their fishing grounds depleted and their coasts eaten away by storms. We intend to go to where these changes in trade winds, ocean currents, fish stocks and seaside communities are manifesting. And we want to seek out local initiatives who are evolving new ways to deal with these kinds of destructive impacts.
When sailing with Heraclitus into new foreign ports we are actually arriving with our home and while we are docked or anchored, we become an extension of the land for the time we are there. We come in from the sea which makes a huge difference and provides a special entry for our next expedition project of documenting the voice of the Atlantic’s sea people.
Q. From an environmental point of view what have been the highlights of your adventures and why?
RIO HAHN (Original ship builder and Amazon Expedition Chief)
Our Institute of Ecotechnics Amazon Expedition opened a new world for me and propelled the Heraclitus into the realm of world-class expedition vessels. We became the third laboratory-equipped ship to navigate the Amazon. We immersed ourselves in the world’s greatest rainforest and largest river. The Heraclitus entered the Amazon at Belem, Brazil, where enough fresh water flows out of the Amazon on a daily basis to satisfy New York City’s water needs for a year. We motored 2,200 miles up the Amazon River and did ethnopharmacological field work with shamans in the Peruvian Amazon. I was initiated into the magic of the rainforest’s plant medicines when a Peruvian shaman gave me an unusually large dose of the hallucinogenic Ayahuasca brew. I experienced a deep connection to the rainforest and understood beyond words its plight for survival. The experience was later published in The Explorers Club book, They Lived to Tell the Tale.
During the course of the expedition we made over a thousand voucher specimens of medicinal plants, which contributed to the Missouri Botanical Garden project on the botany of Peru, and also enhanced the collections of local researchers. Living and working with local shamans, they shared with us their plants that had physiological and/or psychological effects. The shamans had learned over hundreds of years which plants contained active chemicals. The rainforest served as their pharmacy, as well as their source of food and building materials. They lived in harmony with their environment.
A major motivation for the expedition was to collect plant species that were becoming extinct at an alarming rate and to document their usefulness before they disappeared. What we discovered was that most shamans no longer had younger apprentices, as young people were more attracted to city life. As a result, when a single shaman died, most, if not all, of his or her plant knowledge was lost. We realised that this is an equal if not greater tragedy than the extinction of plant species. To our delight, one of the younger shamans we worked with jumped on board when we departed. He worked with me in our laboratory, learned to sail with us, and left us with a real hope for the future of the fragile Amazonian environment.
Now motivated to understand more deeply the threats to the rainforest environment and the lives of the people who inhabit it, I organised the circumnavigation Around-the-Tropic-World Expedition. We sailed from San Juan, Puerto Rico, returning three-and-a-third years later, after having visited forty ports in twenty-five countries. Through a co-production agreement with Zagreb TV in the then Yugoslavia, we produced a twelve-part cultural documentary series. These films, some of which can be seen in the Expeditions section of the www.rvheraclitus.org site, document cultures that lived for hundreds of years in harmony with their environment. They range from the Choco Indians in Panama, to remote villages in Vanuatu, to now war-torn Yemen, and remote areas of Ethiopia now inundated with a modern highway!
Tragically, many of these cultures have now been assimilated by the global technological culture that is now threatening life on this planet. These coastal and river cultures are on the forefront of ecological change, and now face future extinction due to rising sea levels and increased velocity of tropical storms.
The Heraclitus crew has carried on this first project of documenting the lives and legends of seafaring, river, and coastal cultures. During the rebuild of the ship, this work has focused on the Mediterranean, and now will become the major focus of the new expedition. As in the Amazon, we not only hope to document and help preserve these fragile cultures, but to share with them life-enhancing technologies that will aid them to survive the growing threat to their very existence.