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Home » Cruising » La Balsa: Four intrepid adventurers, one wooden raft, 8600 miles and a point to prove

La Balsa: Four intrepid adventurers, one wooden raft, 8600 miles and a point to prove

  • Normand Tetreault at La Balsa park, named in honour of the raft's arrival at Mooloolaba, Australia (Photo by Tracey Johnstone)

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Arriving unexpectedly into Mooloolaba on 5 November 1970, Spaniard Vital Alsar finally proved it was possible that in centuries past man successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean using simply wind and current.

Accompanied by Marcel Modena, Gabriel Salas and Normand Tetreault, the planked, balsa wood raft floated gently 8,600 miles from Ecuador to Australia, taking 160 days to complete the voyage.

It was an extraordinary achievement, widely recognised internationally and lauded by the then small, but welcoming local Sunshine Coast community.

The Mooloolaba Yacht Club was the final arrival port of the raft with club member, Don Tracey using his boat Capri to tow the raft south 40 miles from Double Island Point to Mooloolaba Harbour.

The La Balsa expedition was Alsar’s second attempt at the long voyage. His first one, attempted some four years previously, floundered near the Galapagos Islands with the crew struggling to keep the raft in the current. But this time he succeeded. Just three years later Alsar then completed the voyage a second time with a fleet of three balsa rafts making the trip safely from Ecuador to Ballina on the north coast of New South Wales.

Returning to Mooloolaba 39 years later, La Balsa crew member Tetreault sought out the Mooloolaba Yacht Club members to recount his experience of the trip and arrival at the raft’s final destination.

In early 1970 Tetreault was a young, healthy 27-year-old, enjoying his life in Montreal. His only previous sailing experience had been when he joined a friend on a two week sail training program on board a 35-foot yacht on St Lawrence River.

For Tetreault, joining the La Balsa expedition was more a matter of accident than design. During the week Tetreault would visit a restaurant near where he worked to enjoy his lunch. There he met Marcel Modena. Each time they met they would talk a little bit more about Modena’s plans to join the La Balsa voyage. “One day he (Modena) asked me if I was ready to do it with them. I said okay. Then one day he said, okay we start,” Tetreault said.

Leaving his job, car and friends, two weeks later Tetreault was on his way to Mexico. There he met the skipper, Alsar. From Mexico the three crew members travelled to Ecuador to meet Chilean crew member, Salas. It then took the team about one month to complete the construction of the raft. Tetreault remembers it was a tough time for the crew as most local companies were sceptical of the adventure. Only one was willing to help, supplying them with ropes and cables.

Finally ready to leave the Ecuadorian town of Guayaquil, the four sailors, all hailing from different countries – Chile, Spain, France and Montreal – loaded up their two months of dried food, two cats and a parrot.

Back in Montreal, Tetreault’s future wife, Danielle, said she supported her friend’s dream to participate in the expedition. “I told him if you want to do something about that, this is the time to do it. You are not married, you don’t have any children, you really should do it now. I said I don’t understand it, but you should do it. I gave him a medallion with a Madonna on it to keep him safe.” She then went to the local church to light candles and pray for him.

Once at sea Tetreault recalled that there was little time to be fearful or bored. “In our minds we had to make it and nothing could stop us.” Even differences of opinion and some bad personal habits were not going to get in the way of their determination to succeed. “It was in our mind that if that person gets on your nerve, probably something you do gets on his nerves.”

Safety of the crew was approached with an interestingly mixed approach. On the one hand the person on watch at night was left tied to the raft, while on the hand there were no life jackets on board, just an inflatable dinghy, for two. The dinghy also provided an opportunity for the crew to leave the raft when the sea was calm. “We would make up the dinghy and row beside the raft. We saw it was very silent on the dinghy where on the raft it was noisy.” These sojourns off the raft were often short-lived as the crew always kept a very close eye on the wind ensuring they could row back to it before the raft drifted into a breeze line and took off.

The raft carried a single, rectangular canvas sail secured with two booms. Steering was achieved through the use of five rudders. The rudders were constructed from original Indian drawings. Three were in the front and two in the back. To drive the boat, the rudders were dropped and raised according to the wind angle. If you look at the current crop of modern offshore racing boats with their forward canards and double rudders, there appears little difference between the design concepts being used now and those used by the Indians in the last century.

Navigation on the raft was certainly not as sophisticated as that used by the modern-day offshore racers. Keeping the raft in the centre of the current, the crew every day used paper charts and a sexton to guide their way. The current was important not only for the journey, but also for fresh food. “We had food enough dried food on board for about two months and there was plenty of fish to catch as the raft was always in the current.”

The fish supply was also important to the “fifth” crew member, a small cat called Minet. “Someone gave them (two cats) and some Parrots too, for company. The Parrots caught the flu and died as the currents from South America were very cold and the nights were also very cold. Then the big cat died one day. The little cat was stronger and would go around everywhere – it was its world. When we got to Mooloolaba it was quarantined. The local newspaper made the story big and everybody didn’t want the cat to die so they found a wife of a ship’s captain and she adopted the cat. The cat went back on the sea again.”

Back to the voyage and Tetreault remembers only once sighting land. It was on reaching the Samoan archipelago that they found the island of Savaii. “The wind was against us and there was a reef nearby. We saw the lights on the island and shot a flare. A boat came out and they showed us the pass to get close to the island. We then spent the night and the whole next day and another night on the island.” Surprisingly Tetreault said it was not hard for the crew to return to the raft. They had a point to prove and were almost at the end of their voyage.

Finally the La Balsa reached the waters off the east coast of Australia landing safely on the shores of Mooloolaba. Tetreault said he found their arrival celebrations “mind boggling”. There were media from around the world there to greet them on their arrival, civic receptions by the local Rotary club and a month-long hosted trip to several Australian cities and towns including Sydney and Melbourne.

Before slipping back to his life as an electrical technician, Tetreault, was welcomed home to Montreal. As is often the way, the media and politicians interest in the amazing achievement of the Tetreault and his fellow La Balsa crew was short-lived. This reaction however didn’t sadden Tetreault. A quietly spoken man, with a unique experience to treasure, Tetreault was happy to marry his long-standing and very proud friend Danielle, to have several children and to never again participate in a history making adventure, either on land or on the big open ocean.

By Tracey Johnstone