Vital Alsar and Las Balsas crew arriving in Ballina, November 21, 1973.
Vital Alsar and Las Balsas crew arriving in Ballina, November 21, 1973.

Tributes flow for ‘courageous’ Las Balsas captain

THE man who captained a raft that sailed from South America to Ballina in 1973 passed away in Mexico earlier this week.

Vital Alsar passed away at his home in Acapulco, Mexico, surrounded by family on Tuesday, September 15.

Born in Santander, Spain in 1933, Mr Alsar was an explorer, adventurer, scientist and legend of the sea.

He captained the only two known crossings of the Pacific Ocean on rafts made of Balsa Wood.

While in the military, Mr Alsar was inspired after reading the Kon-Tiki and wanted to prove Thor Heyerdahl's theory that the ancient South American people could have navigated and populated the world by building and sailing traditional rafts made of Balsa wood.

Balsa is the Spanish word for raft.

Images of the Las Balsas raft expedition which arrived in Ballina in 1973. The photos are from the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum's collection.
Images of the Las Balsas raft expedition which arrived in Ballina in 1973. The photos are from the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum's collection. Con tribued

The Kon-Tiki set off from Peru in 1947 and crashed into a reef in French Polynesia.

In 1970, La Balsa set sail from Guayaquil, Ecuador, with a crew of four men.

They arrived six months later in Mooloolaba, Queensland.

Not content with this feat, he wanted to prove that it was possible for multiple rafts to

cross the Pacific.

"Impossible, Why?" he said.

In 1973, he selected 11 men from seven countries. Together, they built three rafts from Balsa wood and set sail again from Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Las Balsas, along with the 12 crewmen, arrived in Ballina six months later, on November 21, 1973.

Vital Alsar went on to dedicate his life to exploring and honouring adventurers of the seas that had gone before him.

La Balsa was the name of a 1970 expedition led by Spaniard Vital Alsar to sail a Balsa raft from South America to Australia across the Pacific Ocean. Photo The Northern Star
La Balsa was the name of a 1970 expedition led by Spaniard Vital Alsar to sail a Balsa raft from South America to Australia across the Pacific Ocean. Photo The Northern Star

His expeditions included The Wake of The Orellana, to pay homage to Francisco Orellana, who found the Amazon in 1512.

Mr Alsar felt that due to international politics, Orellana was almost shunned for what he had achieved.

Vital emulated the exact voyage, trekking 800km across the Andes with 23 men, building three galleons in the jungle and sailing the Amazon out to the Atlantic and across to Spain, all in Orellana's honour.

The three galleons can be seen on display today in Santander, Spain.

He also built a replica of Christopher Columbus's largest ship, the Santa Maria, which he named The Marigalante, in which he completed four expeditions from Japan to Mexico, a

journey Columbus had theorised but never got to complete.

Aged 75, Alsar built the Zamna, and sailed from Mexico to Greece, building a symbolic cultural bridge between the Mayans and the Greeks.

Mike Fitzgibbons, original crewman of Las Balsas 1973, paid tribute to his captain.

"It's hard to think of a particular quote, every word Vital said inspired me," he said.

"He could say 'good morning' and it inspired.

"His energy, strength and his humour kept us alive. It's difficult to feel sad. I was lucky to see the world through his eyes. He lives in my soul."

Journalist Ian Leslie, who covered the arrival of Las Balsas in Ballina in 1973, also remembered the Spaniard.

"Vital was the most courageous explorer of modern times, the Mozart of adventure," he said. "Gough Whitlam saw the greatness of Vital and his crew members achievements, it's unbelievable that he is not a household name here in Australia."

The raft and the history of the Las Balsas expedition can be seen at Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum at Regatta Ave, Ballina, NSW and is open 7 days from 9am to 4pm.


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