Reviews of Eight Men and a Duck

In brief…

“A most extraordinary story” – Libby Purves, BBC Radio 4 Midweek
“An accomplished storyteller…thoroughly entertaining” – Daily Telegraph
“An exciting, involving read” – Independent on Sunday
“Thorpe’s imagery is exquisite… If you enjoy chuckling during your armchair travels, my advice is: Rush and Reed” – Tim Severin,Washington Post
“A warm, wonderful book” – Publishers Weekly
“Wholly absorbing and completely irresistible” – Kirkus Reviews
“Thorpe is a witty writer… and thoroughly exploits the comic potential of a slowly sinking boat.” – Outside Magazine
“A great travel book” – Sunday Herald
“A deeply satisfying read” – The List
“An engrossing adventure” – The Scotsman
“An entertaining and insightful work” – Press Association
“New Book of the Week” – Wales on Sunday
“A thoroughly enjoyable read” – Irish News
“Downright preposterous and completely glorious” – Barnes & Noble
“A comic romp… rates a prominent spot on every adventurer’s bookshelf” – Philadelphia Enquirer
“A humorous triumph” – Sailing magazine

In full…

Publishers Weekly (US)
18th March 2002

* (Starred for recommendation)

“A master of tension, Thorpe mingles storms, bruised egos, paranoia, food shortages, botched launchings, lamented loved ones and utterly inept seamanship into a tale of triumph against the odds. In Thorpe’s hands a travelogue becomes a comedy of errors, a farce, a Latinate epic and a picaresque tale. It’s a warm, wonderful book, a story of enthusiasm superseding expertise in which Fate smiles favourably.

Forecast: This light-hearted take on the sea adventure is sure to attract word-of-mouth attention.”

Kirkus Reviews (US)
March 2002

* (Starred for recommendation)

“At the dawn of the new millennium, professional adventurer and Thor Heyerdahl fan Phil Buck was on the shores of Lake Titicaca overseeing the finishing touches to a reed boat christened the Virachcocha (another name for Kon-Tiki). No flimsy raft, the Viracocha was 60 feet long, had two masts, and was a masterwork of pre-Incan-style workmanship created by a local family who specialist in the traditional craft; Buck planned to sail her to Easter Island in a further exploration of Heyerdahl’s theories.

Thorpe, a wandering Scottish journalist with a very understanding wife, stumbled across the project and, immediately enchanted, lucked into a space on board. The account that follows, told in his addictive, self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek style, is nearly unbelievable, from the trials of actually getting the boat launched to the final moments of the Viracocha at Easter Island…

…Despite the capricious nature of the voyage, the almost staggering lack of experience of the crew, and the constant presence of sharks, most of the drama comes from the interaction of the eight men and their duck mascot, together 24 hours a day for a month and a half.

Thorpe’s maiden voyage as an author is wholly absorbing and completely irresistible.”
Independent on Sunday
8th December 2002
“Nick Thorpe was minding his own business on a South American bus trip when an encounter with Stephane Guerin changed his life. Thorpe was a journalist roving Bolivia in search of saleable stories, finding the best topic to cover seemed to be a mind-altering ritual moondance – no, not even the moondance but a preparatory sauna for it. Unsurprisingly, he was getting browned off. On the bus to Lake Titicaca, Thorpe overheard Guerin talking about preparations for building a boat made of reeds and sailing it to Easter Island. Thorpe talked his way into the trip and he’s written about it in Eight Men and a Duck (Little, Brown £12.99). It’s an exciting, involving read. Right from the prologue, which plunges us into the midst of the action and the worst of the weather, his direct style is beguiling and it’s difficult not to be carried along.”

The Daily Telegraph, 15th June 2002
“The credits in the title are a little unfair. Eight men and two ducks left northern Chile on a 2,500-mile journey to Easter Island, but one duck was washed overboard while the men were looking the other way. These things happen. But they happen more often when you don’t know what you’re doing.
Ship of fools is a phrase that comes to mind. Nick Thorpe, as so often in this narrative, finds a fresher image. The Viracocha, he writes, was “a sort of floating focus group”.
Its chairperson was Phil Buck, an American obsessed with the ideas of Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl (who died in April) had a theory that Polynesia had been settled by migrants from South America. Nonsense, said the scientists. So in 1947 Heyerdahl sailed his balsawood raft, Kon-Tiki, from Peru to the Pacific islands of Tuamotu to show that the scientists might be wrong. The scientists were outraged. It took them only 50 years to come back with DNA tests showing that all the islanders were of Asian descent. There, they said; told you so. Kon-Tiki was sunk.
Or was it? Buck didn’t think so. Heyerdahl had based his theory on the possibility of South Americans travelling to Easter Island, but Kon-Tiki had never sailed there. Buck was determined to rekindle the debate by attempting this “missing voyage”. After that, he would take a reed boat all the way around the world.
He wasn’t deterred by the fact that a Spanish adventurer, Kitin Munoz, had sunk three weeks into a reed-boat trip to Easter Island. Or by the fact that his own maritime experience consisted of a few months’ crewing on a yacht and a stint as a filleter on a factory ship.
Nor, initially, was Thorpe, a journalist on a backpacking break in South America. Having intended only to write a story about the Viracocha, he got carried along by the gran aventura and joined the crew. He was a bit worried when Buck charged him with making the sails, but it was not until the boat was at sea that he properly came out as the expedition’s Woody Allen.
That’s his own characterisation, but most readers will find a little neuroticism understandable… Thorpe’s fellow crewmen included a Texan tree surgeon, a Chilean odd-jobber and a French Romeo, but not – it turned out on their ninth day at sea – anyone with sufficient expertise to turn the boat around.
So how did a journalist, a sceptic by training, get mixed up with this lot? “I suppose I’m just a control freak trying to break the habit,” he told Stephane, the Frenchman, as they shared a watch. “I hate the idea that I might be limiting my experience of life through being afraid. That’s why I came on this trip – to put myself in a situation where I had to trust someone other than myself. Other people. A higher power.”
It was that higher power, presumably, that brought the Viracocha’s crew through a storm and a close encounter with a cargo ship to a less than triumphant landfall (in which the duck received the most wholehearted welcome) after six weeks at sea.
Thorpe might be a poor sailor but he is an accomplished storyteller. There are poignant moments, but for the most part he chronicles the voyage of the Viracocha with an easy, unforced humour. It’s hardly an inspiring story (few readers will be tempted by the appendix instructions on “How to Build a Reed Boat”), but it’s a thoroughly entertaining one. (Michael Kerr)

Sunday Herald, 6th May 2002
“Thorpe’s book is fascinating because he attempts to fathom why he and his shipmates signed up for an exercise which is both impressive and farcical. At an early stage of the trip they are forced to phone electricians to ask how their batteries work. The electricians ring up the Chilean Navy who have to be talked out of attempting a rescue attempt…
This is a great travel book because it records how a bunch of misfits deal with setbacks and boredom to achieve something they are proud of.” (Tim Abrahams)

Press Association, 22nd May 2002
“Judging by this book Nick Thorpe either has a commendable sense of adventure or is completely mad. Either would explain his decision to board a boat made from reeds and sail with an inexperienced crew on a 2,500-mile expedition through shark-infested waters. The epic journey from Chile to Easter Island on the 60ft Viracocha was to emulate the voyage of the late Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki more than 50 years before…
There is a risk with this kind of book that it might end up sounding gung-ho and fall into the adventure schoolboy genre. But Thorpe, an award-winning feature writer, has avoided that pitfall to produce an entertaining and insightful work, especially about the relationships between the crew, which became very strained at times. And while the whole project sounds a bit hare-brained, at least he and the rest of the crew had a genuine adventure on the high seas.”

The List
6th June 2002
**** (four star review)

“Former Scotsman reporter Nick Thorpe finds himself on a bus in La Paz, Bolivia, looking for a story. Earwigging on a couple of backpackers at the front of the bus, he learns of a madcap voyage being made by a bunch of eccentrics from the shores of Lake Titicaca, travelling 2500 miles to Easter Island in a boat made of reeds. Thorpe eagerly joins the programme, but soon finds himself making the denim sails and contending with the frighteningly inexperienced crew.

This is Kon-Tiki territory, a bunch of misfits on a very unstable boat, but Thorpe is a witty, careful and unsentimental writer who knows how to wring every piece of melodrama from a surreal situation. Anyone with more than a passing interest in adventure on the high seas will find this a deeply satisfying read.” (Paul Dale)

Irish News
29th April 2002

“This bizarre journey makes for great reading… Their efforts to keep abreast of modern conveniences… and ancient technology… will make you laugh. Their encounters with storms, navies and fast moving freighters are enough to make you cry…
This thoroughly enjoyable read is Nick Thorpe’s first book. It will not be his last.” (Joseph P Fitzpatrick)

Washington Post
23rd June 2002
and Chicago Sun Times, 4th August 2002

Reviewed by Tim Severin

A modest wooden sculpture stands at the crossroads in the small Irish village where I live. It depicts a sheaf of corn with a candle on top and commemorates the founding legend of our village, of St. Molaga lighting a candle, placing it on a sheaf and launching it on the local estuary. Where the sheaf drifted ashore was God’s will, the saint proclaimed, and on that spot he would establish his hermitage. Divine oversight continues to benefit vessels of vegetable matter, because God must have had a hand in the final landfall of the reed boat Viracocha, which sailed, or rather limped, into port on Easter Island on April 9, 2000, with eight men and a duck on board.

Seldom can a crew have been so winningly inept — or so well-served by their chronicler. “Ship of fools” is the phrase I waited for, and sure enough Nick Thorpe uses it halfway through his tale. He deploys his droll story so deftly that it can safely be said that if there was one single professional on board the Viracocha, it was he. A journalist for the Scotsman newspaper, Thorpe was on roving mission in South America when he overheard a backpacker on a bus discussing a project to sail a reed boat from Chile to Easter Island. The purpose of this zany trip was to test the theory that the island was first peopled by raftsfolk from South America. This theory was associated with the Norwegian traveler and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, of recent memory. But Heyerdahl, as it happens, pretty much retracted the idea in his later years. No matter. This was to be saga by burlesque.

Our author, himself a tyro sailor, first saw Viracocha in Bolivia, where the bulging hull of reeds was waiting, ready to be trucked to the coast. With a discerning eye for the absurd, he notes how Viracocha had been assembled in one of the only two landlocked countries in South America, and that reed boats were now prepared only for the tourist trade and for the succession of would-be explorers and adventurers who arrive to place their commissions. Later, en route to Viracocha on the Chilean beach, his taxi driver was even confused as to which reed boat his passenger wished to reach.

So originality is not the hallmark of this project, though hilarity is. There is ample scope for things to go wrong, and they do so at every possible turn. The 20-ton vessel gets stuck on her launching ramp; the initial tow out to sea goes on for 100 miles; the sails are raised up back-to-front; there is so much electronic equipment on board that the batteries go flat; careless washing up sends all the cutlery into the ocean and the crew must carve themselves wooden spoons; and so forth. By the time the raft has wallowed about a third of the way along her trek, you begin to understand why Pedro, one of the two domestic ducks taken aboard, escaped from his coop. He waddled to the stern and launched on the largest ocean on the world. Seven hundred miles from land and incapable of flight (in the aeronautical sense), the wise creature was last seen paddling away into the distance. Daft as a duck he was not.

Thorpe’s imagery is exquisite. A crew member has a snore “like the death rattle of a walrus,” the massive tillers bump the helmsman’s ribs “like truculent oxen,” pelicans look like “collapsing umbrellas” as they plunge. Sometimes Thorpe comes closer to the truth than he knows. The mascot ducks are taken along in emulation of the pet monkey that Heyerdahl’s team carried on Ra II, the reed boat in which he and his crew crossed the Atlantic. Will Viracocha’s crew eat the ducks? Thorpe wonders. (Ra’s pet monkey, rumor has it, was eaten by her crew in celebration of their crossing.) But Pablo, the sole survivor, finds a safe harbor on Easter Island.

The account of Viracocha’s voyage is so funny that it is easy to overlook the underlying fact that the vessel did succeed in making the journey intended. Her crew deserve rather more applause than the Easter Islanders gave them on arrival. But as a scientific experiment — if that is what this was, and Nick Thorpe is honestly doubtful in that regard — the voyage was so flawed as to be meaningless. On the scale of significance of Alleged Reed Boat Journeys of History, Viracocha’s lies at one end, Moses in his basket at the other. So if you are looking for serious maritime archaeology or thought-provoking theorizing, this is not a volume for your library. If, on the other hand, you enjoy chuckling during your armchair travels, my advice is: Rush and Reed. (Tim Severin)

Forbes Magazine, May 2002
“Sometimes the most enlightening travel is the bare-bones kind. Scottish journalist Nick Thorpe learned that lesson in a unique way, on a harrowing voyage from Chile to Easter Island on a waterlogged reed boat. His story begins on a cramped Bolivian bus, where he meets – and takes an instant dislike to – the man who will introduce him to a crew of adventurers building a Thor Heyerdahl-inspired, pre-Inca craft that they hope will endure the 2,500-mile voyage across the Pacific…
His account of the ensuing adventures is often heart-stopping – a dead-of-night near-miss by a South Korean freighter, technology snafus, a gale and the grisly Power Bar scandal – “a chilling indictment of human behaviour in an unregulated economy of confectionary snacks”…

None of it, however, can dim the spirit of discovery that pervades the book and, steadily, the author himself.” (Lorraine Korman)

The Barnes and Noble Review, June 2002
(Editor’s choice, Travel)

“It’s a miracle that Nick Thorpe’s 8 Men and a Duck got written. When dreamer/adventurer Phil Buck set out to sail a reed boat across the Pacific from South America to Easter Island, British journalist Thorpe managed to tag along as a “crew member,” never mind the fact that his own sailing résumé consisted mostly of capsizing sailboats into Thames River sewage and being a second-string college rower on a boat nicknamed “Eeyore.”

The group’s noble (or nutty, depending upon your viewpoint) mission was to complete the “missing link” voyage in the explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s still-controversial theory of Polynesian/Amerindian migrations. But fitful funding, media mudslinging from a failed rival, prevoyage crew (and crucial equipment) defections, and swindling tow boat operators almost sank the Viracocha expedition before it ever left the shoreline. Once the boat was launched, the sailing didn’t get much smoother; in fact, close encounters with sharks, steamships, and storms (both meteorological and interpersonal) make the eventual Easter Island landfall seem a downright preposterous and completely glorious achievement.

Thorpe adroitly chronicles this watery and wonderful theater of the absurd with appropriately deadpan understatement and genuine admiration for his fellow crew members and their quest. (Janet Dudley)

Philadelphia Enquirer
31st July 2002
“A comic romp… rates a prominent spot on every adventurer’s bookshelf.”
(Sandy Bauers)

Sailing magazine
August 2002
“To call the passage harebrained might be excessive, but to describe it as a humorous triumph would be pretty close to the mark. Thorpe’s writing has the right touch of humor, irony and frankness, a perfect match for the voyage. The book’s subtitle calls it an “improbable voyage” and it certainly was.” (Greg Jones)

Outside magazine
August 2002
Thorpe is a witty writer – squid “squirted themselves out of the slanting sides of waves like gymnastic snot” – and he thoroughly exploits the comic potential of a slowly sinking boat.” The jolly band gets a cool reception on Easter Island, however, where the residents are sick of theories about tall, fair-skinned ancestors from the east. “It could be argued that our expedition was about as politically correct as driving into a Native American reservation in a reproduction Wells Fargo coach claiming to represent the “original” cowboy settlers,” Thorpe notes. Indeed, though their crossing was over, a different sort of adventure was about to begin.
(Rob Buchanan)

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