After the sad news of Vital Alsar’s death in Mexico, three local people whose lives he touched gathered this week at the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum to remember him.
The Ballina museum is the home of the last remaining Las Balsas raft, one of three which travelled 13,760 kilometres from Ecuador to Ballina in 1973 using only sails and keel boards, in 178 days.
This was Captain Vital Alsar’s second successful raft voyage from South America to Australia, proving that ancient South Americans could have made similarly epic trips.
The voyages of Captain Vital, the ‘navigator of peace’, were also cross-cultural experiments that showed what humans could achieve together, in spite of differences of language and origin (seven nationalities were involved).
Kelly Morton has been working for eight years as a consultant and co-producer on a documentary film of the Vital Alsar story, which is being directed by Francisco ‘Paco’ Bernal.
The film is called The White Flag, which is a reference to the flag of peace Captain Vital sailed under on his many voyages.
Ms Morton remembers him as ‘the most magnificent, humble, man. Vital was like a saint of the sea, with the quintessential grey beard and character. Some of his last words to me were, “bring the children, bring and educate.”
‘People need to know about this,’ said Ms Morton. ‘And what a life he lived, that’s real living.’
Tony Gilding, who runs the Macadamia Castle, is another local with a keen interest in the Vital Alsar story.
‘Awesome is not when you pass the salt and pepper across the table. To me, it’s when you sail a raft from Ecuador to Australia! These days people confuse what awesome is. This is awesome.’
After felling the balsa trees to build the rafts, the crewmen had to gather their own food and water on the voyage, and braved some very serious weather, while never being more than a foot above the sea.
The Ballina Maritime Museum’s Curator and Manager Ron Creber remembers video-chatting to Captain Vital. ‘He was rapt in the fact that the raft was still here, still in good condition, and he had tears in his eyes when we showed him around,’ Mr Creber said.
Many Ballina locals have fond memories of meeting former Las Balsas crew members on anniversaries of the voyage. Navigator Gabriel Salas was here in 2013, along with Fernand Robichaud and Hugo Becerra, both of whom stayed on as Australian residents after the voyage.
Tony Gilding is fascinated by the human element of the expedition, which was never intended to end in Ballina – the rafts got caught in a southerly current when the winds stopped near the Australian coast.
‘There’s some incredible stories about what actually happened when it arrived, and the welcome that they got, and the excitement,’ he remembers.
‘They were headed towards Mooloolaba. They were eventually brought in because they were posing a bit of a threat to the shipping lanes.
‘But you can imagine twelve handsome young fellas and Ballina in 1973, I’m sure they set a few hearts aflutter!’
There were also cats on each raft and at least one monkey. Mr Creber remembers the animals being sent back to Ecuador by the RSPCA.
A long way from Peter Dutton
The human crew was given the royal treatment. Mr Gilding said, ‘They were all asked down to Canberra, and Gough Whitlam was the Prime Minister at the time. A few of them were from Chile and Ecuador, where there were political problems, and he said “There’s the Immigration Minister, if you want a visa or residence in Australia he can sort it out this afternoon!”
‘He took a real interest in it. I think that’s an incredible contrast to the way we treat some of our refugees and boat people these days.’
After the voyage, many crew members decided to stick around, and were billeted with Ballina locals.
Kelly Morton got involved with the Vital Alsar legend in 2012. ‘It’s such an amazing story,’ she said.
‘To me, these are the real rock stars of the world. The world’s full of instagrammers and influencers, and I’d actually say to any of those to do the hashtag to get down to the museum and really see what life’s really about.
‘The world’s gone crazy, and people need to know about this.’
Comparisons are often made between the voyages of Vital Alsar and Thor Heyerdahl, whose book about the Kon-Tiki raft expedition was made into two films and a TV series.
Ron Creber remembers, ‘In the ’50s people loved all that sort of stuff. After the war, we wanted to believe in something.’
The Norwegian adventurer was also the inspiration for young Vital Alsar.
‘Vital read the Thor Heyerdahl book when he was in the French Foreign Legion, in Morocco,’ said Ms Morton. ‘He understood the theory. While Heyerdahl didn’t make it, Vital decided to test the theory and give it a go. And he made it, with eleven other crewmen. It’s record-breaking stuff.’
A tale of three museums
While the Kon-Tiki is now is Oslo, and attracts three million visitors each year, the raft in Ballina (which travelled twice the distance, and in convoy) is less well-known.
‘There’s a museum in Santander where he’s from, in Spain, there’s a replica of La Balsa,’ said Ms Morton.
‘Unfortunately the original raft didn’t survive. But there are three galleons that he used to prove the point of Francisco Orellana, to tip his hat. They stand on the cliffs there.’
Kelly Morton says Vital was a legend in his home town. ‘Yes, there’s statues everywhere,’ she said.
‘I was lucky enough to be filming there in 2014 when he was honoured by the Santander government at the World Sailing Championships, and we had a month there filming. People were stopping him in the streets for autographs.’
Ms Morton remember Captain Vital as an amazing man. ‘I feel so fortunate to have been able to call him my friend. We couldn’t keep up with him, and he was eighty. He’d be like, “come on, next, we’ve got to go!”
‘He did all of these amazing, crazy expeditions to fly the flag for world peace, to connect countries and show how we should all get along.’
She said they filmed in the museum on the anniversary of the raft’s arrival, in 2019.
‘Vital hadn’t seen the raft since 1973, when he left Ballina, so we did a surprise WhatsApp video for him.
‘He had tears in his eyes and was shouting “Bellissimo, bellissimo!” He loved all the team here that look after the raft,’ said Ms Morton.
‘Vital’s big thing was to keep the story alive.’
Progress of the film
Kelly Morton said, ‘For the nine expeditions that Vital captained, he pretty much filmed them all. There’s 400 hours of original footage, plus there’s all the interviews that we’ve doing.
‘At this point we’re looking for funding to complete it. There are some big people supporting it.
‘Paco [the director] is based in Mexico, he’s essentially like Vital’s son,’ she said.
‘For the last seven years we’ve been interviewing crewmen from the La Balsa, Las Balsas, and crewmen that went on the other expeditions as well.’
Ron Creber is hoping the new film will help the balsa raft become a tourism icon for Ballina, as the significance of Captain Vital’s voyages becomes better known.
He said, ‘People don’t come to Ballina to see the raft. We’re out there on Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter, so people know it’s here, but you’ve got to get the people to come.
‘People are astounded when they do come, because it’s world class, really.’
He said Captain Vital did his research when he built the raft. ‘I’ve been to Ecuador and I’ve been to the museum there, and this is exactly what the Ecuadorians were sailing up and down the coast through to Mexico when the Spanish arrived.’
Another famous aspect of the voyage is the painting contributed by Salvador Dali (a banner, not a sail apparently).
According to Tony Gilding, ‘They asked Dali for a contribution, and the story goes that he said “I can’t give you any money but I’ll give you a painting, and sell it if you need to, as insurance”.’
‘Probably took him three or four minutes to do it!’ said Mr Creber.
‘It was given to the Ballina motel owners, who put them up, as a gift. Then they must have sold it.’
Over the years there has been much speculation about the fate of the artwork, but the fate of the three Las Balsas rafts is known.
One, the Guayaquil, ended up in Newcastle, where it caught fire mysteriously and was destroyed. The other two were damaged, with the raft on display in Ballina the Aztlan, also containing pieces of the Mooloolaba, making it a unique historic artifact.
Home of Las Balsas
Tony Gilding told Echonetdaily he’s been lobbying Ballina Council for a long time with the idea that Ballina could be badged as ‘the home of Las Balsas’.
He pointed out that the model raft that used to be on display at Ballina airport has disappeared, and knowledge of the balsa raft story is being lost as many new people move to the district.
‘Before I came down here today I asked five of my staff, who’ve all been in the area for at least five years, what they know about Las Balsas, and it was just embarrassing how little people know. We’ve got highway signs that could say “Home of Las Balsas”.
‘There are plenty of towns around the world which have got a fancy museum or a fancy artifact or whatever, and everyone associates them with the town.’
Ron Creber agrees that the raft needs a spotlight, saying he was unaware of the Las Balsas story himself when he arrived in the district. ‘I walked in here sixteen years ago and thought, what’s this?’
‘It’s the most valuable asset we could possibly have,’ said Tony Gilding. ‘It’s of worldwide significance, and people will come to Ballina, then they’ll realise it’s a great place and stay.
‘Come and visit!’ said Mr Gilding. ‘If people haven’t ever seen it, they should come in.’
The Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum (Regatta Avenue) is open seven days from 9am-4pm, tel (02) 6681 1002.
If you would like to help The White Flag documentary or get more information about the film, please contact Kelly Morton: [email protected]