Exactly 47 years after three balsa rafts arrived in Ballina from Ecuador, there was a gathering by the Richmond River on the weekend to mark the voyage and remember its captain, Vital Alsar.
The Las Balsas voyage was the longest raft voyage in human history, and was completed without any loss of life, sailing under a white flag of peace. Captain Vital died in September, but family and friends of the crew attended via livestream, and Las Balsas ambassador and former crew-member Fernand Robichaud was there in person.
Ballina’s Deputy Mayor Sharon Cadwallader told Echonetdaily, ‘It was such a big thing for the history of Ballina, how important it was.
‘You just have to tip your hat to them and say, how did you ever do it? Wow! Remarkable.’
Mayor David Wright remembers the rafts arriving in Ballina.
He said, although ‘it was thrust upon us’ and not planned (the rafts were supposed to go to Mooloolaba, but got stuck in a southerly current), ‘I’m just so pleased they came here. It’s iconic.’
He said the people of Ballina were very proud of the surviving balsa raft, and the specially built structure at the Ballina Maritime Museum which protects it.
Ian Leslie remembers the expedition
Tony Gilding from the Macadamia Castle read a statement from former 60 Minutes journalist Ian Leslie, who took a rubber ducky out to meet the rafts when they first entered Australian waters.
Mr Leslie remembered Vital Alsar as a great adventurer and explorer. ‘He takes his place beside the giants of human adventure, Magellan and Columbus, Armstrong and Amundsen.
‘They challenged our notions of the time, our understanding of the nature of the planet Earth.
‘Like those who went before, he pushed aside his fear of failure, refusing to allow it to get in the way of realising his dream.
‘Twelve brave explorers drifting through the unknown of the vast Pacific Ocean, with only the wind and the currents to guide them.
‘It was my great privilege to meet these modern day adventurers as they neared the Queensland coast 47 years ago. Exhausted, hungry but not dispirited, that moment is embedded in my memory as one of the most awesome experiences of my journalistic life,’ said Mr Leslie.
‘Vital’s spirit of adventure, his warmth, and refusal to submit against nature’s forces was a powerful lesson to take with me forever.’
Fellow Las Balsas fan, Cr Jeff Johnson, said ‘I believe the Las Balsas raft is Ballina’s unique offering to the world.’
He read the words of former crew-member Mike Fitzgibbons, who remembered, ‘Vital burst into our world, a ball of pure energy with bright eyes and a huge smile.
‘He welcomed us to his world. We wished to be part of his world. He breathed out his vision. We inhaled it deep into our lungs. We embraced it.’
‘His name sums him up – Vital Alsar. Vital meaning important, and Alsar, to rise.’
Mr Fitzgibbons remembers each potential crew-member being carefully tested for physical and mental strength, as well as their ability to work as a group.
‘He wanted to see how we would cope when we were tired, hungry, annoyed or bored. He needed to see us at our lowest. If we placed “us” over “me” we would make it. He was our guide. We followed his course.
‘Vital knew his crew. He saw our souls. He energised us. His vision was infectious. We were at sea, apart from our families and our homes, but we were never alone. We had each other as brothers and we would reach Australia,’ Mr Fitzgibbon remembered.
‘As I look back on our voyage, I do not see the danger, the fear, the loneliness, nor the adventure as perceived by most people. I see the smiles of my captain Vital, Mark, Jorge, and Gabriel. I see the smiles of my crewmates.
‘I thank Vital for allowing me to inhale his spirit.’
Emotional words from Spain
Event organiser Kelly Morton read the words of Vital’s sister, Marina, from Spain.
‘My beloved brother, how could we ever imagine that day when you arrived in Ballina with that raft, so many years later, today, I would be writing a letter about you and your great spirit?
‘I remember what our mother used to say – “Son, you belong to the past. What are you doing here today?”
‘My brother, you fell in love with the sea. She was your great love, all your life, even as far back as your childhood. You used to say that we shouldn’t fear the sea. We have to love her and respect her as we do our mothers. And you loved her so much that you shared your life and your dreams with her.
‘In peace you left us, leaving us your phrase, “Faith is a boat, but only the oars of our will can give it motion.”’
Tony Gilding read the words of another Las Balsas crew member, Anibal Guevara, from Ecuador.
‘Vital was a crew-member, not only the captain.
‘He handled the sextant brilliantly, and thanks to that ability we were always able to sail our rafts in the right direction towards our future destiny. We will not miss him, as it feels like he is still amongst us.’
Greg Holden remembers a charismatic personality
Cr Jeff Johnson read the words of former crew-member Greg Holden from the USA, who met Vital by chance on a beach in Acapulco in 1971.
‘He was a strong, charismatic personality who left us with a sense of curiosity and yet trust… Vital demonstrated his prowess in problem-solving and taught the crew-members that nothing was insurmountable, if we kept the faith and didn’t lose heart.
‘For me, Vital opened a door of opportunity that was beyond my expectation. It provided a unique learning experience, as well as a high sea adventure.
‘We were able to share our culture and family backgrounds with many nationalities, eight in all, within the twelve crew-members.
‘One condition he asked of us was to give your life to the raft, and when we get to Australia, you take it back. And you will see that there is no other feeling like it.’
Always healthy and triumphant
The closing words were from Denise Alsar, Vital’s beloved wife, read by Kelly Morton.
‘On the 15th of September we lost a king, my partner, the father of my two daughters, a man of great strength, both physical and spiritual, a man with an unnerving faith in that superior power.
‘A faithful man, a dreamer, a man who fought for his dreams and achieved everything he aimed for with almost inhuman efforts. Always in a good mood, he always gave his all.
‘He never had any material possessions, he gave them all away, never keeping anything for himself.
‘He never understood why not everyone could get good medical care, a decent place to live, or a first class education. A good man who always acted according to his heart.
‘Of all his expeditions, Las Balsas held a special place in his heart.
‘I remember how the amateur radio operators who were following the expedition kept me updated on how they were all doing.
‘The common thread connecting Las Balsas with all the other expeditions, was that I only ever longed for the day he would return home, and he always did. Always healthy and triumphant.’
After the words, there was wonderful live music from Los Canarios, a newly formed duo consisting of Bella Viola and William Keyte, who performed a song in Spanish which the crew used to sing on their voyage.
Las Balsas ambassador remembers a green land
Echonetdaily asked Las Balsas ambassador Fern Robichaud, originally from Canada, now resident in the Blue Mountains, what it was like to be back in Ballina.
‘It’s always great!’ he said. ‘Unfortunately it’s been seven years since the last one, but it’s lovely to be back.’
Thinking back to his arrival on the raft in 1973, he said his biggest memory was how green everything was. ‘When you’re on the water it’s always just blue and white. And of course all the lovely people that greeted us, we had the best welcome ever.
Looking back on the record-breaking voyage, he said, ‘In a way it’s probably a bit of a dream, you think oh, did I actually do this?’
Was the idea of crossing the Pacific on a raft terrifying, when he first stopped and thought about it? ‘I probably didn’t stop and think enough about that!’ said Fern.
‘I was a bit impulsive. Once I’d made up my mind I just went for it.
‘The only time I got really frightened in the whole trip was when I realised I was too far out in the raft to be able to swim back safely. Then I realised I’ve got to think ahead now. Forget what’s behind you.’
He said the crew was carefully selected over a couple of years. ‘Oh yeah, you wouldn’t believe some of them!’ Fern remembered.
‘I was in charge of finding a cameraman for the trip. He would volunteer his services and do it for free.
‘You got all these cameramen from the business. Some of them just wanted to get away from their wives, finally I landed on the right guy. He’d been in Cuba, he could do without the financial aspect, he was a bit of a radical but he was also a great cameraman. He came with us and did the job. We made the movie together. He passed two years ago.’
No turning back the boats in 1973
Fern remembers the crew being warmly welcomed by everyone they met in Australia, from Ballina to Canberra. ‘Yes absolutely, I had a couple of beers with Gough, in his office, that was nice.
‘Also Premier Robert Askin here in NSW. When I rented a house in Mosman, I didn’t have any references, so I used the two of them as references!’
While there are some in the district and beyond who don’t know the incredible Las Balsas story, a new documentary is in the works called The White Flag which will hopefully change that.
For more information about the film, or to help it reach completion, please contact Kelly Morton: Kelly@kellymorton.com.au.
You can also visit the balsa raft in person at the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum on Regatta Avenue, and learn more from the guides.
The museum is open seven days from 9am-4pm, tel (02) 6681 1002.
Photos David Lowe and David Harrison (archival)