Back to Back to The Liki Tiki Project
It was in 1964, or 1965, or perhaps 1966, on the island of Moorea, twelve miles from Tahiti.
"For Five Hundred Dollars, you can have it", the tall lanky American said to the even taller and lankier "Muk", who stood next to the buffet table clenching and unclenching his hands as his eyes darted around the restaurant to see if anything was amiss or someone needed help or there was a dirty glass to pick up, or anything to keep moving, talking with the guests, not too long with the same one, disappear in the middle of someone's sentence, they don't mind just keep nodding your head as if you understood what they are telling you about, their children, their grandchildren, sometimes they have pictures they want to show you!
Most want you to know what they do for a living, they bring greetings from someone like Bill and Joanne, Carol and Chuck, register BIG then, always the quick answer, "How are they?" Don't ever say, "Who are they?"
"You do remember them?", the hopeful query from the friend of a friend.
"God yes", Muk would answer, picking up and sacking dirty dishes, wiping the table clean with the napkin. Still looking at the inquiring guest beat obviously in a big hurry to get the place cleaned up, they can see how busy you are, that's important, gives you the chance to move on without being rude, keep talking to them, nodding, then MOVE.
But this was different, this was important.
"Let me talk to my partner", Muk told the American making the offer.
He found Jay in the bar area, there were so many tourists attending the Sunday Tahitian feast and dances at the Hotel Bali Hai Moorea that all the restaurant tables were jammed, people were eating at the tables in the bar and at the bar itself. Jay and two Tahitian waitresses in pareos scurried about seating the guests, getting them silver ware and drinks.
Jay was wound up even tighter then Muk.
"Airman, the guy that built that raft is here, he wants to sell it, he needs the money now. " Muk made the statement as if it was old news.
"We are feeding 225 people, you want to buy a raft"?
"What raft?" Jay's shirt and white shorts were soaked in iced tea.
Muk was not much for details. What followed was an in depth study for him.
"This guy came down here and built a raft, a "Kon Tiki" type thing, was going to sail it from here to Hawaii, he didn't make it, he's here now. It'll be perfect to take the guests out on the lagoon in."
"Where is it?" Jay wanted to know.
"In Tahiti," Muk said, starting to move off into the melee of visitors eating and drinking, "Its on the beach in Punaauia, hey, lets help this guy out, he's stuck and we can have a ball with it, we'll build a bar on it, have cocktail cruises. "
"I'll get the money," Jay started for the tiny office where the safe was.
"He's got to have American dollars, cash," Muk reminded him," You pay him, he's across from the reception desk, find out where it is, you can go get it tomorrow."
Muk would not be going on the trip to Tahiti to get the raft as he did not like the ocean, period. He became violently seasick on any boat trip, and, as he described it, "Threw up for distance and accuracy". Yet he lived on a South Pacific island, Moorea. There was no way to travel to the main island of Tahiti other than by boat. Muk's solution was he just did not go to Tahiti.
The only exception he made was for the "Fete", the Bastille day celebrations held in Papeete around the fourteenth of July each year.
Everyone went to the Fete in Tahiti.
In Paris the Fourteenth of July celebration is a festival of parades ,flag waving, and speeches lasting one day.
In Tahiti the Bastille Day celebration gets under way at least a week before the 14th of July and lasts three weeks. Sometimes everyone is having such a good time that the mayor of the city will extend the celebration for an extra two weeks.
The pageantry of the Fete is spectacular to the eye. Tahitian dance teams from of Oceania perform in a stadium set up in the center of town. The spectators bring blankets as the competition goes on till the early morning hours and the nights are cold for July is winter south of the equator.
Some dance teams come from atolls so tiny that there is no other diversion in their lives, thus they practice their dance routine for the whole year, travel to Papeete on the inter island copra boats for their performance, and return to their minuscule world following the festivities to begin practice for the next year.
During the days a myriad of dancing colors cross the Papeete lagoon as the canoe racers paddle furiously for cash prizes. Both men and women compete in these contests wearing matched brightly colored pareos with each participant boasting a garland of flowers on their heads.
Such diverse tests of skill and strength as a race between the men, each carrying 150 pounds of bananas and taro root balanced on a pole across his shoulders delight the Tahitians as they cheer at roadside for these incredibly strong young men.
But the better part of the population of Tahiti has come to the Fete to dance, to laugh, to commiserate with friends, to drink, to sing, to eat, to drink some more and to cry occasionally.
The city of Papeete, Tahiti undergoes a major transformation for the "Fete" each year. The largest nightclubs in the town as well as anyone that may wish to go into the bar and dancing business for the duration of the Fete celebration pay a hefty license fee to the city for permission to build a temporary dance hall and bar in the down town area for the Bastille day celebration period. These bars are known as the "Barracks ."
Under the same system, amusement stands, refreshment vendors and rides are set up like a county fair.
When the temporary amusement palaces known as "The Barracks" are done. The regular bars and restaurants in the town shut down. A cannon from a World War I French war ship is fired from its emplacement in front of the Papeete Post Office proclaiming the official opening of the "Quatorze Juilliet".
All the business of having fun in Tahiti is then directed to one location, the "Fete".
If one were to visit the "Barracks" early in the morning after daybreak they might well come across a small group of Polynesians sitting in an otherwise deserted bar hunched over their homemade instruments singing the high pitched songs of the atolls to a throbbing guitar beat known as the "Puamotu Strum".
These are the people known as the "Puamotu", who come from the "Low Islands" of Polynesia as the group of more than a thousand atolls stretching eastward from Tahiti are sometimes called.
An atoll has no mountains or jungle foliage, only coral reefs covered with white sand that have formed land usually encircling a small lagoon. Only coconut trees grow naturally in the crushed coral soil that may be only two to four feet above sea level.
The true name of this sun baked world is the "Tuamotu Islands". On the marine charts of the area the additional reference, "The Dangerous Archipelago", is printed under the proper name of the group. The Tuamotus take this name from the fact that no charts of the reefs amongst the atolls or the unpredictable currents are accurate. An untold number of vessels have ended their careers here.
Darker of skin generally than the Polynesian of Tahiti or its surrounding volcanic islands, these atoll dwellers have borne the hardships of times without water while waiting for the rain that they must trap in drums on their roofs.
The Puamotu people have survived with coconuts and fish as sustenance for a lifetime except for the brief periods after the irregular call of a trading schooner when some canned corned beef or a chocolate bar might come their way.
Many had been tied to coconut tree trunks as children to thwart the grasp of the occasional hurricanes that swept their pitiful little atoll clean
They sing in their own language, the Polynesian dialect called Puamotu, although they also speak the Tahitian language and the Tahitian understands them. Their dialect is distinctly different than Tahitian, being punctuated with words containing the letter "k" which does not exist in the pure Tahitian tongue..
The driving cadence of their guitar beat carrying the high pitched melody causes the aficionado of Tahitian music to stop and listen for this is the music played in the darkness on the coral roads and beaches of the Tuamotu atolls where there is no electricity or many twentieth century conveniences. This was the Polynesian music one could not find in the night clubs of Papeete or in the Polynesian shows presented in Honolulu.
It was here that Muk would come each year with his guitar, order beer for the crowd, a wine cooler for himself, and proceed to play and sing Puamotu music with them which always amazed some of the group who had never before seen a "Popaa" (white man) that knew their songs and their beat and who would play it with them for ad many hours or days as they lasted. Muk even had his version of the high Puamotu Falsetto, a vein would appear across his forehead when he took the high part of any of the chants.
Kelley and Jay would usually join him by midmorning, by late afternoon they would have taken over the entire bar with their friends and a entire band of Puamotu musicians who had filtered in from Papeete and its environs.
Jay opened the tiny safe to extract the American dollars to buy the raft, he found five hundred amongst some travelers checks and cash in various denominations.
"I've got your money but I don't know where the raft is or much about it, you've got to give me the information", Jay said, approaching Bob by the reception desk.
"Don't worry, I'll tell you all about it and where to find it." Bob said, obviously relieved of his burden.
"Its a raft made of two one ton each balsa type wood hulls, they're tied together with coconut fiber rope. There is a bamboo deck built on it with a small bamboo hut and a huge hand made oar that you steer with. It also has a mast and a sail," Bob went on.
"You can't sail it over here and leave it in Moorea?" Jay asked.
"The plane for Honolulu is leaving tonight, I've got to buy my ticket and be on it." Bob replied.
"You don't want to sail it here anyhow its best if you tow it over, Muk said you are going to take the tourists for rides on the lagoon with it. "
In the early part of 1960, Robert Webb was an employee of the Panama Canal Company. Bob had grown up in New Jersey and decided that the East Coast was definitely a place to be from. He sought the life in the tropics. and had found work in the humid country of Panama. Bob also craved adventure, he found it by doing high risk work in the locks of the Panama Canal. He became a hard hat diver for the Canal Company, this entailed diving in the pipes and depths of the locks when the there were malfunctions or maintenance to be done.
When he had some vacation time Bob followed his bent for adventure by going to Peru. He went through Lima and down the mountains into the inland valleys behind the Andes. Here he came upon the high waters of the Ucayali river that flows down to the city of Pucallpa where it joins with the larger Maranon river eventually meeting larger tributaries at Manaus to form the giant Amazon that Straddles South America finding its way into the Atlantic Ocean in Northern Brazil.
Meeting up with some other young adventurers, they had experimented with building rafts and floating down the rivers, stopping at native villages, sometimes losing a raft in the rapids or having one of their craft come apart from their amateur construction methods. By the third raft they were getting pretty good at it but the vacation drew to a close and the young men separated to go their different ways.
Back at work at the Panama Canal Bob thought about rafts a great deal, he obtained some books on old Polynesian sailing craft and became fascinated with the subject of the voyages made by the ancient Polynesians across vast expanses of ocean on rafts with homemade sails and no navigational aids other than the stars.
Eventually Bob became positive that he could build such a raft and emulate the voyages of these people. He had picked up more books and had a design in mind.
The most popular lore and. theories said that the people that populated the Hawaiian Islands had come from Tahiti, which lay some three thousand miles to the south.
Studies by anthropologists from the renowned Bishop Museum of Hawaii had theorized that these settlers had voyaged first from the island of Raiatea in the Tahitian islands to Hawaii aboard their double hulled sailing canoes.
Robert Webb decided he was going to make the same voyage under the same conditions.
"I 'm working in the right place," he thought to himself, "Certainly some ships that pass through the Panama Canal must go to Tahiti."
Upon further investigation Bob found a French shipping line that made the voyage from Marseilles, France through the Panama Canal and straight to Papeete Tahiti. The frequency of the ships appeared to be about every six weeks. The line had a foreign name, the Messargerie Maritime.
This was a way to get to Tahiti but where and how to build a raft? Could you build one in Tahiti?
He inquired of the shipping lines agent in Panama as to whether there were materials in Tahiti, boat yards, anything that might help his project. The shipping agent knew nothing of the area but sent many telexes of inquiry.
The answers were that you can't get permission to do anything there, perhaps not even to go there, it is a closed country, foreigners cant live there, and words to the effect that you had better be careful going over there you'll waste your money for nothing. Cooperation was nil to non-existent.
Bob came to the conclusion that the best place to build the raft would be in Panama, but transporting it to Tahiti didn't look practical. Then the thought occurred to him, "What if I build the hulls here in Panama, ship them to Tahiti and construct the rest of the raft there?"
Now, how to build hulls in Panama that were authentic for Polynesian voyages in the South Seas? Bob remembered from his reading that the famous "Kon Tiki" had been built in South America and had sailed and drifted from Peru to eventually land in the Tahitian Islands.
One day Bob took his books, his drawings, and his ideas and went to see the general manager at the Panama Plywood Company. To his great surprise, the manger listened to his ideas and then invited him into his office where he went over the boat plans with him carefully and seemed actually interested rather then telling him he was a dreamer.
"There is a tree in tee rain forests that is very much like balsa, except better for your purposes, it's called espave wood." The manager began, "There is much more fiber in it than balsa wood and no knot holes. The espave trees grow to great heights, as much as a hundred feet. All of the branches are at the top of the tree forming an umbrella like covering over the forest. The trunks of this tree would work for the hulls for your raft."
"You can't find espave around here, the large trees grow in the Darien Jungle, down by the Colombian border."
"A problem down there though," the manager continued, "Only the Choco Indians live in that jungle, the trick would be to get them to cut the trees and fashion them into hulls."
"I'll pay them, I expect to spend some money on this," Bob said.
"It's not that, they're different, speak some unknown language, do what they want to do, don't trust the white man or care much about things. It seems they don't welcome outsiders, they use blowguns to hunt with mostly. "
The manager went on, "There might be a way though, to communicate with them and then see what happens. "
"How could I do that?" Bob asked.
"There's an old German that lives down there, not in the jungle but out near the coast, he's been there a long time his name is Augosto Adrian. He deals with these people, he can talk to them, he might be able to get it done for you. "
"I'm going to go and see him, how do I find him?" Bob asked.
"Take the banana boat down the coast, its an overnight trip, ask the crew, they'll let you off where he is."
Two weeks later Bob obtained three extra days off and took the banana boat south for the Darien region of Panama. When he inquired about the old German, the crew told him they would drop him near the bay of Pinas and that he would find Augosto there.
On a brilliant morning Bob was deposited on the beach of a small crescent bay and immediately saw a shack that had the look of being inhabited by a European. On approaching the dwelling a man obviously an American stepped out inquired "What can I do for you?"
"I'm looking for a man named Augosto Adrian," Bob said, "I thought this might be his house."
"No, I'm not him, but I know where he lives and I can take you there."
"I really don't want to bother you, if you'll give some directions I'll look for him", Bob said.
"Its no trouble. He lives on the other side of the bay, we'll go in my boat "
The American paddled him across the bay in about twenty minutes. They came to a beach where a stocky European stood with two teenage boys that were unmistakably his Sons.
"Good morning," called Augosto Adrian with a decided tectonic accent.
As the boat came onto the beach he charged right into the water to shake hands with Bob as if he had known him for a lifetime.
"I'm Adrian, come to my house we'll have coffee and fruit, do you have any bags?" He spoke to the boys in the native tongue.
"No, just my backpack", Bob replied, I came to talk to you. Did you know I was coming?" Bob asked as he climbed out of the panga that had brought him to shore.
"Well I heard someone might be coming to see me, never know when though, not a lot visitors out here."
"Quieres un cafe?" the German said to the American who had delivered his visitor.
"No, I'll leave you now," he replied, and stroked away from the shore. "I'll see you again! "
"Many thanks," Bob called, "I'll see you again!"
The American waved his paddle as he began to cross the bay.
"Your plan is very interesting, but why do you want to do it? That I do not understand." Adrian stood over Bob who sat at a table made from split coconut logs where he had displayed and explained his plans for an ocean going raft. Bob had also Shown Adrian the drawings he had conceived of the hulls that would be required.
Bob reflected, "I want to do something that no one else has done, at least it has not been done in our contemporary history. The legends and some history say that the Tahitians populated Hawaii. I want to prove that they sailed there by doing it myself. "
Bob went on is his mild mannered way, "I figure I'm an adventurer, that's what interests me, but of course I'm limited as to what I can actually do, this project looks within my means and I 'm going to try and pull it off."
"An adventurer, I followed and revered an adventurer," said Adrian, "The greatest man that ever lived, our Fuhrer!" His voice ended higher as he pronounced the reference to Adolf Hitler.
"My God, what have I gotten into," thought Bob to himself.
"He was a strong man, a brilliant man, we should have won. I fought for him, I almost died for him of starvation in Berlin."
Bob listened quietly as the man approached a state of hysteria.
"When the Russians came to rape us, I fled." Adrian concluded, as if in shame.
"I want to order two hulls made from espave wood, each hull is to be 42 feet long," Bob put in to restart the conversation, "Can you set it up for me, that is, can you see if the Chocos will do it?"
"No one can know what they will do, for they will not say," Adrian said.
"What do you mean?"
Adrian went on, "I deal with them, usually for woods, that are rare, or desirable to us for one reason or another. The woods mean nothing to them, but they wont let anyone else cut in their forests. If you go in you won't come back. "
"I talk to them about other obscure, childish things, maybe tell them finally that a white man is going to bring gifts. I'll have to visit them quite a few times, then, I might bring the gifts and talk about the beautiful trees and their Gods that made them and that sort of talk. Eventually I'll give out some of the gifts and go with a chief and his family to look at trees. "
"Afterwards, we will talk a lot more, perhaps get to the subject of money. If we discuss a price that seems to make them happy and they understand what I want, it means nothing," concluded Adrian.
"Even if they have accepted the gifts?" Bob inquired.
"Doesn't mean a thing, I must keep going back to see them and talk, then sometimes, I may arrive and the woods are cut and waiting. Other times I go through all the same procedures and the gifts and never receive anything. Yours might be possible to do as the Chocos live up a river, we could float the hulls down to the sea easily."
"I could pay some money now" Bob volunteered.
"They don't understand money, we don't talk about money now," the German replied, "Do you have any 22 rifle shells?"
"No, what for?" Bob asked.
"Those are the gifts that we will need, all the Chocos have guns" said Adrian.
Bob thought out loud, "If they don't understand money, yet they all have guns, how do they buy them?"
The question was ignored.
"Send me two cases of 22 shells on the banana boat," Adrian said.
"I come to Panama City sometimes," Adrian continued, "The next time I go there I will call you and let you know if there is news."
There was no choice but to spend the night at Augosto's house. A native woman whom Bob presumed was his wife prepared a meal of rice and beans with a local fish. It appeared that rice and beans was the usual fare and that the fish was being served because they had a visitor.
They drank strong coffee until shortly before dawn. Augosto mixed tales of the life in Darien with unending accounts of the War, his life as a Storm Trooper, always with praise and admiration for Hitter and everything that he did from book burning to live cremations.
Bob listened with silent astonishment to this one man in the world who admitted freely to all the atrocities that he had participated in and still idolized openly the fiend who had perpetrated these acts of human slaughter.
"I imagine that is why he lives here in the middle of nowhere, no one will know, "Bob thought to himself seeking some sleep on a woven mat placed on a mattress in the small alcove where Adrian's sons usually slept. The boys had been relegated to the floor for the night.
Three months later Bob received a telephone call at the Panama Canal Company.
"This is Adrian, your boats are finished, come and get them. Bring the money, they will cost $100 each."
"The workmanship is good, Adrian,"
They had come up the river in a panga of Augosto's, the jungle hung out over the water in many places, Bob remembered there were more than 60 types of poisonous snakes in the Panama jungles .
Approaching a mud flat in the center of the river Bob could see the hulls clearly beached on the mud. They were impressive.
"The Chocos cut down the tree. carve the hull shape, then turn the trunks over and cut out the middle with home made adzes", Adrian told his customer.
"I don't see any stumps around here of the trees, how far away are they?" Bob, ever curious, wanted to know.
"Far away most likely, I don't know, I don't know how they get the tree trunks to the river either, but they do it." The German did not seem to want to answer questions.
"Stay here with your boats, I'm going to pay them."
"Are you going to their village?" "I'd like to see them. "
"No, they are around here now, somewhere, I'll walk off in the jungle, they'll meet me after a while. Then I will come back." said the German, striding off purposefully into the undergrowth.
Bob examined his purchase, they were the same length exactly, he estimated 40 feet. Standing next to the hulls they were almost as high as his knees, width about three and a half feet. "They must weigh a ton each," Bob thought out loud. This estimate turned out to be correct.
The hulls had a blunted V shape bow, the stern rose slightly to cantilever out over the water. The outside of the hulls were remarkably smooth, close inspection showed scrape marks along the bottoms most likely from dragging the boats to the water. The inside was rough hewn, but no matter thought Bob, "I'm going to build a deck over them anyway. "
"Well what do you think?", Adrian said on his return from the jungle.
"They'll do fine, just fine," Bob replied, he was half way to Tahiti already in his mind.
"Now, how are you going to get these things back to Panama?", Adrian inquired, as they slowly towed the two hulls down the river to Pinas bay.
I made a deal with the banana boat, they'll hoist them on deck, but getting them to Panama City is only the beginning. I'm going to ship the hulls over to Colon on the Atlantic side of the Canal," Bob's enthusiasm bubbled out, "I have to, that's the only place they will take on freight for the ship that's going to Tahiti "
"You're not going to try to go through the locks of the Canal with those things?" said Augosto Adrian.
"Nope, I'm gonna ship them over by train." Bob answered.
"Good luck to you my friend." Adrian rejoined.
"They say there is a boat yard but that you can't build a boat in it unless you are a citizen there. The telexes are in strange English but I think what they mean is a boat can't be registered under the French Flag unless its owned by a Frenchman. "
Bob was in the shipping agent's office in Colon, Panama. The agent represented the Messagerie Maritime line that serviced Tahiti from Marseilles, France.
They also say they can't be sure if you will be allowed to off-load your cargo in Tahiti at all, they have to talk to the Customs service there about it.
"When will they let us know." Bob asked.
"I don't have much telex traffic with them in Papeete as those ships take on most of their freight for Tahiti in Marseilles. Sometimes I have to send a message or an inquiry, usually I don't get an answer at all. I've had to ask a lot of times for your questions, I don't think they are really much interested." The agent didn't offer much hope of more information.
"Then, remember," he went on, "You have to have a visa to go to Tahiti, they did tell me to inform you that you need to contact the nearest French Consulate for permission before entering Tahiti."
There actually was a French Consulate in Panama. Bob found it in the phone book, but they did not answer the phone. The consulate proved to be a small office in a an old building on a side street in Colon. The buildings and walls nearby were decorated with various versions of "Yanqui Go Home". Outside the office were plaques indicating this was also the consulate headquarters for Austria as well as Luxenbourg.
On writing to the Post office box number, Bob received forms to fill out to visit Tahiti but the stipulation was that he had to depart by the ship that he arrived on or could apply for permission to stay for thirty days if he departed on the next ship of the same line when it came through.
The Messargerie Maritime Line consisted of three ships. One of which was out of service, some said forever, in France. This left the weathered "Melanisien", and her more ancient sister the "Micronesian" to ply the route from Marseilles to Tahiti, continue on to New Caledonia then return through Tahiti to France. On the stopover in Tahiti on the return voyage these vessels loaded the cargo that was the main reason for their existence, copra, to be taken to France for processing.
Copra is actually coconut meat, a sustaining force in the economy of Tahiti at that time. The ripe coconuts that have fallen to the ground are split open and the white coconut meat is popped out with a shoehorn type tool. The meat is then dried in the sun to start a beginning of a fermenting process of the outer skin at which time it is pronounced cured and safe for shipment, the coconuts meat is packed into burlap bags weighing 160 pounds or more and stored to be shipped to France where it will be processed into cooking oil. During the storage process the dried copra develops a distinctive smell, yet is not rotten at all, be the time is loaded on the ships it is pungent and strong.
A ship that carries copra such as the Messagerie Maritime line never looses the copra smell. One can get used to the smell but copra produces Somehow after a few days at sea a small black voracious beetle called aptly the copra bug. These creatures invariably find their way into every bunk aboard the Messargeries Maritime's fleet. Their bite is a constant source of shipboard conversation.
"They will not agree to off-load your cargo in Tahiti for the purpose of building a boat there," the agent was harassed by the continual questions Bob was asking.
"Then I'll just ship the hulls and take my chances on arranging it when I get there," Bob said, "There's got to be a way, especially when they find out what my project is. "
"I can take it as miscellaneous hardwoods then," the freight agent was consulting a huge reference book of the nomenclature of ocean freight .
"That'll have to be what it is, I'll have the hulls over here to the dock before the next ship for Tahiti comes through, my visa is approved, we are ready to go to Tahiti." Bob was flushed with anticipation.
"But that is a lot of money to pay to ship those things there, what if you can't build it ?
"Did you ever have a chance to do something that hasn't been done before?" Bob charged out of the office into the stifling heat of the day to arrange to take temporary leave from the Panama Canal Company.
"I've got to have an invoice for that cargo to get it out of the customs for you," Joe said.
Bob was in a huge room on the waterfront in Papeete, Tahiti, the room occupied the entire first floor of the rust colored, circa 1920 customs building. Not less than twenty desks were staggered around the room in no particular order, mountains of papers crammed into folders sat in what appeared to be "IN" and "Out" baskets on the desks.
Only through determination and desperation had Bob found Joe. A Tahitian customs official, mild and polite of manner, Joe would lean back and spin his eyeglasses while he spoke to you, and he spoke English!
For days Bob had wandered from one bad lead to the next trying to find out how to get his hulls released from the French customs. A pharmacist had sent him to a Chinese store, the man there kept talking to him in French, showing him forms that were unintelligible.
It was hopeless.
"Why can't I just rent a truck and go pick them up? I can't fill out all these forms and papers." Bob was lost, until a friendly American in the popular waterfront cafe of that day, the Vaima Bar, listened to his tale and advised him.
"Go see Joe Bourne at the Customs house."
"I bought those hulls from Indians in the Panama jungle they made them for me for $100 each and some rifle shells, I certainly didn't get an invoice," Bob told Joe the story of the German and the Darien natives.
Joe chuckled, "'That is some story, what do you want them for?"
"I'm going to build a raft like a sailing canoe, put on a deck and a hut, install a mast and sail it to Hawaii like the Ancient Tahitians did."
Joe thought for a moment.
"Let's see if we can put a value on these things and I'll go see the boss of the customs, but it can't be $200, those boats are too big and heavy, the ocean freight on them is much more than that."
"Joe. I just got a good deal on them that's all," Bob reasoned.
"Yes, but the duty is calculated on the cost plus the freight, the freight can't be more than the cost, they won't believe you and the customs service will assign a value to them and you pay accordingly. So let me go talk to them, come and see me the day after tomorrow. "
Joe instilled confidence, the first Bob had felt since arriving in Tahiti.
It was to be short lived, when he returned Joe did not have good news.
"Well, I talked to the customs chief about your cargo and I think we can get them out OK but they have to pass the approval of the Port Captain since they are boats or you are going to make them into a boat." Joe leaned back, "'But the Port Captain says he won't pass them as they are not safe to go anywhere." "There's not much I can do, as he runs the Port. "
"Joe, do you think I could talk to him? Bob wondered.
"We can always ask," Joe replied.
"Does he speak English?"
"Sure he speaks English, Joe answered," He talks to ship captains from all over the world. "
The trip from Panama to Tahiti aboard the "Melaniesien" had been long and hot. Accommodations were offered in first class, second class or steerage. Bob bought a ticket in steerage. The price was ridiculously low and included three meals and red wine.
Steerage class consisted of a pipe bunk in a dormitory deep in the hull of the ship. The other steerage passengers were French soldiers going to Tahiti and New Caledonia plus some Tahitians who had been to France as soldiers or Gendarmes, it was tough to understand which, but they were out of the service now and looking forward to returning to their home.
The Tahitians were friendly and fun loving as well as sincerely interested in Bob's hulls they would sit on deck and listen to him explain his dream endlessly even though they spoke no English while the "Melaniesien" steamed at a snails pace across a hot, flat tropical ocean.
Bob drew them pictures of his ideas and showed the Tahitians his books with drawings of old Polynesian sailing craft. They didn't really speak each others language but there was a tremendous sense of approval that made Bob like the Tahitian people from the start.
Days and nights were equally boiling in steerage as there was little ventilation. It wasn't much better on deck except late at night when the stars of the Southern Hemisphere seemed to reach and touch the sea. The copra bugs prowled in the bunks so it was better to sleep on deck anyway.
Arrival in Papeete had really been quite uncomplicated Bob was told not to worry about his cargo it would be unloaded alright. He was dragged off to joyous welcome feasts for his Tahitian friends who seemed to have huge families that never stopped feeding him and making sure he was comfortable and having fun the endless parties .
On Sunday the group all loaded into the transport of Tahiti "Le Truck", guitars, boxes of food and drink were put aboard for an all day trip around the island of Tahiti with stops at innumerable friends and relatives houses who added to the merriment. Bob wondered how any people could be so happy.
Bob had been told that no one could go to claim their freight until three days after arrival. On the fourth day he found it was not easy, in fact it seemed impossible to even find out how to get his cargo.
At last Bob had his appointment with the Captain of the Port. Joe Bourne met him and they ascended the stairs to the top floor of the customs building. The offices afforded an excellent view of Papeete harbor, you could see the natural opening through the reef that ocean liners navigated with the aid of Tahitian harbor pilots. An error in judgment could cause a ship to be caught in the huge surf that broke on each side of the passage through the reef and be in danger of broaching or having the coral reef open up the hull as a can opener would.
The Captain of the Port was of medium height, looked to be in his early fifties, tight black curly hair complemented his slightly bronzed Polynesian Skin. His features however were international, one might have thought him to be a lawyer from Switzerland or a businessman from New York .
After the required handshake. he opened the conversation.
"Mr. Webb, are you enjoying Tahiti?"
"Oh, I really am sir," Bob answered somewhat surprised at the question.
"Have you made friends here?" continued the Port Captain.
"Yes, I met some Tahitian people on the ship coming here from Panama."
"Ours is a beautiful country, we want visitors to enjoy it, who knows, you might remain here," The Port Captain said with a Sincere glimmer in his eye.
"Well, I'm afraid I'll have to leave someday as I want to sail from here to Hawaii with my raft, to prove that it was done that way before."
"Yes, our people did sail great distances in large canoes, we know that, we've heard of it since our childhood." The port Captain leaned forward on his desk and looked past the two of them at the magnificent view. "But these are different times, we have responsibility now, what you want to do becomes my responsibility."
"Some craft much more modern than yours, trimarans, for example, built in the United States, have left from here and never been heard of again." The Port Captain went on.
"I'm not afraid," Bob said.
"I am sure you are not, but the maritime laws prevent my authorizing such a vessel to clear from these waters."
"What if I built it to sail in the lagoon only?"
"If you were not a menace to the navigation of the other canoes and small boats inside the lagoon, it should not present a problem."
"Sir, I'd like to build my raft on the shore and then ask you to come and see it."
"Of course what you build on the land is your affair and I would have to inspect it, but I don't want to give you false hopes."
Joe said in French, "I will file the necessary papers", at the same time he rose from his seat indicating to Bob it was time to go.
"Thanks very much," Bob said as they left the room
"Have a good time in Tahiti, Mr. Webb"
"I think this is a perfect spot," Bob reflected as he viewed the proximity to the lagoon from where the hulls were.
He thought to himself "The Tahitians are unbelievable, if someone told me that they could get those two one ton hulls to this spot through the undergrowth right up next to the beach BY HAND I would never have believed it. I thought I'd have to arrange for a construction crane on a truck but there is no such thing in Tahiti."
Once Joe obtained clearance from the customs house, Bob's Tahitian friends had taken over. He was no longer in charge, other then reconfirming from time to time where he wanted the hulls.
The Tahitians seemed to have a friend or relative that had everything, including a piece of land right on the lagoon in Punaauaia a beautiful part of the island 10 miles outside of Papeete looking right at the island of Moorea. His friends also produced an army of help when needed for the heavy work. They performed amazing feats of strength and leverage, laughing and joking with each other at all times.
Two large "Le Trucks" had been obtained, the housing and cab had been removed making them into flat beds. The only tow truck in Tahiti arrived ("my cousin owns it") with two huge block and tackle rigs that were secured to lines tied under the hull, the lines for hauling on the block and tackle were attached to jeeps that pulled the bow of the hulls just high enough for the trucks to back under them.. Pieces of 2 inch water pipe had been lain crosswise in the beds of the trucks. the hulls came to rest on the pipes, strain was maintained on the ropes, the trucks continued backing up and the hulls slid easily onto the truck beds.
The Port Captain had made it quite clear that the hulls were not to enter into the water. Thus they had to be driven to the edge of the property out the lagoon was a good three quarters of a mile away. The intervening jungle was thick and the ground was too soft for trucks with such weight to navigate.
Bob wondered how this would be solved but apparently it had been foreseen and planned for trucks containing lengths of coconut tree trunks started arriving until at least 20 of these round logs had been deposited on the land. The Tahitians lined up the logs one behind each other in the direction of the lagoon.
Amidst a din of yelling and laughing, they levered the hulls from the trucks down onto the coconut logs, two boys set off with machetes hacking down the undergrowth in the direction of the beach. The rest of the group started pushing the hulls across the logs. When they would pass completely over a log, a group of strong young men would seize the log and dash with it to the front of the line.
In this way they traversed the land and arrived with both hulls at the lagoon side. In approximately two hours the hulls were in place.
The entire crew leapt into the lagoon to cool off and frolic.
Bob Webb was incredulous at what he had seen.
Now however he could get started on his adventure.
It took some months for Bob to create his raft as he wanted it. He had learned from the rafting experiments in the rivers of Peru that the best method of lashing the hulls together was to cut notches in the sides of the hulls and run the coconut fiber rope through them, this put the bulk of the strain on the wood rather than on the rope.
Bob had planned to use woven bamboo for a deck across the hulls. One night he mentioned the bamboo plan while talking to some of the members of his Tahitian "family". Two days later. husky young Tahitian men appeared at the site carrying 20 foot lengths of freshly cut green bamboo tied in bundles balanced on their shoulders. To Bob's amazement they threw all the bamboo in the lagoon tied the bundles together and anchored them with strips of bark they cut from trees and attached to coral heads. They told him just to leave it like that, Bob found out later that the sea water was a curing process.
Other members of the family arrived in waves beginning about a week later, they stripped and split the bamboo poles with their machetes and wove it into panels, estimating the size of the deck Bob wanted they made one for the raft with triple thickness.
In the meantime Bob had fashioned a mast and obtained some canvas for a sail. an old sailmaker was located in Papeete, he agreed to make the sail and to include coconut fiber rope woven through the edges of the sail to
Bob built his all- purpose wheelhouse and cabin in the form of a bamboo hut on the raft and moved in to get the feel of it.
There had been activity on the land he was on for sometime, Surveyors had been shooting angles on what might be the boundaries of the land and occasionally jeeps and land rovers with officials and assistants carrying large rolls of plans arrived and walked around gesturing and speaking French.
Bob's Tahitian friends said a hotel was going to be built there but nobody knew when.
More and more curiosity seekers came each day including lots of Tahitians young and old who might Spend the day hoping to learn some English words or help if they could. A young American came along the beach one day and asked if he could join Bob on his voyage.
"It's gonna be a tough one," Bob said, "Won't be like sailing a regular boat."
"I don't mind. sounds like fun to me," said the young man.
"Have you done much sailing, been on boats?"
"Nope, I'm a chicken farmer."
"Well, we'll see if we ever get this thing going at all. Bob replied.
America's MGM studios was making the movie "Mutiny on the Bounty" on the other side of Tahiti from where Bob was working. Hundreds of the Tahitian population were employed by the movie company. Bob went with his friends to see the shooting one afternoon.
It was an amazing sight, an entire village had been constructed in Matavai Bay where the Bounty was to sail in and be greeted by hundreds of native canoes filled with Tahitian men and women covered with flowers. It had been raining for days, the company had started to shoot the big welcome scene innumerable times only to be hailed by the weather Hundreds of the Tahitian extras sat under the trees day after day laughing and waiting for the paymaster.
A popular story of the day was that the studio had to provide flesh colored conical cloth coverings for the Tahitian "Vahines" breasts as the censors of that time deemed the viewing of a female nipple by the American movie going public as unsavory and leading to immorality.
Literally thousands of these "cups" had been distributed as each day many new girls arrived and each day the shooting was impossible for the big scene but the "cups" never came back the next day. Brassieres, while not in general use in Tahiti, were a novelty and much admired.
The "Bounty" arrival scene called for authenticity and MGM had provided it. Bob and his friends visited the village and saw full size replicas of ancient Tahitian war canoes one of which was even two tiered. Bob found out that these craft had been ordered a year in advance of the Shooting of the movie and had been fashioned by the best canoemakers of Tahiti in the village of Tautira at the far end of the island of Tahiti Iti which was attached to the main island of Tahiti by a peninsula.
Bob marveled at the enormity of MGM's undertaking as they drove home that evening..
The rain continued. MGM's directors kept rescheduling the big scene hoping for a break in the weather but it was not to be. After ten more days of a solid deluge the word went out around the island on the invisible "Coconut radio".
"MGM is leaving."
"Their charter planes are coming to get them".
"They'll never come back ".
"'They'll be back to shoot that scene later in the year."
An official announcement was made to the effect that the company was returning to Hollywood to shoot interior scenes and would return at a date to be announced.
Two chartered Boeing 707's took off from Papeete's new airport with the entire cast and crew. As the jets climbed through the clouds the sky cleared and blinding sunshine broke through drenching the islands in its warmth. The storm had ended.
A few mornings after the movie company's departure, Bob awakened early as usual and stepped outside to hang his towel to dry.
A hand carved steering oar, at least eight feet high was leaning against a tree next to his raft.
"My God, this is made out of "To'u" wood, the best hardwood in Tahiti", Bob said as he tried to heft the oar, his inspection showed a large hardwood peg had been fitted through the handle of the oar to make it manageable at sea, the paddle of the oar that would be in the water for steering was four feet across!
The construction of the raft was coming to a finish but the problem of permission to sail was not resolved. The word was pretty well out on the mission of the craft being built on the beach and the news that had filtered back from Papeete to Bob's friends was not reassuring. It was said that there was now a new port captain and that he would not even consider authorizing the departure of a raft for Hawaii.
Finally Bob decided there was not much else to do but provision the raft and launch it in the lagoon to see how it would handle. His friends rolled the raft to the water using the coconut log method with no trouble.
A friend with a small outboard driven boat offered to tow him to deeper water in the lagoon. They were not far from the opening in the reef that led to the open ocean.
One day the spirit of a true adventurer prevailed and Bob sailed for Hawaii. He made the run out of sight of land with ease and the raft seemed to be handling well, he was drifting easily with the northeast trade winds, behind the island of Moorea, when conditions changed drastically.
The seas became mountains coming from the South. "What luck," thought Bob, I'm heading where I want to go eventually, due North."
Soon he realized he was in a "Mara Arnuu" the fierce south wind storms that come through Tahiti originating they say in the South Pole. A major problem looked to be that he could not avoid the wind blowing him onto the island of Moorea, the great steering oar was unwieldy, he could not control the raft when it slid down the massive seas. There was a constant possibility of broaching in the darkness not a pleasant thought.
Bob dropped the sail and set two sea anchors using buckets with lots of line on them. The raft heaved through the night, the coconut fiber lashings groaning while Bob wondered if the hulls would take a landing on the coral reefs.
To his surprise, in the morning he found himself not more than a few miles from Moorea and drifting towards Tahiti again. Tahiti loomed up twelve miles away across the channel.
"I'll have to agree, this raft rigged this way won't make it to Hawaii", Bob said to himself.
It took a day and a half to maneuver back across the channel and into the Punuaaia pass.
Bob set about selling his raft to some of the locals, especially to a small hotel next door to where he had assembled his craft.
"You are going away, we'll get it anyway for free," the hotel manager told him.
"No, I remember Muk and those American guys in Moorea, Muk said to let him know if it doesn't work out, I'll take the inter- island launch, the "Rotui", over to Moorea tomorrow. "
Jay went with Hiro Levy in his small boat and they towed the raft from Tahiti across the channel to the island of Moorea. The natives turned out with great interest when they came into the lagoon in front of the Bali Hai Hotel.
Muk was in heaven, he removed the hut, installed a bar, put two small outboard motors on the stern, named the boat the "Liki Tiki" and started hauling the guests of the Bali Hai hotel on trips in the lagoon immediately. To everyone's surprise Muk steered personally, for months no one else could take command. He adapted the great oar for steering more comfortably and flooded the deck with Pan American stewardesses.
Muk removed the mast after the sail had fallen upon an exquisite Norwegian lady during a particularly uproarious afternoon cruise.
A jetsetter flew in from Hawaii and insisted on being the first to be married aboard the Liki Tiki, he then invited all the guests of the hotel to an all day reception on the raft with a Tahitian band.
Pictures of the Liki Tiki appeared in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Supplement.
Postcards with an aerial shot of the Liki Tiki appeared in the Bali Hai boutique.
New Bali Hai T-shirts were printed with the inscription "Liki Tiki Crew" on the back.
The Liki Tiki became a way of life at the Hotel Bali Hai. Its voyages consisted of two snorkeling trips a day, a cocktail cruise two afternoons a week, a picnic cruise twice weekly and occasional unscheduled cruises including some trips by moonlight into Cooks Bay to the famous One Chicken Inn. All of the trips were free for the hotel guests.
About forty people was the maximum recommended load. One afternoon seventy VIP's, travel agents, airline executives and other dignitaries were aboard and the Tiki sank in six feet of water. An incredible amount of the most expensive cameras on the market at that time were lost.
On days when the motors were broken down, the guests were angry and not placated until the Liki Tiki returned to the daily schedule.
Over the years the hulls soaked up and the teredo worms that eat boats in the tropics did their best. Muk beseeched Kelley who had a way with boats and he kept the Tiki afloat. Eventually the entire hulls had to be fiberglassed.
However the rot continued in the wood despite its fiberglass casing. No one knows how many times the hulls were repatched and reglassed.
At one haul out, the Tahitians came to get Kelley and Muk, after taking off the deck they looked into the hulls to find mostly shavings. It was over.
Never to be outdone, Kelley designed a new Liki Tiki, a bit longer than the previous craft, there were benches, a bar of course and a Tahitian Pandanus roof. Later a Liki Tiki was built at the Bali Hai in Huahine and finally an additional Liki Tiki was built for the New Club Bali Hai on Cooks bay in Moorea.
What happened to Bob Webb?
Bob went back to Panama and decided to try again after getting some money ahead. This time the destination was to be Hawaii again but from Panama not from Tahiti.
So he had hulls made again with the same tribe in the jungle but the price went up substantially and it took some time to get the hulls and then build the raft in the jungles of Panama.
But adventurers don't give up easily and Bob persevered. The raft was finished and named... "Liki Tiki Too." He sailed for Hawaii from Panama with a crewman, the weather got rough, the crewman opted for a life ashore and Bob put back to drop him off and sailed again and he made it!
Bob Webb and the "Liki Tiki Too" were on the front pages of the Honolulu newspapers after his arrival in Hawaii. He went back to the Panama Canal Company and eventually retired from the Company. Then of course he built a boat, sturdy and strong, his own design, got married and moved on to the boat and away from the mainland.
Bob and his bride sailed into Moorea into 1989, dropped the hook and went over to the Bali Hai Hotel to say hello. Those guys were there! They swapped stories and had lunch aboard Bob's boat.
He's out in the South Seas somewhere now.
The Liki Tiki? It goes out daily into the lagoon from the Hotel Bali Hai Moorea. ...still no charge..... It's leaving, soon, don't miss it.
Jay Carlisle wrote The Liki Tiki Story in 1989.
August 31, 1992, the ketch, Hunky-Dory was destroyed in Guam by Typhoon Omar's 150 knot winds.
More information at downloads - The Liki Tiki Story
Web site: Hotel Bali Hai, Moorea, Tahiti
Back to Back to The Liki Tiki Project