Norman Baker, Adventurer, Dies at 89; Crossed Atlantic on Reed Raft

Two years ago, Mr. Baker fractured his neck when he fell from a horse. Last spring, he broke his hip skiing.

“His airplane was the one place he felt young and not impaired at all,” his son Mitchell said.

His father was the only person aboard the plane when it crashed, having taken off that morning from Pittsfield, Mass. He lived nearby in Windsor, in the Berkshires. The cause of the crash was under investigation.

“Amid our shock and grief we realize he went out on top doing what he wants,” Mitchell Baker said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Baker’s most audacious adventure was a nautical one: his breathtaking trans-Atlantic sail with Heyerdahl in 1970 from Morocco to Barbados.

They sought to demonstrate a hypothesis: that the pyramids, hieroglyphs and sophisticated calendars developed by pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico, Central America and Peru might have been inspired by Egyptians who, deliberately or after being blown off course, drifted and sailed with the Canary Current to the Western Hemisphere as long as 5,000 years ago.

The 1970 voyage was actually a second attempt. A year earlier, Heyerdahl, Mr. Baker and their crew had embarked from Morocco on a raft named Ra, for the ancient Egyptian sun god. But the bundled reeds that kept the craft afloat became waterlogged. The voyagers had to be rescued hundreds of miles short of their goal.

Photo

Mr. Baker, kneeling, and Thor Heyerdahl on board the sinking Ra in 1969.

Credit
Carlo Mauri

In May 1970, the Heyerdahl crew set sail for Barbados again, this time on Ra II, a frail 40-foot-long vessel fashioned from papyrus reeds with a wicker cabin amidships, an upturned prow and stern, an A-shaped mast and a square sail punctuated by a blood-red circle.

The crew was equipped with modern navigational devices, a hand-cranked radio and a charcoal brazier and gas stove. They complied with the law by leaving with an inflatable life raft.

Otherwise they replicated the seafaring of ancient mariners during a 57-day crossing, braving powerful gales and 30-foot crests.

“Wind is very strong indeed, but the terrible mountainous seas are all out of proportion to the wind,” Heyerdahl wrote.

Mr. Baker once described their makeshift boat as a “writhing creature, sounding more like a berserk warthog stumbling around in a thicket than a ship at sea.”

What the latter-day…

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