When Columbus set sail to navigate a new route to Japan, his historic discovery of the New World changed our perception of geography forever. More recently and almost 520 years later, a group of experienced sailors decided to retrace his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft made from plastic pipes. Crazy as it may seem, this modern day band of explorers were faced with some daunting challenges, namely how would they build their craft and how would the crew and vessel survive a 3000 mile voyage through difficult waters? 

Early Sunday on 15 October 2006 a strong earthquake shook Hawaii, jolting residents out of bed and causing a landslide that blocked a major highway. Ceilings crashed at a hospital and aftershocks kept the state on edge.

Exceptional strength

Sailing and pipe design experts were called in to pool their respective knowledge and experience. They calculated that a combination of four large standard polyethylene (PE100) pipes would be ideal for the basic structure of the craft. Each pipe would measure 12 metres long with a diameter of 710 mm. 

Designed to operate at a pressure of 8 bar, these crack-resistant pipes could withstand the tremendous buffeting of ocean waves. Moreover, the low density of polyethylene (951 kg/m3) would provide all the buoyancy the craft needed. Once sealed at both ends, these pipes could float even if full of water. 

To complete the pipe construction, fourteen smaller cross pipes (315 mm diameter) served as the deck support. Those positioned at either end were yellow gas pipes, sealed with air. The other seven blue pipes in the middle were filled with 2000 litres of potable water. These pipes are ideally suited to maintain the freshness of this water for many cross Atlantic voyages. One of the many interesting design solutions was to use electrofusion tapping tees to weld stanchion supports onto the deck pipes. 

Seaworthy trials of a smaller version of the raft were successfully carried at Melbourne, Australia. All the equipment and materials were then assembled in the UK and then shipped to the Canary Islands in November 2010. 

Senior Service

On 30 January 2011, Anthony Smith, David Hildred, Andy Bainbridge and John Russell set out from the Canary Island of La Gomera to make their 3000 mile remarkable voyage across the Atlantic. At the helm of the An-tiki, was 84 year old Captain Anthony Smith, former presenter of BBC’s Tomorrow’s World. With a combined experience of some 258 years, the four-man crew achieved their Atlantic pipedream of a lifetime by completing the voyage in only sixty six days. 

This was 30 days longer than the first epic voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Nevertheless, they not only tested the strength of polyethylene pipes to their fullest but also demonstrated that age holds no barrier to talent, tenacity and inventiveness. Qualities that are equally explored within the plastic pipe industry!