Heyerdahl’s last crewmate dies at age 89

The explorer was killed when his light aircraft crashed in Vermont

Kon-Tiki raft

Photo: Wikimedia
Oslo’s Kon Tiki Museum is a popular tourist destination, where visitors can learn about the world-famous expeditions of Thor Heyerdahl.

The Local

Pilot, sailor, and adventurer Norman Baker, the last living person to have sailed on Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s raft voyages, has died.

Baker was found dead on Nov. 23 after the 1966 Cessna light aircraft he had been piloting crashed. No one else was on board.

Baker, who lived in Windsor, Mass., sailed as Heyerdahl’s celestial navigator during the explorer’s trans-Atlantic crossings in boats built of papyrus reeds in 1969 and 1970.

The journeys from Africa to the Caribbean attempted to show that ancient peoples could have made the ocean crossing—much like Heyerdahl’s earlier, celebrated trip across the Pacific Ocean on the Kon-Tiki raft.
Born in 1928 in Brooklyn, N.Y. Baker learned to fly at 13, flew solo by 17, and embarked on a career in the U.S. Navy. His first jobs included working with a gold-mining company and marking out America’s last unsurveyed state boundary in the desert between Colorado and New Mexico.

“It is my belief that his life of adventure was sparked by the tales he read as a boy,” Mitchell Baker, one of his three children, told The Local in an email.

Baker first met Heyerdahl after the Korean War, his son said. “It was a chance encounter … in a bar in Tahiti. The conversation they began that night in the late 1950s would only end when Thor passed away,” Mitchell Baker told The Local.

Baker later joined Heyerdahl’s crew, serving as second-in-command for the voyages of the Ra and Ra II. The first voyage ended when the Ra broke up after sailing 6,440 kilometers. The second attempt proved a success, eventually landing in Barbados.

Baker was also on board Heyerdahl’s final raft expedition, the Tigris, which was built in Iraq and sailed into the Red Sea in 1978.

After the voyages, Baker co-authored a 1974 children’s book called Thor Heyerdahl and the Reed Boat Ra. In his later years, he turned his energy to other forms of adventure, including flying, canoeing, scuba diving, horseback riding, and oceanography.

Baker was for nine years captain of the schooner Anne Kristine, a Norwegian ship built in 1868 and one of the oldest vessels plying the open seas at the time.

With his wife and three children, Baker used the Anne Kristine as a home and a training and research vessel. The vessel was lost in the infamous “perfect storm” of October 1991. Baker and his family were not aboard at the time and all crew members survived.

On Nov. 22, Baker took off from the Pittsfield Municipal Airport, bound for a Thanksgiving celebration with his children, their partners, and seven grandchildren. He had made the journey many times before.

The wreckage of Baker’s Cessna was found on Nov. 23. The crash is under investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, according to coverage of the accident by the Boston Globe.

Baker “survived so many encounters with sharks, polar bears, Somali pirates, hurricanes, and countless other scary near-death situations,” his daughter, Elizabeth Atwood told the Boston Globe.

“My dad was prepared and fearless and never let anything get in the way of his curiosity and joy in exploration. He would never have wanted to die in any diminished way, and as deeply sad as we are, my dad died doing something he truly loved,” Atwood said.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784.4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.