A 41-foot (12 1/2-meter) raft, made of reeds and wooden planks and flying the flags of several countries, set out Wednesday on a planned two-month voyage to the Azores and Spain. It is a daring attempt to prove people as far back as the Stone Age could have crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
The fragile-looking craft was towed down the harbor past the Statue of Liberty, to be cut loose once it passed into the open sea. At the helm was Dominique Gorlitz, 41, a German botanist and ex-school teacher who has spent years preparing for the expedition.
"We are trying to retrace the ancient waterways to prove that prehistoric people crossed the ocean both ways," Gorlitz said as the Abora III, named for a Canary Island sun god, cast off to the sounds of an electric guitar and an Australian aborginal didgeridoo.
He estimated the voyage would take five weeks to Pontevedra, Spain, where success would prove that mariners predating Columbus by 12,000 years could have navigated the ocean by sailing against - as well as with - prevailing winds. The Abora III will use leeboards to steer like a modern sailboat.
Gorlitz's crew of ten men and two women will live in near-Stone Age conditions - except for fresh water, food for 100 days and satellite phones, navigational gear and generator-powered laptops.
The group seemed unfazed at crossing the Atlantic during hurricane season in a tiny craft with two wooden huts and a toilet shack on deck. "If I was not confident that we could do this, I would not do it," Gorlitz said.
The crew includes Germans, a Cuban-born American, a Norwegian and a Bolivian who built the boat by tribal methods at Lake Titicaca.
Gorlitz's theory is based on traces of tobacco and coca - substances native to the New World - having been found in an Egyptian pharaoh's tomb and cave drawings in Spain suggesting people 14,000 years ago understood ocean currents.
Kenneth L. Feder, an anthropology professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., said Abora III's trip cannot prove any of that.
"I wish them well, but for a proper replicative experiment in archaeology, the culture has to be consistent," he said in a telephone interview. "How can they replicate the past accurately by using evidence from thousands of years ago in Egypt and a boat similar to those built 800 years ago in South America? These are completely different periods."
He said there were other possible ways for nicotine and coca to have turned up - possibly from now-unknown plants in Africa, or even from "mummy unwrapping parties" in 19th century England.
"This trip proves that if you are brave and foolhardy you can sail a primitive boat across the Atlantic, but that's all it proves," Feder said.