In 1973, twelve men from different countries embarked on a daring expedition to prove that pre-Columbian natives from what is now Ecuador could conceivably have traversed the Pacific Ocean to Australia in hand fashioned balsa wood rafts.  

On Saturday and Sunday, June 22 and 23, one of those adventurers guided viewers through the documentary filmed during the grueling challenge. Greg Holden, whose sister Karen is a Humboldt resident and well-known artist, trekked from Manitoba to the beautifully restored Ford family barn just outside of Humboldt for a screening of ‘Pacific Challenge,’ the documentary released a couple years after the expedition was complete. 

Holden provided a preamble to the film that chronicled their journey. He explained how a motorcycle trip with some friends deep into Mexico led to a chance encounter with Vital Alsar, the Spanish visionary who was assembling resources and a team to mount a three vessel attempt to sail from Guayaquil, Ecuador to the intended destination, Mooloolaba, Australia. 

“I loved water, and I loved rafting,” Holden revealed to the audience prior to the screening. “As a child, I was always building rafts in Portage la Prairie. In fact, the police brought me home one night from behind the hospital where I had a raft built out of a palette and was sailing across a slough by myself. I was about 10 years old.” 

The imagination of the land bound prairie boy lit up at the prospect of such an adventure, and so Holden volunteered, becoming the youngest crew member of the expedition at 20 years of age.  

Greg Holden 1.jpg A bird's of view of the audience in the beautifully restored historic barn west of Humboldt

From the construction of the boats of native balsa wood, hewn from the Ecuadorian interior to the meticulous preparation, to the painstaking maintenance of the boat mid-journey, the film revealed the remarkable feats of navigation, camaraderie, endurance and conviction that led to the successful voyage. The feared loss of one of the vessels and an extended period of the doldrums, a windless drifting state, were just part of their many trials.  

In fact, Holden revealed after the movie, during an illuminating Q and A session, that some of the more dramatic moments of the journey couldn’t be captured.   

“During foul weather, the cameras had to be stowed away, so we don’t have footage of the really big storms.” 

During the Q and A, Holden revealed that one raft remains, a replica built out of the pieces of the two surviving rafts. It’s housed in a museum in Ballina, Australia, the actual landing site of the three rafts after they were towed into shore, having been stranded in the dangerous shipping lanes a few miles offshore.  

Holden’s chat with the audience provided even more depth and insight into the challenges, the men and the true magnitude of the accomplishment. He talked about the shortage of food and supplies toward the end of the journey, partially owing to rusty food cans. He revealed incredible encounters with Pacific sea life, including a close encounter with a trio of giant manta rays in the phosphorescent glow of their wake trails. The flotilla carted a trio of cat companions, and he spoke of their importance to morale and their attachment to their sea-faring life. 

The audience remained following the presentation to chat, ask more questions, and simply marvel at what they had just seen and heard. 

Fortunately, a new release of the 50-year-old film is being prepared in Australia with a new soundtrack and the original film narration removed. Instead, producers opted to replace the scripted narrative with commentary from the participants themselves. Production on the new film continues with no firm release plans set. 

The original film can be viewed on YouTube under its released title ‘The Pacific Challenge.’