New York Times Magazine Profile: Explorer Gene Savoy's Final Quest
A piece I wrote for the New York Times Magazine about explorer extraordinaire Gene Savoy.
It is a steamy August afternoon off the coast of Hawaii, and the Feathered Serpent III-Ophir, Gene Savoy's 73-foot-long catamaran, is carving gracefully through cerulean waters. Squinting into the equatorial sun, the 72-year-old Savoy slicks back his shoulder-length brown hair with a comb, replaces his skipper's cap and, gripping the ship's wheel, barks orders into the ocean spray. His crew -- six shirtless middle-aged men with little sailing experience and badly sunburned shoulders and backs -- respond by hustling around the mahogany deck, coiling ropes and tying knots. In the cramped, unlighted galley below, a tattooed sailor with Popeye biceps stacks cans of pinto beans and Meister Brau beer.
The Feathered Serpent looks as if it belongs in a museum, even though it's only 8 months old. Two 10-foot dragons rise from the forward deck and large Cadillac-style fins grace the aft. The twin mahogany hulls are already blanched and weather-beaten. It is a replica, Savoy explains in his gravelly voice, of ''ancient vessels that I found depicted on pre-Incan ceramics on the north coast of Peru.'' While the explorer, dressed in a blue shirt and khakis, directs the crew through a departure checklist, Savoy's personal assistant, Belinda Chauvin, a pretty blonde in a black cocktail dress, hands him a cigarette -- but not before lighting it and snipping off the lipstick-stained filter.
Meanwhile, a BBC camera crew, on board to film a documentary about some 1,000-year-old mummies that Savoy discovered in Peru in the 1960's, moves in for a tight shot.
''Thank you, my dear,'' he says to Belinda, and continues: ''To answer your question, young man. As the captain, I have more concern for the safety of my men than I do for myself. That's why I plan to steer clear of the Philippines. Over the years, I've had a lot of friends kidnapped by pirates. The pirates kill everybody, then steal the ship and whatever the ship is carrying: oil, gold, what have you. I could deal with being kidnapped, but not my men.'' Savoy's extravagant narcissism -- the self-aggrandizing remarks, the flagrant name-dropping, the reverent entourage -- doesn't seem to bother any of the visitors on board. The listeners are enthralled, especially Jan, the BBC producer: ''Cut! Great stuff, Gene,'' he says.
''Right, right,'' Savoy replies. ''Just tell me when to start talking again.''
At a time when the great exploratory adventures of our age are government-sponsored, multimillion-dollar expeditions, backed by hundreds of experts on support teams, Gene Savoy is a throwback to the 19th-century gentleman adventurer. In his four-decade career, Savoy has uncovered 40 cities in the tropical cloud forests of Peru, and launched a number of long-distance sailing adventures ( la Thor Heyerdahl's ''Kon Tiki'') in an effort to prove that ancient cultures were more mobile than is generally believed. Two of his discoveries, an Incan ruin called Vilcabamba and a pre-Incan metropolis called Gran Vilaya, are significant 20th-century archeological finds.
This trip, dubbed the Grand Ophir Sea Expedition, is Savoy's most ambitious venture. At a cost of more than $2 million, it is also his most expensive. The plan is straightforward: sail around the world in this little catamaran, demonstrating how easy it would have been for the Egyptians, the Argonauts, even the pre-Incan inhabitants of Peru to exchange goods and ideas. It's understandable, then, that he wants to come across to the news media like a man bound for the history books. Nevertheless, he has been drinking wine all afternoon, and his crew has already dipped into the Meister Brau. And that's the least of the problems. A latter-day Ponce de Leon, Savoy believes that this voyage will finally uncover the secrets of immortality.
Savoy has a small but devoted group of followers. Adventure buffs line up to read his books, including ''Antisuyo'' (1970) and ''On the Trail of the Feathered Serpent'' (1974), and many monitor his exploits on the Gene Savoy home page. Archeologists from the University of Colorado and other schools have relied on his maps and journals to find remote Incan and pre-Incan cities in Peru. But Savoy hasn't earned the respect that he may deserve, in part because he's a swashbuckling self-starter and in part because his solid discoveries have sometimes been motivated by some wobbly theories.
But is there no room for the amateur adventurer, regardless of how eccentric the ideas motivating his research? Must all serious inquiry about ancient cultures and our relationship to them take place in the sterile environment of a university anthropology department? Savoy's emphatic no is in keeping with the historian Daniel J. Boorstin's views on exploration: an exploring ship, he writes, ''was no good unless it could get there and back. Its important cargo was news, which could be carried in a small parcel, even in the mind of one man, but which was definitely a return product.'' Savoy has often brought back significant archeological news, and he has always managed to come back with a good story.
''I was dying from the bite of a pit viper,'' Savoy says. ''The serum I was carrying was clotted, and the hypodermic needle was dirty. I just couldn't do it to myself. So I lay there five days, developing blood poisoning. Fortunately, a runner arrived in camp with two bottles of penicillin. But they were crystals. How was I going to inject crystals? Well, by now, there was a hole in my knee that big around and that deep'' -- he indicates a two-inch divot -- ''and, what the hell, I just took the penicillin and poured it in.''
As he says this, a voice from the ship's bow yells, ''Hard to starboard!''
''Hard to starboard!'' Savoy answers, spinning the steering wheel several turns to the right.
''Turn right!'' the voice cries.
''I am!'' an irritated Savoy shouts back, employing body English to try to get the boat to turn.
Dead ahead, about 50 feet in front of the Feathered Serpent's fierce dragons, sits a double-decker Fiberglas yacht. On board, a few sunbathers are waving their arms and shouting: ''No! No!''
''Cut the filming,'' Savoy barks, whisking his forefinger across his neck. He hands his cigarette to Belinda and stares down the fast-approaching yacht. ''Man the bumpers, men!'' he shouts. Each of the crew grabs one of the inflatable orange balls used for docking. ''Reversing engines,'' Savoy says, squeezing the steering wheel tightly. All of this is happening in Haleiwa Boat Harbor, in plain view of his favorite watering hole, Aloha Joe's Seafood Grill.
''Come on, baby, turn,'' he begs.
The dragon on the left bow gently kisses the shiny, white surface of the yacht. The bumpers compress like a heart patient's chest during CPR. Then, a ping. A smile stretches across Savoy's sunburned face, and the Feathered Serpent abruptly changes course and, powered by the now-expanding bumpers, ricochets off toward Australia. ''It's hard work being a pioneer,'' he confides later. ''The wheels grind very slowly in science. Every explorer, every great person -- not that I'm great -- struggles with this fact. But without us, civilization dies.''
My sojourn aboard the Feathered Serpent is scheduled to last only two hours. At sunset, a fisherman is supposed to pick me up in his power boat and take me back to Oahu. Savoy expects his expedition to last at least seven years. For the past four months, he and his crew -- a thin, pipe-smoking first mate named Roger Weld; Gary Buchanan, a musician; Peter Foust, a carpenter; Solomon Aragon, the cook; Yukinori Matsushita, an industrialist, and Koshu Kawahara, an artist -- have been repairing the boat after it was nearly shredded by 40-foot waves during its maiden voyage from Peru to Hawaii. They varnished the deck and rigged the mast while Savoy jetted over to the mainland to raise more money for the expedition. Now, on departure day, everybody seems happy, but they also seem concerned that maybe they haven't reached the bottom of their to-do list. Though it looks nice, the ship creaks loudly as it's tossed about by the waves. And the deck has been so recently varnished that my feet are sticking to it.
Savoy may be well into his golden years, with stiff joints and milky eyes, but there's a rambunctious, teen-age quality mixed in with his worldliness that he attributes to his active life style and the various antiaging tricks he learned in the jungle. ''I've always preferred the jungle to the sea,'' he says, straining to see around the ship's masts. ''The sea is a lonely place -- a desert of the soul.''
Savoy's first expeditions were after-school fossil hunts and knee-bruising forays into the lava caves of California and the Pacific Northwest, where he grew up. After a two-year stint in the Navy during World War II, he entered the University of Portland in 1947, but dropped out after he realized that his dream of becoming a Catholic priest required too much time indoors. He married, ran a trade paper about logging in Oregon and seemed destined for a life of suburban comfort when the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered in the late 1940's. These documents, which some experts say were written by the Essenes, a radical Jewish sect from around the time of Jesus, would prove to be one of the most important archeological finds of the century. Their discovery and translation stirred in Savoy a passion to find the next Dead Sea Scrolls.
Over time, he learned that the cloud forests of Peru were still largely unmapped. Just as important, Peru wasn't crawling with what he likes to call ''fuddy-duddy academic archeologists.'' In other words, there might be room for someone who was self-taught. In 1957, with both his business and his marriage in ruins and his health deteriorating, Savoy moved to Peru to pursue a life of adventure.
Paying the bills as a reporter for the English-speaking Peruvian Times, he studied manuscripts left by Spanish missionaries from the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru. He befriended Augustinian friars, who shared maps and journals drawn up by Spanish missionaries who lived in the jungles and converted Indians 500 years ago. He cajoled pilot friends to fly him in their flimsy open-air planes over the snow-crowned Andes on reconnaissance missions. In 1964, Savoy began hacking a path into the montana -- the high-elevation rain forest -- east of Machu Picchu in search of the legendary ''lost city'' of Vilcabamba, the secret capital established by the Incans after the Spanish had driven them from their homeland in the south of the country.
Supported by the Peruvian Government and private patrons, Savoy's team a100 soldiers and machete men and hundreds of horses and mules -- descended into river valleys where the temperature rose above 100 degrees. Nearly all light was blocked by the thick vegetation, making their world a dark green tunnel. ''Monkeys crashed through the branches,'' Savoy says. ''Snakes were everywhere -- bushmasters, pit vipers and what locals call candongas. That bugger is a testy little rattler but without the rattles.'' Finally, one of Savoy's men stumbled on a pile of terra cotta roofing tiles, which Savoy immediately recognized as being Incan. It took 70 men working three straight days to clear a single stone dwelling of vines, but over the next four months, Savoy and his army mapped, photographed and revealed to the world Vilcabamba's heretofore lost secrets.
A year later, Savoy returned to the rain forest. This time he searched farther north for a stone fortress that was rumored to have been built by the Chachapoyans, a sophisticated pre-Incan civilization also known as the Cloud People, who flourished 1,000 years ago in a part of Peru known as the Jungle's Eyebrow. After weeks of clearing vegetation, he uncovered a fort, 45 feet in diameter and decorated with intricate ornamental stonework.
Savoy wrote about his discoveries in ''Antisuyo.'' The 1970 book, festooned with photographs of a young, dashing Savoy wearing an Indiana Jones-style duster and brandishing a pistol, became a modern adventure classic. But Savoy also became the target of some academics who dubbed him a quack and, even more painful to Savoy, a grave robber, an accusation that still sends him into a bilious stew.
After more than a decade spent building and sailing boats, and launching what he calls ''experimental archeology'' projects -- he once drifted from Peru to Mexico in a totora reed vessel, trying to prove that pre-Columbian Peruvians could have socialized with the Maya and the Toltecs -- he returned to the Jungle's Eyebrow in 1983. Over the next six years, he discovered, by his account, some 24,000 buildings, hundreds of tombs and countless mummies. ''There are many other cities that I know of that I haven't yet revealed,'' he says.
''Does he make wild claims sometimes?'' asks David Wilson, an expert in South American studies from Southern Methodist University. ''Definitely. But sometimes an explorer can make wild claims and still provide a service to society at large. Savoy gets people excited about the jungle. That's more than most academic archeologists can say.''
The Grand Ophir Sea Expedition hasn't exactly becalmed his critics. In a hypothesis more religious than scientific, Savoy believes that a handful of ancient civilizations knew secret techniques that enabled them to live to the age of 150. One of Savoy's other pursuits is running a quasi-Christian sect in Reno called the International Community of Christ. Its members believe that the secret to immortality lies in taking in God in the form of energy by staring directly at the sun. This secret was revealed to him in the jungles of Peru, and he claims that he has since found evidence suggesting that other ancient sun cultures existed in other parts of the world and traded their secrets with one another via ocean crossings in catamarans like the Feathered Serpent.
So this expedition is also a seven-year church field trip, financed in part through the selling of T-shirts, mugs and videotapes, to find and bring home the Fountain of Youth. Even though academics say that ancient cultures rarely if ever came in contact with one another, Savoy hopes to prove them wrong. He even hopes to prove one of his more improbable pet theories -- that the gold used to build King Solomon's temple in Jerusalem came from Peru.
Savoy was still talking about mummies and pirates when I leapt from the Feathered Serpent III-Ophir onto the fishing boat. I felt relieved to be off the boat, but a little envious of its exotic itinerary. After reaching Brisbane, the Feathered Serpent would sail across the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, then across the Atlantic. The final leg would be up the Amazon River.
The Feathered Serpent made good time after leaving Hawaii. The ship passed safely through the Doldrums, where ancient ships used to stall for weeks. But on the night of Aug. 15, after a sake-inspired King Neptune ceremony in honor of two sailors crossing the equator for the first time, a storm hit. Savoy, lying awake in his quarters, hurried above deck and took his place at the helm. Under the duress of 12-foot waves and 40-m.p.h. winds, one of the Feathered Serpent's six 14-inch crossbeams buckled. Two hours later a second one snapped. At 3:15 A.M., the U.S. Coast Guard picked up their distress signal.
As Savoy and his crew sat helplessly in an inflatable raft, watching the wreckage of the Feathered Serpent descend toward the Marianas Trench, they received a strange but welcome omen: rocketing to the surface like little missiles were hundreds of shiny white cans of Meister Brau. After bobbing in the middle of the Pacific and drinking beer for 24 hours, they were picked up by the Ever Victory, a Taiwanese cargo vessel bound for Japan from Argentina. Savoy and his crew climbed the 35-foot ladder to the deck of the Ever Victory. ''It was the hardest climb of my career,'' he said.
Of course, the story of that night -- the one that Savoy will tell again and again in pubs and at awards dinners -- is a work in progress. Savoy says he's currently raising money for the Feathered Serpent IV, which he hopes to christen in 2001, and then pick up where he left off in the South Pacific. ''Remember, son,'' he says. ''Darwin was an amateur. So was Newton. You're never going to stop me from being an explorer.''