Pathfinders – The Acali Raft Experiment

Have you heard the one about the sex raft? If not, it’s a story to cheer the New Year for socialists. It’s also a tale that’s so bonkers that it really needs some context.

After the horrors of World War 2, the dispiriting conviction grew among dinner party navel-gazers that civilisation was only a skin-deep veneer under which lurked Hannah Arendt’s famous ‘banality of evil’. A fad arose for novels about innate evil, notably Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, and especially Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. This deeply nasty tale about marooned children regressing to murderous savagery immediately became (and still is) a standard UK school study text. It’s well written, but so are a lot of books, and the fact that it continues to be shoved down children’s throats in the name of education suggests that it is a useful element in ruling class ideology. Humans are feral beasts, it tells us. Rule by force is all we deserve and can ever expect.

Nor was this dark perspective confined to the gentle arts. In an age when ethics committees were not yet a thing, people also tried to demonstrate the inner beast in practice. Thus the world was treated to notorious and pseudo-scientific atrocities like the 1961 Milgram torture and 1971 Stanford Prison experiments, whose supposedly damning but actually rigged conclusions are still the stuff of received wisdom even though they’ve been pretty comprehensively debunked (see, eg,

Enter at this point the Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés, who in 1973 concluded, from reading studies of monkeys, that ‘most conflicts are about sexual access to ovulating females’ ( Instead of writing a boring and forgettable academic paper, he decided with the élan of the truly deranged to try out his theory in practice. And he knew just how to do it, having previously crewed on Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Ra expeditions. He had the 12×7-metre raft ‘Acali’ built for sailing across the Atlantic with a crew of young and attractive men and women, in the expectation that 100 days of confinement and irrepressible sexual desire would drive them into promiscuity and, very likely, explosions of jealous violence. Genovés would go along as a disinterested observer in order to document the fun.

Nowadays this is reality TV material, but he saw it as serious scientific research, and was highly displeased when the media dubbed his endeavour the ‘sex raft’. Nothing about it was random. He wanted a global microcosm, and carefully selected volunteers from diverse countries, ethnicities and religions. He offered free adventure, and in return made them sign away all right to refuse any instruction from him. To wear on their nerves, he designed the raft to offer them no privacy, even when defecating, wrongly supposing that this would crush their inhibitions leading to rampant sex in the open. He had them sail straight into hurricane season without an engine, having chosen volunteers with no useful shipboard skills. The exceptions were the Swedish captain, the French diver, and the Israeli medic, all of them women, and chosen because he believed this would stir a festering pot of male resentment.

But when the conflict failed to materialise, he began to try to engineer it. He banned book reading to increase the boredom, and when this didn’t work, publicly read out confidential questionnaire answers they had given about each other. When the diver proposed to go under the raft to repair the rudder, he insisted on going himself despite having no diving suit or experience, almost drowning in the attempt. His male resentment duly festered when the diver took it upon herself to make the repair secretly at night. When Maria, the captain, wanted to pull into port to avoid a hurricane, he took command himself, imperilling them all. Later, when they were about to be hit by a large freighter, he panicked but Maria kept her head and saved the situation. The crew then mutinied, putting Maria back in charge, and he withdrew in a sulk while she steered the rest of the way.

He succeeded in creating conflict on his epic ‘Peace Project’ voyage. But it was all directed at him. His manipulative, often abusive and sometimes dangerous behaviour got so bad that at one point the crew, fearing for their lives, contemplated murdering him and dropping his body over the side, to explain away later as an unfortunate accident at sea.

Aside from this, the crew got on with each other extremely well, and cooperated smoothly and without fuss, even when facing serious danger. So strong were the bonds they formed in adversity that forty years later, when a documentary team came calling, the surviving crew members proved to be still close friends, if somewhat traumatised by what Genovés had put them through. ‘He was a master of manipulation, a control freak and a dictator’, said the director of the 2018 documentary The Raft . Despite his megalomania, Genovés simply couldn’t make his volunteers behave the way he wanted them to, even when he’d rigged the entire experiment to achieve just that.

The Acali Raft Experiment failed in spectacular and comedic fashion to prove what many people still hold to be an ugly but inevitable truth, that humans resort to primal savagery when under pressure, and that therefore they cannot sustain a cooperative, caring and egalitarian society of the sort socialists describe. It stands as a companion-piece to the equally obscure but true story of the ‘Real Lord of the Flies‘. This was a bunch of children who in 1965 were marooned on a desert island for 15 months, during which time they ‘made a pact never to quarrel’, cared for each other, even successfully healing a broken limb, and cooperated until they were rescued. They too remained friends for life afterwards. These are the life-affirming stories that schoolchildren really deserve to hear about, not mean-minded and made-up tales designed to make them hate themselves.


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