In 1973, Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés set out to test a hypothesis. He had been researching the connection between violence and sexuality in monkeys. “Most conflicts,” he noted, “are about sexual access to ovulating females.”
But would this apply to humans, too? To find out, Genovés asked a British boat builder to make a 12×7 metre raft called the Acali on which he planned to sail with 10 sexually attractive young people across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to Mexico. It was like a prototype for the glut of reality TV shows since, a Floating Love Island or Big Brother at Sea, but with a twist – the participants were so isolated from the rest of the world that it would have been futile to cry: “Get me out of here!” The only ways out were drowning or getting eaten by sharks.
Genovés was a veteran of extreme rafting. A few years earlier he had been one of the seven-strong multinational crew on Thor Heyerdahl’s two Ra expeditions to sail reed rafts, like those used in ancient Egypt, across the Atlantic. The Norwegian adventurer wanted to show how people of different races could cooperate effectively.
Genovés had even grander motives in planning his voyage: he sought to diagnose and cure world violence. To that end, he placed ads in international newspapers and made his selection from respondents, choosing a crew of strangers from different races and religions so that he could create a microcosm of the world. Among the five women and five men were a Japanese photographer, an Angolan priest, a French scuba diver, a Swedish ship’s captain, an Israeli doctor and an Alaskan waitress who was fleeing an abusive husband. Genovés called his boat the Peace Project, but it rapidly became known in the world’s press as the Sex Raft.