by Rene Quenallata Paredes
LA PAZ, Dec. 15 (Xinhua) -- Bolivian President Evo Morales on Thursday held an incense burner aloft, in an indigenous rite of cleansing and blessing, launching a ship built of cattail reeds, a common wetland plant.
"We have come to give strength and energy to this delegation, wishing them much success," Morales said at a ceremony of launching the ship Viracocha III, which is set to ply the Pacific on its maiden voyage to Australia early next year.
Morales called on Mother Earth "to care for (the crew) on this adventure," adding "if they arrive (in Australia), they will be hailed as great heroes."
The impressive vessel, which is 18 meters long and 4.5 meters wide, was built by Bolivia's indigenous Aymara Indians at Lake Titicaca, using 18 tons of reeds woven and tied together.
It will depart from northern Chile's Port of Arica since landlocked Bolivia has no sea access. In classic seafaring tradition, what looks like a dragon's head decks the ship's bow to protect it from harmful spirits.
"This ship has Bolivian identity, because the raw material is Bolivian, and the workforce is also ours, so it carries the energy, the strength of our people and our ancestors," shipbuilder Erick Katari said.
A 11-man crew of Bolivians and Chileans, led by U.S. captain and biologist Phill Buck, 51, will navigate the ship over 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 kilometers) to Sidney, Australia, a voyage expected to take six months.
The expedition, which aims to highlight the nautical know-how of the continent's pre-Columbian civilizations, will make stops at the Polynesian islands of Mangareva, Tahiti and Fiji.
Bolivian Foreign Affairs Minister David Choquehuanca said "in these difficult and complicated times of crisis, this ship carries the message of unity, of brotherhood, of harmony of the integration of our peoples."
The voyage will be a "great challenge," mainly due to storms, Katari, whose family has worked in shipbuilding for generations, told Xinhua, though he expects it will succeed.
The ship is the third such project headed by Buck to show South American voyagers had the means to sail the oceans.
In 2000, Buck used the original Viracocha to travel 3,500 nautical miles (6500 kilometers) from Chile's northern port of Arica to Easter Island in Polynesia.
An attempt to reach Australia in 2003 was interrupted by damage to the boat of Viracocha II.
"On this second try, I'm sure we'll reach all the way to Australia," Buck said as he supervised the construction of Viracocha III in October.