I actually had the crazed idea to read a book recently. Doesn’t happen much – I am lucky if I can clear my magazine rack in a given month. Long on my to do list, though, had been reading some of Tim Severin’s works. Severin is an Irishman (at least he lives there) with an fascinating joint interest in history, archeology, and epic voyages, mostly maritime ones. Sound intriguing? It gets better. Severin’s shtick has been to identify an unproven or poorly understood historical journey, build a traditional boat, if a maritime one, that represents the type of that era, and then recreate the journey to see if it could have happened as theorized. Oh yeah, I am IN! I have known about him for a while and only just got around to checking him out.
I began with The China Voyage: Across The Pacific By Bamboo Raft. Apparently there are a group of archeologists who believe (or believed, as of the early 1990s) that there was contact between East Asian cultures and Central American cultures within the last couple millennia. Theory held this contact was maritime. Severin set out to investigate whether or not such a voyage would have been possible with technology of the era.
Severin set off to Vietnam, specifically the town of Sam Son, home, then, of a fleet of bamboo sailing rafts that presented a good model for what the theorized voyagers would have used. He contracts the local builders to build a 60′ version of these rafts with a three-masted junk rig. He then forms a crew, including one man from Sam Son, and brings the raft, christened HSU FU, after an ancient Chinese mariner, to Hong Kong.
On the surface, the raft is an amazing feat of engineering. Severin gives nice detail on its construction, including factors in obtaining traditional materials.
As they set off toward Taiwan (they miss it) and then Japan, the book then provides enough details of performance to give a good sense of the craft with enough adventure to make it an entertaining yarn. From Japan, the final crew sets off toward California to test the capabilities of a raft at sea. It is pretty amazing.
Unlike some examples of the nautical adventure genre, Severin manages to be extreme without being a fool. He knows the risks at play and manages them, but also gives proper respect to the sea and the chances of catastrophic failure. In short, he knows what he is doing and is going for it. He has great respect for traditional practices and for proper documentation of the voyage. In addition to the photos in the book, Severin includes drawing made by the two artists that were along, at different points, as crew. Good, good stuff and well worth a read.