Fantastic read: Tim Severin’s “The Brendan Voyage”

Last Winter we finally read one of Tim Severin’s books, The China Voyage: Across The Pacific By Bamboo Raft and posted some reactions, all positive. One of our friends said, at the time, that if we liked that book, Severin’s The Brendan Voyage: Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat was better still. Well, we finally read it. And we concur. It is an absolutely fantastic read.

The Brendan Voyage is also half sailing yarn and half archeological text. There is, apparently, a medieval Irish text, Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, that tells of a voyage St. Brendan took in the North Atlantic in a leather boat, what we now call a curragh. It is, in fact, conceivable to interpret the text to say that St. Brendan and a crew of Irish monks reached Newfoundland around the sixth century, long before Leif Erikson’s boys and WAAAYYY before that poser Columbus. Scholars, of course, disagree about the extent to which it is factual or fantasy. One of the grounds for skepticism was that a leather boat could never make such a voyage. Severin set out to build a replica, using sixth-century technology, and sail it from Ireland to North America, specifically Newfoundland, Canada. Given the subtitle, I don’t think I am a spoiler to say that the crew proves the hypothesis and completes the voyage, adding evidence to support the Irish being the first Europeans to hit these shores.

Everything about the book is amazing. The sailing alone represents a top-notch sea adventure story, with Severin again proving himself to be both a courageous and responsible captain. The voyage had its share of close shaves, and no one labors under any delusions of the risks. Alongside this, though, are ample explanations of about the building and performance of the boat. Severin goes into great detail about the research into how leather could have been used successfully (and was, in their case) and how the lessons were put into practice. It is another marvelous account of the power of the skin-on-frame medium. The weakness of the boat also get laid bare, making it clear that for all the advances the Irish may have demonstrated, we have figured a few useful things out in the intervening centuries (e.g., how to sail to wind).
Curragh Brendan0001
Finally, there is the archeological thread to the book, whereby Severin shows how the fantastic imagery of the text could be explained by observations made along what is probably a similar route (Ireland to the Hebrides to the Faroes to Iceland to Greenland to Newfoundland). If the mission was to prove the voyage possible, it seems it also gave credence to the broader text along the way, helping bolster the legend as possible fact. Great stuff and HIGHLY recommended.

3 Comments for “Fantastic read: Tim Severin’s “The Brendan Voyage””

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *