Final Tim Severin book reviews: “The Ulysses Voyage” and “The Spice Islands Voyage”

I wrote recently a couple of reviews of books by Tim Severin and promised a couple more. Well, behold.

As I noted in the prior post, Severin took a few months off after his exploration of the history behind the Jason and the Argonauts story and the returned to Turkey with the same galley he used to explore Homer’s “The Odyssey”. This is the story of The Ulysses Voyage. It seems scholars have been all over the Mediterranean map – literally – placing the scenes of Ulysses trip back from Troy, with a consensus, of sorts, involving Sicily for a great many episodes. Severin noted, though, that no one had ever taken a period craft and recreated the voyage, thus factoring-in realistic sailing / rowing speeds, navigation styles and abilities, weather patterns, etc. With a smaller crew than the Jason Voyage, and using mostly sail, he did this, ultimately placing the geography of “The Odyssey” much closer to its Greek home.

As is true of the Jason Voyage, this book is well worth reading. What it lacks in nautical adventure (there are, at best, minor scrapes here) it more than makes up for in discussion of how Bronze Age captains navigated, the complicated weather of the Aegean, and Greek coastal topography and features. In total, Severin presents an extremely tight argument, not only in favor of his new map but also against other versions, which include Sicily and other ports further afield. Severin shows it is not reasonable for a galley of that period, under command of a competent skipper, to have made it that far, nor do the features, seen from sea-level, fit the story nearly as well as do scenes from Greece. Really fascinating read.

Prahu kalulis ALFRED WALLACEAs far as I can tell, The Spice Islands Voyage is the last of Severin’s nautical adventures. As the name suggests, this voyage takes place in eastern Indonesia, tracing the path of Alfred Wallace, a naturalist who, at least, co-developed key concepts of evolution with Charles Darwin. While there are some interesting aspects of this book, mostly around hints that Darwin may have swiped theories from Wallace, it was, on the whole, a disappointment. The short story is that a great many places in the region that Wallace described had, by the time Severin and crew visited, suffered severe environmental degradation. While this story is important to tell, it is depressing as heck to read. Furthermore, Wallace’s story is not terribly interesting. He suffers from all kinds of maladies and was clearly brave, but malarial outbreaks do not make for racy adventure. Correspondingly, Severin’s voyage is not that compelling. There are again only minor scrapes and troubles. All told, it’s a little dry.

One interesting aspect that gets a little attention is the boat Severin and crew use. The boat, the ALFRED WALLACE, is a prahu kalulis, indigenous to the western part of the Indonesian archipelago. The boat is fairly shallow and beamy, looking not unlike a modern dingy-inspired racer. The rig, though, is made of a pair of square sails that have elements of a lug rig in them. Severin calls it a tilted rectangular, or layar tanja, rig. In fact, in tacking, the sails are brailed and the yards dipped around the mast. Severin indicated that the boat was fast and that the sails had a good deal of driving power, but that they are not easy to tack, especially in weather. Compounding this issue, there is not really a good way to reef the sails. Finally, the boat has no keel, so stability was also an issue. These craft were traditionally used for short transit in protected waters. They look beautiful, but they are not appropriate for being in a true sea. Severin and crew suffered only a couple near mishaps, and both seemed to be more a function of pushing the boat in not particularly outrageous weather.

Prahu kalulis ALFRED WALLACE

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