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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 for me. 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

Aaaaannnnd while we’re at it, Tim Severin’s “The Jason Voyage”

I also read, in recent times, Tim Severin‘s “The Jason Voyage”, his attempt at following the mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts. He had a Bronze Age Aegean galley built using archeological evidence and historical texts. The ARGOThis was the real deal – it would have banks of rowers toiling away and the characteristic “ram” bow. He set off from Greece and headed for the Dardanelles, following the legend’s trail and, once again, finding evidence that the myth may have been based on reality. Among the most fascinating aspects of the voyage was that it debunked the longstanding reason for it being myth: a vessel of that era could not have transited to notorious currents of the Dardanelles and Bosporus. Severin, though, figured out how to use back-eddies and other local nuances of the waterway to successful complete the trip from the Aegean to the Black Sea. Once there, the voyage continued to current-day Georgia, wherein Severin and crew “seal the deal” by identifying the likely source for the golden fleece as well as numerous other facts that match the stories.

I was almost tempted to make this book second to The Brendan Voyage, if only because the myth-to-facts aspect of the book are so compelling. In the end, I gave The Sinbad Voyage the honor, but this is a close third. The year after he completed this voyage, Severin took the same boat on another voyage to trace Ulysses’s voyage in “The Odyssey”. That book is in the on-deck-circle on my bed-side table and I look forward to sharing a review with you all soon.

Catching up on readings past – Tim Severin’s “The Sinbad Voyage”

I have had some time to sift through the back catalog here at Chine bLog headquarters and noted that I never covered a few key books I read in the last couple years. In particular, after knocking off Tim Severin‘s The China Voyage and then his The Brendan Voyage, I moved on to his some of his other like books. Severin’s trip in BRENDAN, the authentic 9th century curragh, got his wheels spinning, it seems, and he hit on another mythical journey to test: the adventures of Sinbad.

The dhow SOHARIt was commonly accepted at the time (~1980), that these writings were pure myth. Severin arranged to build a replica 9th century dhow in Oman, scouring the Arabian Sea shores for period materials, especially the coconut husk fiber builders of the day used to lash the boat together. Yes, these were plank–on-frame boats that were fully lashed. He and a crew then sailed the boat from Oman to China, identifying sources for the supposedly mythical elements and, thereby, suggesting the Sinbad stories may have been based on an amalgamation of true events.

The first quarter or so of the book is all about the boat and its materials, and that alone makes it worth reading. The actual voyage is not as gripping as that of the BRENDAN, but it is still an engaging story. If you haven’t read any Severin, I’d start with The Brendan Voyage and then grab this one immediately afterwards. Here is a summary piece if you need more convincing.

Replica Capt. John Smith shallop

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More stunning yacht designs from Klaus Schmitt

Our posts on the yacht designs of Klaus Schmitt are always popular, so I have finally gotten off my transom and am posting some more. The style is pretty consistent, which I say in the sense that one would of a favorite restaurant.

First up, a lovely 32′ schooner. She has extremely pleasing lines, including a fairly exquisite cabin, if I may say so. The designer notes that, at 32′, she is “about as small as a gaff schooner can get.”

32' Schooner

Schmitt’s favorite of the set is one he calls “Oyster Pirate.” He says “…another design from your neck of the woods. She is based on the description of a small skipjack used for dredging oysters in beds reserved for hand tonging. It was done illegally at night. She is only 34 feet, shalllow and fast. A great, big daysailer.” Yes, you’d be right at home on the Chesapeake in this one.

Oyster Pirate

Klaus has a way with workboats. Here is a nice little tug that looks outfitted for a short cruise.

32' tug

Finally, we have “Ruby’s Dream Boat.” I don’t know who Ruby is, but she must be a dreamboat because she gets an awfully nice dream boat.

Ruby's dream boat

Another lovely set. Enjoy!

’round the blogs – great stuff from elsewhere in the traditional boat blogosphere

It has been far too long (we do I always find myself starting this way? SIGH) since we here at Chine bLog highlighted the great posts others have offered the world regarding wooden / traditional boats. Yes, believe it or not, Chine bLog is NOT the only source. Really. It’s true. If you haven’t discovered it already, you should be sure to read the stuff below:

Indigenous Boats
Bob Holtzman over at Indigenous Boats has been putting out a ton of great stuff of late, such that I can’t come close to mentioning it all. Some highlights I’d recommend:

IntheBoatshed
Gavin at intheboatshed has kept his blog going strong. Check out: Continue reading ’round the blogs – great stuff from elsewhere in the traditional boat blogosphere »

After too long – more fantastic, classic boat designs from the collection of Klaus Schmitt

Several months ago, we were honored, here at Chine bLog, to post two sets of designs by an amateur designer named Klaus Schmitt (post 1 and post 2). Recently we were excited-as-all-get-out to have a guy contact us looking for Klaus’s info. Yes, Chine bLog generated a well-deserved lead. It turns out we have been sitting on more great stuff from Klaus which he augmented in a replying email. His work was popular and exactly the kind of stuff we love (note that some are Fusion of Tradition-y), so shame on us for waiting do long to post this new installment. Enjoy!

We’ll start with a couple larger boats that I think are incredibly handsome interpretations of work boats. Klaus’s words introduce them.

… this is not a small boat… she is 45′… It was my own idea about the ultimate live-aboard. The hull is based on the Chesapeake Bay buy boats (although smaller) from your neck of the woods. An easy hull to drive with a thrifty diesel and a working boom to launch the dingy!

Buy boat yacht

I love it. I’ve had a sometime fantasy about junking the house for a boat like this. While I like this one, I LOVE the next one: Continue reading After too long – more fantastic, classic boat designs from the collection of Klaus Schmitt »

More lateen sailing craft – exclusive pics from the Maldives

We cross the Indian Ocean from the last post to the Maldives. By sister, Rebecca Shaw Kelly, was able to grab a couple nice pictures of local boats for me. Behold our “exclusive”, here at Chine bLog.

Lateen-rigged boat in Malidives

She got this one especially for me, diverting the dive boat accordingly. Awesome boat, awesome picture.

Lateen-rigged boat from Maldives under sail

Latest reading: “Sons of Sinbad” by Alan Villiers

I just finished reading Sons of Sindbad by Alan Villiers. I guess Villiers is a noted mariner and author; I confess I hadn’t heard of him. He went to Aden in 1939, having shipped out on sailing ships for many years. He arranged to join a traditional boom (dhow) on its annual run from Arabia to Zanzibar. He wrote about his months with an all Arabian crew, including observations both on the boats and seafaring as well as the Arab culture. My review? It would have been the better for being about 1/3 shorter, overall. This aside, there were many interesting observations, and I learned a good bit about the traditional shipping of the Western Indian Ocean. The nuggets were embedded, however, within a fairly dry tale. Villiers ran into many discomforts, but there was little in the way of harrowing adventure to keep one engaged. In short, not bad, but not the first book I’d recommend.

Nice Fusion of Tradition in a Viking ship for modern times – The Langskip

The Langskip
Here’s a lovely example of what I call a Fusion of Tradition boat. The Langskip, custom built in Iceland by the Skipavik shipyard, is a modern interpretation of a Viking longship. She is 55′ LOA with 14′ beam, yet they will scale them up or down as desired. The profile is unmistakable, as is the rig, but the details are decidedly different than Leif Ericson would have had. Supposedly the boats are ruggedly built, yet draw about a meter, suggesting you can take one transoceanic for a gunkholing trip. The web site also suggests there will only be a limited number produced.

Anyone sailed one? Curious how that modern square rig works.
Langskip interior