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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

My gosh – what an obit! John Fairfax, ocean rower and much else.

I had not heard of John Fairfax, but I ran cross a tweet (by @halliew) of his NY Times obit. What a fantastic read! The guy was first to row solo across an ocean (Atlantic) and also did the Pacific with a partner. And these were just the later adventures in his life. Check this out for an entertaining Sunday read.

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.

Pacific Voyagers keep on voyaging, thank goodness!

Coming across the “wires” a couple months ago was news from the Dana Point (CA) Times that crews of Polynesians are still sailing traditional vakas – voyaging canoes – across the Pacfic using traditonal techniques. This was particularly interesting to me as a recently read Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging (Legacy of Excellence), by Ben R. Finney, a book detailing his close involvement with the early iterations of this movement. In short, a few groups of Polynesians connected with each otherseveral years ago and decided to build versions of their traditional voyaging canoes and sail together around Polynesia using traditional navigation (i.e., by stars, birds, weather patterns, etc.) It is a pretty interesting read, especially since Finney sailed with esteemed Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug.

Even more interesting to note is that there is a movie coming out about the effort, “Our Blue Canoe.” The article above included the trailer, courtesy of YouTube:

Good stuff here. Look out for the film and check out the book.

Support a boatbuilder and rower’s quest to defeat autism

As a father of a child afflicted with autism and as a avid supporter of boatbuilding and boat adventures I was in love with news in Chesapeake Light Craft’s e-newsletter today of a great new voyage. Neil Calore is a Philadelphia firefighter who built a CLC Northeaster Dory as part of a CLC class last year. He is planning to row and sail it from here in Washington, DC to New York City, a distance of 425 miles. His effort will be a fundraiser for Autism Speaks, a leading autism research and advocacy organization. I don’t know Neil, but I love everything about this project and I hope you will join me in supporting this voyage.

Update: Neil has a blog on the voyage we need to follow.

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.

Kayaking tragedy in the Congo Basin

I just saw this story on the AP wires: Kayakers recount deadly crocodile attack in Congo. Yowza.

The boaters – two Americans and a South African – traveled some 1,000 miles of river this way, through some of the densest concentrations of man-killing wildlife in the world. They were on a quiet stretch of the Lukuga River in Congo, paddling just 4 or 5 feet apart, when a crocodile slipped up from behind and ripped trip leader Hendri Coetzee from his red plastic boat.

This crew certainly knew what they were doing and what the risks were, but this is why nature must be respected.

Trans-Pacific in a strip-built kayak


I found this piece from several months back (via My WoodenBoat of the Week) about a couple paddling from Phuket, Thailand to San Francisco via the Bering Sea. I concur with one other reader that it is a nicely-built Nick Shade design. Anyone heard tell of this voyage?

Sad loss: RIP Mau Piailug

I don’t generally go to the Washington Post’s obituaries section to find blog post ideas, but lo and behold I was struck the other day to read about the life of Mau Piailug of Satawal in Micronesia. Mr. Piailug was one of the last master navigators of the Pacific, knowledgeable of the art of wayfaring using only the environment. He became a teacher of his craft and successfully returned it to a proper level of respect. The piece, by Emma Brown, says it best:

In 1976, Mr. Piailug made international headlines when — using nothing but nature’s clues and the lessons he’d learned from his grandfather, a master navigator schooled in traditional Micronesian wayfaring — he steered a traditional sailing canoe more than 3,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti… Many scientists had believed that Polynesians, unable to navigate across vast seas, had arrived on various islands by accident when their boats had floated off course. Mr. Piailug’s feat showed instead that indigenous peoples could indeed have deliberately explored and colonized Pacific islands… the journey also showed the world that traditional navigation was rooted in profound skill. Among Pacific peoples, who were fast becoming westernized, it led to a resurgence of cultural pride and a renewed interest in ancient wayfaring skills.

Here’s hoping we captured all his knowledge to preserve these amazing skills.