06 August, 2008

The Brendan Voyage, by Tim Severin. Book review

Edition reviewed: Arrow, 1978. ISBN: 0-09-919460-0

On St Brendan’s Day in May 1976, Tim Severin and four companions embarked on an attempt to sail across the North Atlantic from Ireland to North America in a leather boat, recreating the (legendary?) voyage of St Brendan the Navigator. St Brendan lived during the sixth century, and is one of the most important Irish saints. The medieval text Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot) tells how St Brendan and a crew of 17 Irish monks built themselves a leather curragh and set sail west over the ocean in search of the Promised Land. After many colourful adventures and hardships, during which they encountered many strange lands and strange creatures, they arrived at their destination and then returned safely home. Tim Severin set out to test the hypothesis that this apparently fantastical journey could have been an account of a real voyage, or voyages, from Ireland to North America. Was such a journey possible with sixth-century technology? To find out, he decided to build a leather curragh using as nearly as possible the materials, designs and techniques available in St Brendan’s time, and to try the journey for himself. This book is an account of the project, from idea to completion.

Curraghs are small, narrow, keel-less boats, still in use on the west coast of Ireland (or they were at the time of the Brendan project). Now made of canvas rather than leather and called ‘canoes’, they are used for inshore fishing and to ferry cows out to offshore islands for summer grazing. Reconstructing a sixth-century ocean-going curragh required designing the boat itself, based on expertise in naval architecture and a single illustration in a medieval manuscript, then identifying and then sourcing the right kind of leather, the right kind of grease for preserving and waterproofing it, the right kind of flax thread for ropes and stitching, and the right kind of wood for the strong but flexible frame. Not to mention finding craftsmen who knew how to make and work such materials. The saga of designing and building the boat is almost as complex and fascinating as the saga of the journey itself. Very often Tim Severin found himself contacting the last firm or person still in business with the traditional skills he needed – a generation later and the knowledge might have been lost and the project not possible at all.

The ship, named Brendan (what else?) was eventually completed and set sail from Brandon Creek (Brandon is the modern Irish spelling of Brendan) in May 1976. Learning to sail a keel-less boat in the vagaries of the Atlantic weather was the first challenge – Tim Severin describes Brendan as “skidding across the waves like a tea tray”. The planned sailing route was to take them north along the west coast of Ireland, then north-west and north to thread through the Hebridean islands, north again to the Faroes, then west to Iceland, west again to Greenland, then south-west along the coast and the edge of the Arctic pack ice to Labrador and Newfoundland. This apparently roundabout route is known as the Stepping Stone Route, and has the benefit that it allows the journey to be broken up into a series of comparatively short ‘hops’ from one island to the next. As the prevailing winds in the Atlantic are west-to-east, this allows a sailing ship to wait in harbour for the occasional east-to-west weather systems that blow the right way for the journey. Several centuries after St Brendan’s time, the Norsemen used the same route in their voyages across the North Atlantic.

This is an epic journey by any standards, even more so when undertaken in a small open boat, and Tim Severin’s clear and straightforward prose style is ideally suited to telling the story. There is adventure aplenty, whether it be the thrilling and dangerous ride through the rock-strewn Mykines Sound in the Faroes in the grip of gale and tide-race, or the heart-stopping anxiety of trying to repair Brendan in the harsh Greenland Sea after the hull was holed by ice. There are also moments of serene beauty in encounters with the whales who frequently came to investigate Brendan, perhaps wondering if the leather boat was some strange relative of theirs, and in the starkly stunning volcanic landscape of Iceland, the towering sea cliffs of the Faroes, and the deadly loveliness of the pack ice.

The author’s fellow sailors are deftly characterised, from the cheerfully irrepressible Edan, nicknamed “Gannet” because he would eat anything (except, as it turned out, dried whale blubber), to the easy-going Arthur Magan and the calm, cool-headed George. Perhaps the most memorable is the Faroese fisherman Trondur, who could catch fulmars at sea as a welcome addition to the crew’s diet, harpoon a whale bigger than the boat, and fish for cod in 300 feet of water. (Who says the Norse legend of Thor fishing for the World Serpent was a myth?)

Brendan’s voyage showed that a leather curragh built with materials and technology available to St Brendan was capable of crossing the North Atlantic. Indeed, some of the early medieval technology turned out to be superior to the modern alternatives available in the 1970s. A diet of cheese, salt pork, smoked sausage, oatmeal and hazelnuts – supplemented of course by Trondur’s seabirds and cod – proved more palatable, more nutritious and better able to survive the conditions in an open boat than modern packaged and dehydrated foods. Woollen clothing kept the crew warmer than synthetic materials, with the exception of modern waterproof immersion suits (without which survival in the cold Greenland Sea would have been measured in minutes). Wood, leather and flax proved more versatile and durable than many modern materials, and could be readily modified or repaired in an emergency. Tim Severin sums up by saying, “…the modern equipment worked better until it broke, but then the traditional gear, clumsy and inefficient though it was, managed to survive the adverse conditions – and this is what mattered.”

As well as testing out the technology, the voyage also provided possible explanations for some of the apparently fantastic incidents in the Navigatio. The Island of Smiths, where one of St Brendan’s monks was killed by fiery demons, could be a description of the eruption of a submarine volcano and the volcanoes on the south coast of Iceland. The Island of Sheep is recognisable as the Faroes – the modern name is derived from the Norse Faer-Eyjaer, or “Sheep Islands” – and the pillar of floating crystal could be a stray iceberg. Even the giant fish the monks tried to land on, thinking it was an island, could be a (somewhat embellished) description of a close encounter with a whale, since whales were apparently attracted to a leather boat.

The Brendan voyage doesn’t prove that St Brendan and/or other Irish seafarers did sail to North America in the sixth century. That would require finding an inscription on the North American seaboard saying “St Brendan was here”, or words to that effect, capable of being securely dated on radiocarbon or stylistic grounds to the right period. The chances of such a discovery must be vanishingly small. But what it clearly shows is that they could have done it – and that if they did, it would have been a marvellous adventure, well worth remembering and retelling for 1500 years.

Exciting adventure, remarkable travelogue and a fascinating study of early medieval seafaring technology, all rolled into one.

Has anyone else read it?


Rick said...

Older books on the history of ships, at least, invariably describe these boats as made out of 'skin' - evoking (at least in my mind) what peels off after a sunburn, and sounding wretchedly beyond flimsy. Leather is a vastly better term - it sounds like good, sensible stuff for a lightweight boat.

So far as I'm aware, no actual evidence has surfaced for precolumbian contact, except for the Norse (and obviously the First Nations' ancestors got here). The subject attracts a great deal of folderol! But the Navigatio is intriguing; apart from the points you make, evidently it has descriptions that reasonably fit major Atlantic islands and the North American mainland.

Carla said...

Rick - Could the use of "skin" vs "leather" be referring to genuinely different materials rather than just different terminologies? "Leather" specifically means skin that has been tanned, "skin" can be a broader term referring to a wider range of treatment processes or none.

Tim Severin's book mentions in passing that the skin kayaks made by the Eskimos fall apart unless they are re-greased frequently, whereas the tanned leather they used for Brendan was much more durable; they regreased it once in two years and its properties hardly changed from beginning to end of the voyage (which raises the question of what happened to the boat afterwards? He doesn't say in the book. I wonder if some museum took it?). Anyway, that suggests to me that a skin boat is flimsier than a leather one, or at least takes more looking after.

He also says that when he initially thought of the project, nobody believed that a leather boat would even float, and indeed most types of leather they tried were hopeless. The Navigatio specified that St Brendan's boat was made of oak-bark leather and this was considered evidence that it was a fantasy. As it turned out, oak-bark leather was the only kind that worked. Possibly books written before Severin's reconstruction would have assumed that leather boats couldn't work, whereas Eskimo skin kayaks were demonstrably still in use, and used the term accordingly?

No, there's no direct evidence. I think the Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadows is fairly convincing evidence that the Norse made it to Newfoundland, although nothing has (yet) been found further south. Norse medieval texts mention that Irishmen (called "Papas") were living in Iceland when the Norse got there, but there's no mention of Irish further west except St Brendan's Navigatio. Early medieval sites leave very, very slight archaeological footprints at the best of times, so the chance of a 6th-century Irish settlement in North America leaving any definitive archaeology is slim to say the least - especially if it was occupied transiently by itinerant and ascetic monks who eschewed worldly possessions!

The Navigatio can be interpreted in lots of different ways depending on your viewpoint. If you want to see it as a medieval religious fairytale you can - they get to "The Promised Land" (which has features in common with the mythical Otherworld), they have a series of fantastical adventures with fire-throwing demons and mystical pillars of floating crystal. On the other hand, the fire-throwing demons can be seen as a flowery description of a submarine volcanic eruption, and the crystal pillar as a stray iceberg. I don't think the two views need be mutually exclusive. If Irish monks really had sailed the North Atlantic and seen natural wonders such as icebergs, volcanoes and friendly whales, and perhaps even landed on the warm and fruitful shores of New England, it would make great material to incorporate into a story about a saint's miraculous journey.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Isn't that typical - the modern material is fine until it breaks. And then starts the fun of getting replacement, having it built in, paying horrendous prices ...

The Trabant aka Trabbi, the car most used in east Germany before the reunion, could be fixed with an old stocking and some bandaid. Try that with a Mercedes. :p

Anonymous said...

This is marvellous stuff. I must find this book and devour it; thankyou for the review.

Antiquarian's Attic said...

The Brendan boat is at Craggaunowen http://www.shannonheritage.com/Attractions/Craggaunowen/TheBrendanBoat/
This is one of my favourite books, experimental archaeology and sailing combined.

Carla said...

Gabriele - the Trabi as early medieval technology :-) But I do like being able to repair things when they break down. It's a pity that so much modern gear seems to be designed to be disposable.

Tenthmedieval - it's very well worth reading. I think it's out of print, but libraries and second-hand shops (which is where my copy came from) should be able to help.

Antiquarian - Hello and welcome! Thanks very much for the link. I'm delighted that the Brendan boat is being looked after somewhere! I agree, this is a terrific book. I like it much better than his fiction.

Anonymous said...

I read this book at a very young age, at school, and not too long after it had been published. The descriptions of them at sea, and the crew's interactions with themselves and the problems they encountered left a lasting impression. I've gone back to it again and again.

I did archaeology at university and now knit obsessively, both of which could be traced back here (amongst other things).

You review it excellently - now, where did I leave it?

Anonymous said...

There are still various editions of the book available on Amazon.
I remember reading the paperback whilst sat in the sun by the bay at Bardsey Island, with the seals popping up their heads out of the water to look at me - happy memory.

Carla said...

Freyalyn - Hello and welcome! I read the book ages ago as well when I happened to come across a copy in a B&B, and more recently bought a copy secondhand. What's the knitting connection? - the Icelandic sweaters they were given by the boatyard, or something else? I knit when I can, which is not as often as I would like. Am I right in thinking that you spin your own wool? How do you do it?

Antiquarian - there seem to be quite a few copies around. I guess that means it sold well at the time. That's a lovely memory you describe, and in view of the connections between Ireland and North Wales a very apposite one!

Bernita said...

Yes, I've read it and I have it. A fascinating book.I also recommend it highly.
Of course, I delighted in the basic theory that you can't say something isn't "possible' until it's been adequately tried.
"Indeed, some of the early medieval technology turned out to be superior to the modern alternatives available in the 1970s."
And thank you, Antiquarian, for "discovery archaeology." I didn 't know that was the descriptive term for Heyerdahl and company.

Jules Frusher said...

Great review - you make me want to read it! Sounds like a fascinating adventure. I really admire those who try and recreate things, no matter what the odds.

Carla said...

Bernita - the tricky part tends to be defining "adequately", I guess.

Lady D - it's very well worth reading. A good story well told, and you'll learn an enormous amount, not only about sixth-century sailing technology. His descriptions of the pack ice and places like Iceland and the Faroes are up there with the very best of travel writing.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Great review Carla, thank you. The book is on my mental TBR. I've got a 'teaser trailer' for it as a feature an old copy of National Geographic. I must see if my library has it in stock next time around.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - It's the sort of thing I can imagine National Geographic being interested in! I think I first came across Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition in a dog-eared copy at the school library. By the way, did you know that the timber supplier who provided Tim Severin with the ash for the Brendan boat was the same firm that supplied Thor Heyerdahl with his balsa logs? Severin mentions it in the book as a complete coincidence. Small world :-)

Unknown said...

I read The Brendan Voyage and enjoyed it. I live in Connecticut (US) near a site called The Gungywamp. It boasts series of stone structures, including a stone chamber similar to some in Britain. The chamber in CT functions as a solar equinox calendar--very cool and mysterious. People who know of the place get all sorts of ideas about it, including the possibility that Celtic monks might have crossed the North Atlantic like Tim Severin and his crew did. That's what led to my interest in his experiment. There's no credible evidence the Gungywamp site was ever inhabited by Celtic monks--nothing remotely like the Norse artifacts of L'Anse aux Meadows--and the site has been disturbed too often to produce reliable evidence at this point, but it does fire the imagination. Severin's book tosses a little more combustible fuel on the fire. It got me interested to the point where I'm writing a novel about an heir to that era of adventurous Celtic monks--a survivor of the raid on Lindisfarne in 793.

I was really pleased to find your site, Carla--you've done so much research! I enjoyed reading the first pages of "Ingeld's Daughter." Very compelling. I'll look forward to reading "Paths of Exile" soon.

Carla said...

Hello Meg and welcome. That sounds a very interesting site. Is there any indication of its age? The stone chambered tombs in Britain are much earlier than the Irish monks. The Newgrange tomb with its solar solstice alignment is something like 3000 BC or even older, I think.
Good luck with your novel! You've certainly picked a dramatic period for the setting.
I'm glad you liked the first part of Ingeld's Daughter, and hope you enjoy the rest of it and Exile as well.

Unknown said...

Hi, Carla. Apparently, materials found there have been carbon-dated between 2000-770 BC... not as long ago as the Newgrange or Kilmartin, but pretty old, all the same. One theory is that the chambers may have been constructed by Algonquin Indians, but fascinating how similar the structures and their apparent purposes are on both sides of the North Atlantic!

Carla said...

Yes, isn't it? It might be convergent evolution, on the grounds that people living in temperate climates have good reason to take a close interest in the changing seasons and stone builds certain sorts of structures well, so the same sort of problem gets solved independently in the same sort of way in cultures widely separated in space and time. On the other hand, some sort of cultural contact may be an intriguing possibility. Hard to imagine anyone crossing the Atlantic in a Neolithic dugout canoe; but then it was hard to imagine anyone crossing the Atlantic in a leather boat until Tim Severin did it.