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?)
The 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.