May 29, 2010


Captain Retro: Is time traveler Tim Severin the greatest living explorer? Probably—but you'll never get him to admit it. (Mark Jenkins, June 2004, Outside)

AN ICY WAVE CRASHES DOWN into the open boat. The four cramped, wool-clad seamen are bailing desperately, yet faithfully as monks. Trapped in a gale, sailing west between Iceland and Greenland, they have scarcely slept in 36 hours. They're stunned by prolonged hypothermia and weak with exhaustion, and spirit alone is keeping them alive. That and the unlikely hardiness of their craft, the 36-foot Brendan, a twin-masted Irish curragh featuring the latest sixth-century design and materials. Built to flex like a sea serpent and thereby absorb an ocean flogging, the hull was hand-stitched from 49 ox hides, each a quarter-inch thick, waterproofed with wool grease, and stretched over a 36-foot rib cage of Irish white ash. Nearly two miles of leather thongs bind the traditional frame together.

Another wave curls high over the leather boat and explodes down upon the sailors, knocking them off their feet. They are knee-deep in gelid gray water, with food and clothing, skinned seagulls and whale blubber, sheepskins and oilskins—the ancient flotsam of death at sea—sloshing about them. Thick tarps, stretched gunwale to gunwale, deck three-quarters of the Brendan, but where the helmsman must stand there is a gaping hole. If it is not covered, the boat will founder in this tempest, and the ocean will summarily swallow the sailors and their dream.

The captain suddenly recalls the spare ox hides stowed aboard to patch a potential tear from icebergs. In the midst of the gale, the hides, stiff as war shields, are dragged out, perforated with a knife, and lashed together. The makeshift shell is mounted over the gap. The helmsman must now stand in a small porthole, fingers frozen stiff as wood—but the boat stops sinking.

In time, the storm, unsuccessful at killing the sailors, thunders away, and fog settles upon the cold sea. Like a ghost ship, the curragh floats onward, into the maze of icebergs off the east coast of Greenland.

ACCORDING TO LEGEND, Saint Brendan sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland 1,400 years ago, but the expedition described above took place in the late 20th century, led by a heretical explorer named Tim Severin.

"There's no question that the Brendan voyage was my most dangerous journey," says Severin, speaking so softly my tape recorder barely picks up his voice. "The margins were very slim. It set the threshold for fear. Once you've been really, really scared and then you come through and everything's fine at the end, it's very difficult to get as frightened again."

Severin and I are having lunch at the Casino House, in the quiet hills of County Cork, Ireland, Severin's home for more than 30 years. A slight 63-year-old man with blue-green eyes, a lean, handsome face, and a thin neck wrapped in a paisley cravat, Severin looks more like a distinguished British intellectual than one of the finest modern adventurers. In truth, he is both: recipient of the prestigious Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society as well as the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, author of 15 books, winner of numerous literary awards, and the only man to have built and sailed five different seagoing vessels of ancient design.

In an age when stunts of extraordinary physical skill are regularly performed with little apparent purpose beyond 15 minutes of fame—hucking 100-foot waterfalls, snowboarding Everest—and the risks transparently outweigh lasting value, Tim Severin is an adventurer cut from a different cloth.

"No one's tried another Brendan voyage, and my advice is, don't," Severin says, laughing.

The Brendan Voyage has always been a favorite and someone recently posted the RTE Television film account of the voyage online. It's great too.

Posted by at May 29, 2010 8:17 PM
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