The Brendan Voyage
Tim Severin (Hutchinson, 1978 )
292 p. First reading.
The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis is a medieval tale of the life and sailing adventures of St. Brendan and his companions. It tells of his quest to reach the Land of Delight, a paradise to be found far over the western sea. Brendan was but one of the Irish priest-sailors who navigated the north Atlantic in the sixth-century, and evidence of their habitations, in the form of churches, monastic buildings, and domestic artifacts, have been found in western Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. People had long speculated that Brendan’s Land of Delight, which he did reach after long effort, may in fact have been the east coast of North America. If true, it would make him — or one of his contemporaries — the first European to reach these shores, and that several hundred years before the Vikings landed. Textual evidence from the Navigatio is inconclusive, and skeptics had long argued that the Atlantic crossing would have been impossible using the boats available at the time. Tim Severin set out to test that claim by building an early medieval boat and attempting to sail it from Ireland to Newfoundland.
Early medieval boats in Ireland, called curraghs, were relatively small (30 foot), low-lying vessels constructed from light Irish wood and covered with a hull of animal hide. Severin worked with boat builders in Ireland to design and construct the frame, and talented leather-workers to select and prepare the skins. Their boat, christened Brendan, was constructed without using any metal, for they were committed to building it entirely with materials available in Brendan’s time. The frame itself was held together with hundreds of leather thongs, and the hull consisted of 49 oak-tanned ox-hides stitched together with leather thread.
It is one thing to build an experimental vessel as an historical curiosity, and another to entrust your personal safety to it, but having built Brendan, Severin brought on a small crew of four and, after some preliminary testing, they raised their sails and set out. Sailing up the Irish coast, they soon reached Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, where Brendan himself is known to have visited St. Columba at the famous Iona Abbey. Severin was an experienced sailor, and he vividly conveys his delight at Brendan‘s sea-worthiness. He describes, for instance, how the hull would flex to adjust to the waves, giving them the feeling of riding inside a living thing. They sailed up the west coast of Scotland and made landfall at the Faroe Islands after about a week on the open seas. The next stage of the journey took them to Iceland after a journey of about ten days. Poor weather prevented their sailing any further that summer, so they docked Brendan and returned the following spring to continue. They set out from Iceland, and seven weeks later landed at Peckford Island, Newfoundland. It was an arduous journey: frigid temperatures, fog, storms that swept great waves over the boat, ice chunks swept off the Greenland ice-shelf and strewn in their path, one of which punctured the hull and required a daring on-board repair job. But in the end they did reach the end of their remarkable journey, thus demonstrating that the idea of St. Brendan having reached North America cannot be dismissed on the grounds of its having been impossible.
Along the way, Severin enjoys speculating about how aspects of their journey may be reflected in the text of the Navigatio. It describes, for instance, Brendan and his companions visiting the Isle of the Birds, and Severin notes that one of the Faroe Islands is a major nesting-ground for northern birds. They witnessed huge flocks filling the sky as they launched themselves from sheer cliffs. The Navigatio also relates how, as Brendan’s boat neared the Isle of the Blacksmiths, the sea began to bubble and hot rocks were hurled at their vessel such that the sea around them steamed. It sounds fanciful, but Severin reminds the reader that Iceland is a volcanic island, and in 1963 an undersea volcanic eruption in the region produed conditions very much like those described in the story, suggesting that the episode may reflect memory of a real event, albeit one embellished for narrative effectiveness. Similarly, no-one who reads the Navigatio can forget the delightful relationship between Brendan and Jask, the whale, whom Brendan’s crew at first mistake for an island. To their astonishment, Brendan‘s crew discovered that whales found their little vessel fascinating, and they were frequently accompanied by one, and at times by up to one hundred, whales, far more than is typical with modern sailboats. On one occasion they were even scouted by a killer whale. They breathed a sigh of relief as it departed, for who could be sure it would not mistake their animal-hide boat for an actual animal?
It’s a terrific story, and a terrific book. Maybe it’s because I’ve been living for too long in a comfortable, carpeted, air-conditioned apartment block, but I had been lusting of late after a bracing true story of daring adventure and danger, of man against the elements. I found it here, with the added bonus of an absorbing historical connection to St. Brendan, whose story has long been a favourite. The book contains a generous number of full-color photographs taken during the voyage — though I wish there had been even more. Some of them are truly spectacular, and they make an already good book better. Highly recommended.