Many years ago I randomly came across a book by Tim Severin – I think it was either his Jason or his Ulysses voyage. I was immediately in love: this was a man who takes a mythical journey, makes a ship according to what can be understood of the shipbuilding techniques from the time of the myth, and then sets out to recreate said journey. His point being to see what’s feasible, and to investigate to what extent aspects of the original journey can be matched up to what can be seen today (where ‘today’ is the 1970s, mostly).
Ever since that first encounter, I have sporadically checked secondhand shops to find more Tim Severin books like that first one. I’ve found a few – one of his first travelogues is following the tracks of Marco Polo by motorbike, undertaken long enough ago that he was able to get through Afghanistan but not into China. And just this year I finally came across The Brendan Voyage.
I had never heard of St Brendan and the stories about him and a few monks going to sea in a leather boat (a currach), and visiting various islands, on a voyage lasting months – in the 6th century AD. Severin does a good job of recounting the key points of the story, to give an indication of what he’s trying to emulate.
The first step must be to make the boat, and that in itself is a feat: he literally wants to go sailing in the Atlantic in a boat basically made of leather. Wooden struts, yes, but the hull just… cured leather. Before any construction, therefore, there’s research into what sort of leather and how it can work. Honestly I loved the story of the voyage, but I also really enjoyed the story of just finding the people to make the boat in the first place.
Clearly, the boat is eventually constructed, and the small crew sets out. And here I really appreciated Severin’s skill as a narrator: he doesn’t try to give a day-by-day account, when that’s not necessary. Instead, he gives a great sense of the overall vibe of the thing, and it’s genuinely gripping. After all, the boat is tiny, and we are talking the Atlantic here. As with the Jason and Ulysses stories, Severin is interested to see whether their journey can match up some of the odder, more mythical aspects of the Brendan story, and in many instances I think he makes a fair case. There is no doubt that the achievements of that little boat are remarkable – and show what could have been done by an even more experienced crew, back in the day.