The Brendan Voyage, Tim Severin

I’m not a nautical person; and I had worries early on in this book that it would be too technical, and too boring for me. I was very wrong. Severin’s attempt to prove that Irish monk Brendan could have crossed the Atlantic in the 6th Century in what amounts to little more than a leather dinghy becomes a gripping and persuasive tale.

There is a lot of information early on about the authenticity of the boat construction, but it’s worth persevering with this because only then will the reader truly appreciate what follows. The minutiae of leather tanning and wood bending is made interesting through Severin’s appreciation of the craftsmen who help him. Each part of the boat has characters attached, and by the time the boat is ready to set sail, the reader is left in no doubt that this is a project smothered with the love of those who worked on it.

That the work was done in Ireland was essential for the sentiment of the trip (and the practicalities), but also perhaps for the lack of fuss that accompanied any requests. As Severin notes:

“Only in Ireland was it possible to stroll into the local boatyard, spread out a drawing, and casually ask, ‘I wonder if you could help build this for me? It’s a sixth-century design, and I’ll be covering the hull with oxhides myself, but I want an expert to build the wooden frame.’ The boatyard manager’s eyebrows rose a quarter of an inch. He took two slow puffs on his pipe, and then he murmured, ‘That shouldn’t be any trouble. I’ll check with our head shipwright if he’s got space.'”

Once the voyage itself starts Severin does a good job of keeping the narrative lively, thanks again to a colourful cast of characters — mostly his fellow crew. I won’t spoil the read by revealing too much about what happens, but suffice to say that there are mishaps, strokes of amazing good fortune and a lot of seabirds for company. If possible, try and get hold of an edition with some colour photographs — it gives you a good idea of quite what a mad escapade this seemed to be.

Overall verdict: Surprisingly interesting, and very well written.
Arrow Books, 1978

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