Thursday, February 24, 2011

Not Quite a Book Review: The Brendan Voyage

 - for Chuck and Susan, who recommended the book, and who were and are good friends -

Back in the 70s, everybody seemed to be on a kick to explore the high seas.  Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic had captured the imagination of thousands as his first genuine bestseller.  ABC's Love Boat set sail for the first time in 1978.  And in 1976 a British writer named Tim Severin set out to explore whether the legend of the Irish monk Brendan's journey across the Atlantic in a leather boat could indeed be true.

I was first turned on to this story by an old friend who insisted I would probably get a big kick out of it.  He was right.  And lo and behold, I discovered that I had heard of the story before.

Severin's experiment had been relayed to me already, in the pages of National Geographic.  I hadn't realized what it was at the time.  All I knew was there were huge glossy photos of several bearded men crossing a tossing ocean in what appeared to be a giant coracle, a boat whose frame more closely resembled a basket than an actual boat.  As it turns out, that's about right.

According to legend, Brendan began his journey c.530AD, starting out from Ireland and following a stepping stone route that takes him to the Faroes, Iceland, and ultimately to the coast of North America.  As much as it pains me to say it, that would put a European explorer on North American soil a solid 400 years ahead of Leif Eriksson.

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated that it was possible to cover tremendous distances with Bronze Age technology, sailing over 4000 miles across the Pacific in a raft made of balsa and rope, with no metal fastenings at all.  So the exploratory, experimental side of marine archeology had already had some exposure to the public imagination.  But Severin's example was a little, well, weird.  Leather boats weren't unheard of, coracles weren't unheard of.  But to try to cross the Atlantic with one?  Well...

As it turns out, you'd have to call Brendan's vessel a currach.  Its history goes way, way back.  And the practice of sewing skins onto a basket-like frame is just as long.  If the skins do such a great job of keeping all the wet gooey parts of animals in, they should do a fine job of keeping the sea out.  That's what you'd think.  But in testing all the modern tanning methods left leather badly vulnerable to sea water, and the leather rotted away quite quickly, a matter of weeks.  The only one that worked: exactly as the legend tells, leather tanned in oak leaves.  And in full immersion or just frequent damping, the leather lasts for months.  Severin's hides were tanned in a part of Ireland that has had an oak tanning industry for hundreds - you read that right, hundreds - of years.  I guess when you find a method that works, you stick with it.

It's been a few years since I read The Brendan Voyage but that's okay, it's a story that sticks with you.  Severin's description of life aboard the Brendan is harrowing, uplifting, intriguing.  Discovering a small bird aboard ship one morning is like having a snowflake land in your eyelashes.  You can't help but pause to look at it with some wonder.  And like the snowflake's melting, the bird's absence the next day leaves you a little disheartened.

What had been merely touched on in National Geographic was really opened up in the pages of a book that had room to spread out, the entire North Atlantic to stretch out on.  Severin's journey is both a demonstration of plausibility, that the details of the legend of St. Brendan are within the bounds of what was possible, and a plumbing of his own depths, too.  He was pushed and tested, not just in his ability to research an ancient story of dubious veracity but in his own resolve.  It's a fine thing to test the materials and build the boat, to prove that the thing could have been done and might have worked.  You know you're committed when you're making hull repairs - with a sewing awl - upside down with your head underwater, hundreds of miles from land in that very same boat.

The commitment was great, and the legend has a sound basis at least as far as marine architecture goes.  Severin and his crew set foot on Newfoundland after over five months (plus a winter's break in Iceland) at sea.  St. Brendan the Navigator may have done as much.

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