Atlantic Navigators: The Brendan Voyage
- Extra Reading
A first-hand account of a harrowing voyage from the south-west coast of Ireland across the North Atlantic in a small open boat skinned with ox hides.
Tim Severin and his companions set out to test whether the legendary voyage of the 6th century Irish monk, St Brendan, was based on the real life adventures of early medieval seafarers. For more information on Tim Severin visit his website www.timseverin.net
Next lecture in the series is The Mariners' Instruments
ATLANTIC NAVIGATORS: THE BRENDAN VOYAGE
Thank you for coming along to listen to me today. What I’m going to talk to you about is a voyage that I made in 1976/1977. It took two sailing seasons. It wasn’t intended that way; the idea was actually to do it in a single season. It was the first of my major projects, and it was to test whether the story of St Brendan, which was hugely well known during the later Middle Ages, could have been true. The story was called theNavigatio. It was about the voyage of St Brendan, who sets out with a party of monks in a boat made of leather, and has various adventures on the way, stops at various islands, and reaches a great land far in the West. Some people of course have said that he reached North America. Well, I made the voyage really to test whether that was physically possible. When I say that it was very well known, it was well known to the extent that Columbus, when he was half way across, actually stopped his little flotilla of three vessels and said, “This is about the area where we should find the islands which St Brendan visited.” Columbus believed in the story and the islands were marked on the map. So I made the Brendan voyage to see if this could have been possible, and researched the sort of vessel that might have been made. What I’m going to do is I’m going to run the documentary film of that voyage, and during this, I’m going to stop it and comment and so forth on how it’s going.
A hundred miles out in the North Atlantic, a small open boat runs for her life before a force nine gale, a boat from another century, a boat made of leather. On board, five men risk cold, discomfort and their lives. Their purpose? To pursue a legend.
I wanted to follow the route from Ireland, round the Hebrides, the Faroes, to Iceland, to North America. The reason for that was that Brendan had many adventures on the way. He stops at different islands, they land on the back of a whale, they have all sorts of episodes which seem to be utterly fantastic. There had been previous attempts to replicate a Brendan voyage, but by going southward, which is the downhill, easy route, from the west of Ireland down to the West Indies, which is the route that small boats can make with the greatest of ease. I wanted to go the difficult way, and the first thing to do was to try and make it accurate.
…past many other islands to a vast land far across the sea. Could he have reached America 900 years before Columbus? To test this theory, in a replica of his boat, was the object of the Brendan voyage. The early Christian Irish were famous as –
Now, I live in County Cork, in South-West Ireland, and it’s very unusual to have pictures of early boats. I have a picture of one called the Bantry Stone. This was carved we think about 700 or 800AD, and it shows four men rowing in a sort of a funny banana-shaped thing, with the fifth man, who sits in the stern, with a steering paddle. Over the top of the steering paddle is a cross. We think that might have symbolised the hand of God guides the navigators. This would have been carved, almost certainly, by Irish monks, and it is, as I say, really unusual to have pictures of early boats. That was one of the guidelines I used. Another guideline would be the type of boat, which is a descendent boat. So there’s the ethnography and also the historical evidence. Now, the ethnography is really this: it’s the descendent boat, which is the currach. This is a Dingle currach, and it’s rowed again, in this case by four men. There’s no steersman.
Both currach and carving point to the shape of St Brendan’s boat, but the legend said it was skinned with hide, weak stuff to face an ocean. Yet testing –
Now, this was a very important part. The whole idea was to get the materials testing done properly. I had an enormous amount of help from the British leather industry. They had a research organisation and they tested the different types of leather. It was quite easy for me to know what sort of leather would have skinned St Brendan’s boat. The story of St Brendan says he skins the boat with hides tanned in oak bark. Interestingly, the early scholars never translated the Latin correctly. When the word “oak” came in, they thought it was something to do with oak being used for the structure of the boat, but actually what the Latin text says is that this is oak bark tanned leather. Oak bark tanning was the type of tannage that was used at the time. We knew that because in the museums of Ireland you find bible satchels contemporary with St Brendan, leather satchels, a bit like briefcases, made by the monks to carry their most precious belongings, the holy texts. That told us the type of leather, the thickness of the leather, and it also told us what they used for stitching. They used flax. That even told us the type of stitching. It was amazing to have physical evidence of really what their technology was like. So the tests showed that the leather made in St Brendan’s day, provided it was soaked in grease, was going to stand up to the ocean better than many modern tannages.
There was one place that still made oak bark leather. Actually, there were two, but this was the key one. It was a firm called Josiah Crogan in Cornwall, and they still made leather with oak bark tannage.
For their boats, the Irish wrote how they then dressed their leather with grease, but they did omit one detail. Greased ox hides stink.
The Crogan family were absolutely extraordinary. I asked them to obtain hides from small cattle because cattle were obviously smaller in the early Middle Ages. It took months and months to tan the leather in the correct way, and throughout the process, we tried to be exact with the technology. The curious thing was that as the voyage unfolded, it turned out that what we were depending upon was the accuracy of our materials, and that the earlier materials were exactly what we needed for the project.
So we had the ox hides, and we tested the boat on the River Shannon. Although it had taken about four years to prepare all this, as usual, everything was a bit of a rush.
Now, even the timber had to be right. We knew that there was oak growing in Ireland at the time, but the most suitable timber for the curved ribs of the boat was ash. It is the flexible timber, and again, I went to the experts. This is another of the skilled people without whom this would not have been possible. It’s a man called Paddy Glennan in County Longford, a timber trading family, and I went out with him to cut down the ash trees. He’s just marvellous! He tells me what part of the ash tree I should use.
To build his replica of St Brendan’s boat for the modern voice, historian and explorer Tim Severin had devoted several years to a close study of the early Irish, their voyages, boats and building materials.
Paddy Glennan: What you want, especially for masts, you want something that will be very subtle. This is what you want. The north side of it, the rings are a little bit narrower. They’re closer together here than they are on the south side, the sunny side, so for any of the better quality pieces, we will try and take the north side.
Paddy Glennan said,…It’s from the north side of the ash tree that we cut the hurly sticks.” He said if you want really good hurly sticks for playing hurly, they must be carved from the north facing timber of an ash tree. It’s the sort of information which made this whole project, as it turned out to be, the success that it was.
So timber, flax, which came from the linen people up in the North of Ireland, we assembled them all down near where I live in County Cork, and we made out the shape of the boat. The naval architect involved was a man called Colin Moody, who is the real guru of replica vessels today. You’ll be familiar with other of his vessels, like the vessel that went to Canada; he does a lot of sail training ships. Colin did the designs. He has this wonderful phrase: he said he can do all the technical aspects, but what is important is, he said, is listen to the craftsmen. In County Cork, we began to assemble, if you like, or make our vessel.
Oak dunnels, like the rib cage of a stranded whale. The loose frame would be lashed together with leather thongs. Here, George Molony joined the project, Tim’s first choice for crew, as sailing master.
The job was back-breaking. Day after day, they crouched inside the wooden skeleton, poking and groping for slippery strips of leather, then heaving the knots tight until their muscles ached. Two miles of leather secured the frame, with 1,600 knots.
The ultimate key person in the construction of this vessel was: John O’Connell, harness maker. Now, as I said, we had bible satchels, we saw how the monks used to stitch leather. They were highly skilled. I needed to find somebody who knew how to work leather, very thick leather. I went round saddlers and so forth, and they said it’s not a saddler’s job, it’s a harness maker’s job. Harness makers are very few and far between.
I was watching television, and Roy Strong was talking about coronations and so forth – he’s got a book on that – and they showed the coronation coach. The man who refurbished the straps and the leather harness for the coronation coach was this man, John O’Connell. As I went round trying to find a harness maker I went to the royal saddlers here and I went to saddlers in Ireland, and they said, “No, no, no, you must find a harness maker,” and people referred to John O’Connell. They said he comes from Ireland, but he’s left the trade, and we don’t know where to find him. I hunted around, and I couldn’t find anybody, and I actually had started the construction of the boat in Crosshaven in County Cork, and I still didn’t have someone to show us how to sew the leather.
I heard of a saddler, a retired saddler, in Cork city. I went to his place, tracked him down, and he came to the door. He was obviously well past doing any sort of work of that type. Just at the end, I said, “Have you ever heard of John O’Connell?” He said, “Yes, he’s living up on the housing estate over in Bishopstown.” So I went up to Bishopstown, and there was a modern housing estate. I stopped somebody there, and I said, “Do you know John O’Connell?” They said, “Ah, we’ve got several O’Connells here.” I said, “Well, this’ll be fellow with huge arms.” “That’ll be John at Number 8.” I went there, and John came down. John is now deceased, but his knowledge of leather working was absolutely unsurpassed.
To stitch the outer side of hide, they used threads of hand-rolled flax, another raw material from St Brendan’s day. To show them how came John O’Connell, harness maker. O’Connell also oversaw the cutting of the 49 ox hides needed, fitting them neatly round the contours of the wooden frame.
John O’Connell: …have to straighten that right up to nothing there. The next hide will come over in line with this, towards the stitching here…
And that gives a double stitch.
He was absolutely extraordinary! John oversaw what we were doing, he showed us how to do it. The difficult bits, he would do himself, and if anything was wrong, he would say “Rip it!” We could work for a whole day, and he’d come with a little half-moon knife, and he would just slash all the stitches and say, “Not good enough! You’re going to depend upon it.” He was quite extraordinary.
We worked throughout the winter. The last thing we did was we spread wool grease on the hull. The leather itself had been soaked, had been impregnated with wool grease, and we had the boat ready – it took us about four to five months to actually build her, and in a bitterly cold January day, she was ready to be launched at Crosshaven. To launch such a vessel, we had the Bishop of Kerry. We launched her. She’d never been out to sea before – we took her up to the place where traditionally St Brendan started from, on the coast of Kerry.
We went to the creek from which Brendan is alleged to have set out with his party of monks. I had a crew for this, very typical West Kerry people. We had as our sail mark the Irish cross, on yellow canvas oilskin, so that if people were looking for us from the air, we would be visible.
We had no escort vessel. We were filmed from a fishing boat nearby. The vessel, which is 36 feet long and has just got 18 inches in the water, easily rolls on top of the waves. I have to say, we were pretty scared starting out. Absolutely no keel underneath her – sort of like a leather banana. We ran immediately into heavy weather.
Brendan was put to the test, and was hit by gales. Now, five men’s lives depended on her sound construction and their own endurance.
At the time, this seemed to be very poor luck for us, but as it turned out, it was the right thing to have happened, because we ran into a gale on the first night, which blew us way out to sea. It scared us, but it showed that the boat could survive the gale. We were blown back to the land, and we’d learned our lessons. In those days, if you had stuff which was rubbish, you tended to throw it overboard. I had made a mistake. I had thought that the food we should take would be the sort of food that mountaineers would use. Our plastic bag split, the sea water came in, and all that lovely dehydrated food re-hydrated and was completely useless. Our leather boat, the medieval boat, had held up, but our modern food had not. We had learned a few lessons about sailing on a medieval boat.
…out of sight of land until then and the first time she really went out of sight of land was as the victim of quite a strong gale. I made certain mental notes: one of the most important was never to be without the stores, and particularly the water, to face at least two weeks, because one can be driven offshore two weeks away from getting land and fresh water again, and with a medieval boat, you have to have that leeway of surviving.
The lessons were, this boat would look after us, but it was going to be cold and wet and very, very cramped. We had a little shelter, almost like a poly-tunnel that we’d rigged up.
Our clothing, incidentally, is very traditional. It’s actually woollen clothing. We found that to be the most satisfactory. We tried some of the modern materials – we weren’t trying to replicate how the monks lived. They were a lot tougher than us, and we were testing the vessel and not ourselves.
George Molony, the sailing master, was the most experienced of the sailors on board, and I’d asked him to look after the sailing of the vessel.
…climb over everything. You know, there were no gangways, nothing like that.
With cramp, came sickness, as Brendan’s supple hull flexed to the shape of each wave.
In the first couple of weeks, I was very sick because she rolls incredibly. The stink of the hides didn’t help at all.
But stomachs soon settled, and as they sailed north, the crew learned the measure of their boat’s performance. George Molony, sailing master.
GM: We were very fortunate. We had some very nice winds for the next few days when we reckoned that we were achieving a height of perhaps nine knots.
If the wind was in our favour, we could make nine knots. Now, in a modern cruising yacht, we’d be very happy with that. For those who are technically minded, Brendan could not sail upwind. She could sail across the wind, and since this series is about navigation, the simplest way of sailing a vessel like this, which doesn’t go against the wind, is when the wind’s against you, you lower the sail and you drift slowly backwards, and when the wind is sufficiently favourable, you hoist sail and you progress at about three or four times the speed that you went backwards. So eventually, you will get there. Now, this is perhaps not a modern attitude towards sailing, but it worked very well, and we really made good progress up the west coast of Scotland, and at that point, from the Hebrides, we started to head out towards the Faroes.
We were then filmed from a little rubber dingy which I subsequently obtained. We were sailing north from the Hebrides towards the Faroes. You can see our route. We’ve gone through the Hebrides, heading up to Faroes. We know that the Irish monks got to the Faroes. In fact, the place we landed is called Brendaswick, which is Brendon’s Creek, in the Faroes. In the story of St Brendan, he comes to an island called the Island of Sheep, and the Island of Sheep translated into Faroese is Faroes. It was the most dramatic of our landfalls, because the tides run through Faroes. In the very narrow channels between the islands, the tides can run at six and seven knots. It’s like a fast flowing river. We could see the clouds that built up over the land. Medieval navigation depended a huge amount upon eyesight, watching where wild birds are flying, where your sea birds are flying, looking for clouds that build up over land, and we came in to Faroes, and believe me, it was terrifying!
…failed to clear the tides, Brendan swept into Faroes at more than ten knots.
From his Island of Sheep, St Brendan said he could look across a narrow sound to an island called the Paradise of Birds. Today, the Faroes are as famous for their sheep as ever, and sea birds still nest there in vast colonies.
When we left Faroes, we had a new crew member on board who’s been on every one of my maritime expeditions since. He’s a Faroese islander called Trondur Patursson, and he showed us how to live off the sea. He’s cutting up little bits of whale blubber and throwing them into the water behind the becalmed boat. He then takes a little piece of whale blubber and he puts it on a hook, and streams the hook out behind.
…using it to bait a hook.
The sea birds’ greed was Brendan’s gain.
For those of you who are interested, the sea bird, that is fulmar. It tastes a bit like pigeon. Most sea birds, seagulls, are slightly like pigeon to taste, and they’re excellent. On subsequent voyages with Trondur, I’ve eaten gillimot. There is a famous story – Brendan lands on the back of a whale, which he mistakes to be an island. The scholars have said, “Oh, this is the story you get in Sinbad the Sailor. It’s an old chestnut of voyaging stories.” Those scholars have never been out in the North Atlantic in a skin boat which is a little bit like a whale, because guess what, the whales all come up out of curiosity and visit you, and literally, day after day after day, we were being visited by the great whales. They’d come up right alongside, and wallow there, looking at us. I think they really thought that this whale-shaped boat covered in skin with a rib inside was another sort of curious whale, and I think that the Irish did see vast numbers of whales and that this is how that story developed.
Then, as now, to a leather boat bobbing in his sea. Crouched in his tiny berth, Trondur spent every free moment sketching the daily scenes around him.
I’m happy to say that in the many years since that voyage Trondur is now perhaps Scandinavia’s most respected maritime artist. He’s really a remarkable artist.
We did have a little radio on board. It didn’t work very well. I occasionally managed to make contact, bless them, with the Icelandic Coastguard, for whom I retain to this day a very soft spot. They sent out a plane to look for us, and they spotted us. We’d come from Faroes at the rate of about 120 miles every 24 hours, which is very good going. We were having favourable winds, and that brought us to Reykjavik, where the literary sources tell us the Irish had arrived, because when the Norse came there, they said they found that the “papers”, the fathers, had been there before them.
…flocked to Reykjavik’s harbour in welcome, for a boat from their own distant past.
Rather nicely, I was up in Iceland about a year ago, and they have a national museum, which shows the Norse and the history of Iceland, and the first big photograph as you go in is the photograph of Brendan. It is really nice that it’s so recognised by them.
We took the boat out of the water. The hull had got barnacles and algae, but we scraped off the grease to check the leather, and it was really in superb condition. Nothing had deteriorated. The weather window had closed. I stayed up in Iceland, we all stayed there, for about five weeks. It was a very, very bad ice year. The ice around Greenland was very thick, it extended out a long way, it was not going to break, so I decided – I’m actually a very cautious person – to leave the boat here. After all, the Irish and St Brendan spends years on his voyage. They made stopovers. The Icelandic Coastguard put Brendan in their aircraft hanger, and we came back there the next season. But Iceland conforms to the old tale:
The Irish monks came to a slag-covered island, whose fierce inhabitants flung burning coals at them. The sea hissed, the air was filled with stench, while the island blazed like a furnace. To those in search of Brendan’s path, volcanic Iceland provides the same scenes to this day.
So we began the second sector. Trondur carried on board what we then took as food, smoked and dried meat. If that falls into the bilge and the waves come over, you can still eat it. We adapted pretty much. The more and more we experienced on our voyage, the further back we went to the technology of the time as being the most suitable for us. It was very straightforward – we just set up the H-frame and put on the steering oar. We loaded up with water, and the four of us set out.
The four were Arthur Magan, George Molony, Trondur Patursson and myself. We knew that this was going to be the real test of the boat, because we’re going out from Reykjavik, out into the Denmark Strait, heading for Greenland, which is notorious for bad weather. We had been in one storm off the Irish coast – let’s call it a heavy gale – we knew the boat would survive, but with the conditions in the Denmark Strait, it was inevitable that we were going to get really bad weather. It’s a curious feeling, very reflective…we’d committed ourselves, so there wasn’t really any turning back.
The Icelandic Coastguard said that they would come out with their patrol ships to the 200 mile limit, and they’d try and visit us from time to time, but after that, we were very much on our own. We were very conscious that our real risk was of capsize or being swamped, and in those waters, the survival time is about three minutes.
Everything was okay to begin with. We settled back down into our routine. Trondur went back to his drawing. I mentioned we had a little rubber boat at this stage. It was like a little bathtub, which allowed me to do the filming, with a clockwork camera. It was all pretty basic technology, I have to say. The whales reappeared, almost immediately, just a day out of Iceland, our companions returned, and Trondur of course goes back to feeding us.
It was only a lull before the inevitable foul weather. Nine days out, by St Brendan’s day, the weather would show a different face, as the crew huddled in mid-ship to celebrate.
Well, it’s a toast to St Brendan on St Brendan’s day – St Brendan!
At 200 miles, Brendan passed beyond the protective care of Iceland’s Coastguard patrol. Within 48 hours, the weather began to deteriorate rapidly.
The radio on board Brendan was actually powered by some little solar panels. Again, they were fairly primitive solar panels. It was a high frequency radio. We didn’t have the possibility of satellite communication, as you would use today. That solar power gave me I think 60 seconds of transmission a day. The Icelanders and the Canadians and the Danes, on the tip of Greenland, their radio operators listened out for us, but essentially, I think we made contact with shore stations only three times during the next 50 days. We were very much on our own. The weather did deteriorate, and Trondur, still kept fishing.
By May 24th, Brendan was running into gales rising to force nine. The sail was shortened to a bare minimum. The crew put on full survival kit.
The real risk on Brendan was undoubtedly capsized. There were a couple of nights when things really were very difficult. We got swamped. The first occasion, I was actually down sleeping in my sleeping bag, and there was a thump and I was floating in the water, and so was George, who was my watch companion, and you just get out and you throw the water, in the darkness, back out into the sea. But I think the worst night was the second night. It was very dark. We were streaming ropes behind us to slow the boat down. All we could do was run downwind and use a tiny sail, and let the waves come past you. That night – and the night-time was the worst part – you could hear each wave coming up behind you, and it just did sound like an express train, and it would just come out of the darkness, the whole boat would lurge and go screaming down the face of the wave, and you just had to keep the boat level and hope she neither capsized nor got swamped. I have to say that it was…an experience I think which set for all of us a level of fear. It was every 15, 17 seconds, like being almost in a car crash. The boat survived. She didn’t roll over. Then of course, we checked to see if she was falling apart, and in fact, she was fine. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the stitching. Everything was all right.
I remembered the Roman army used to hold leather shields over their heads. I rigged the leather as shields to stop the waves breaking into the vessel. Obviously you can’t film in the height of the storm. It’s far too dangerous. But Brendan did survive. Subsequently, I was told that the Icelandic Coastguard were reporting force ten in the area. I don’t think we were ever in anything as bad as that, but in a very small boat, when you get between the really big waves, the wind’s going right over the top. It’s the waves that matter, not the strength of the wind.
George repaired a sail afterwards. He was repairing away, and you heard the “whoo” – it was obviously a whale breathing out. He looks over, and there’s a sperm whale. Subsequently marine biologists, said, “Sperm whales shouldn’t be up there at that time.” I said, “We were seeing whales the whole time.” They looked at the pictures and said, “Well, that’s two large bull sperm whales,” in an area where according to the marine biologists at that time they don’t exist. However, having seen the footage they said – “Ah, well, now we know that they do swim up there.”
I tried to contact Greenland. The Danes maintain a radio station at Prince Christian Sound. I couldn’t get through. Our antenna height was too low, and we were pretty much on our own. I had been told that the ice was very bad around Greenland, so that instead of landing in Greenland, I made the decision, we’d head around Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland, and try and go direct to North America, where we were turned round by the gale. We ran into this characteristic of the North Atlantic, the heavy fog, dense fog, and it’s what St Brendan encountered.
On his journey, St Brendan was asked by one of his companions, “Do you know what this fog is?” “This fog encircles that land you’ve been seeking these seven years.” Was the fog through which the modern Brendan now sailed coincidence, or was it further proof of ancient Irish knowledge of these icy waters?
Severe weather had battered another tiny ocean traveller. One day, a small migrating bird dropped exhausted on Brendan’s deck.
Now, at this stage, we were past the tip of Greenland. We’d had no contact with the outside world. I had an emergency radio beacon, which I switched on, thinking that this might help people locate us. What happened instead, there was no response to that, and a few days later, the fog lifted, and we saw a sight that I didn’t anticipate and I didn’t like the look of, which was the edge of the Labrador pack ice to the north of us. The Labrador pack was much further south than usual, and we were sailing along its edge. The best thing about the pack ice is that you get favourable winds, from our point of view, along the ice edge. I couldn’t contact land, so I decided to sail along the ice edge and head for Newfoundland, because Labrador was impossible. We headed on, thinking that all was well. We were about four-fifths through our journey.
The crew relaxed, in anticipation of the long journey’s end. They had barely 200 miles to go.
Suddenly, in the small hours of June 18 th, came a sickening rasp that no one at first recognised. Brendan had run into ice. The very winds that swept her home had broken the pack to the north and blown it across her path.
That was the strangest thing. In the middle of the night, when you were out in the ocean, and that thin leather hull hit something. I thought of course initially it was flotsam. I can remember scrambling out in a panic, switching on the torch, and this is what we saw. In the dark, we had sailed into the pack, and we had no choice. We simply had to sail on through that. We had to wriggle our way through. There was one advantage. The pack ice muffled the waves, so we were no longer in fear – there was a very strong wind blowing – of capsize. That’s the best thing about pack ice, you don’t have these huge waves, and we pushed our way through.
Throughout the day, Brendan staggered forward through the same ice that a week before had sunk a steel icebreaker nearby, yet here was she, a medieval boat of leather.
After 14 hours, the danger seemed to be lessening, when suddenly, Brendan struck a submerged piece of ice. She gave a peculiar shudder – she was holed.
The second worst night was actually having to keep her afloat. We knew she was punctured. The best moment of the entire voyage was the next day. I had been pumping that night and there was phosphorescence in the water. I was right against the hull of the boat pumping away when I saw a flicker of phosphorescence outside and it was repeated inside the semi water logged boat and I thought to myself there must be a connection around this area. And so at dawn I crawled around the boat looking and believe me the best moment of that entire voyage, and it was not the end of it, was actually locating the puncture and realising that it was close enough to the surface, although it was underwater obviously, for someone with long arms to reach it. That person was George.
“A spare net was cut. Plunging raw hands into the frozen sea George starting stitching from the outside. If he failed Brendan was done for. Inside the hull Trondur passed the net back. Three frozen hours later Brendan was saved and water tight again”.
That pack ice had sunk an ice breaker to the north of us two days before and the fact that we were such a small boat meant we either slid up on to the pack ice or we bounced off it. When we were finally punctured it was because we had hit some very hard ice. We were able to repair the boat and again I think back to John O’Connell who showed us how to stitch leather properly. It was his knowledge that contributed to our survival. So we sailed on, the Canadian Coastguard came out to their two hundred mile limit met us with an ice breaker. We sailed onto our destination.
“And the legend had looked more like the truth with every mile. On her last morning at sea her old friends the whales surfaced alongside her in a dance of farewell”.
“In 1977 the leather boat Brendan reached the New World at 8 pm on June 26th on the shore of Peckford Island off the Newfoundland Coast ”.
“She reached the shore. She had nothing more to prove”.
The purpose was simply to show that the technology of the Irish monks was capable of reaching North America. It was a lovely moment because it was a fishing community and word had spread that we were coming to their harbour. They all came down and we were towed into a place called Musgrove Harbour on the Coast of Newfoundland and they got themselves a traffic jam on the way down to the harbour. It was lovely. The fishing people were just so enthusiastic. Many of the people that live that area are descendents of immigrants from County Waxford and they speak with Waxford accents and have the Waxford songs. We were towed in with great jubilation. We were very exhausted. We had been 50 days on Brendan since we left Reykjavik and it was a great moment although we were so tired at that stage.
“Well are you satisfied with everything you’ve done?”
“Pretty much so, I think we’re all just overwhelmed that it’s worked out so well”.
“Tell me what was the worst part of your trip?”
“I think we probably each one of us all have our worst parts but for me it was when we ran into some very heavy weather between Iceland andGreenland but really heavy weather in the Denmark stretch. We were in it for about 24 hours but we were lucky and the boat looked after us”.
“And you did strike some ice that punctured her?”
“Yes we were about 24 hours in the pack and just as we were getting out of the pack we were unlucky and got nipped. A sharp corner of what must have been some old ice punctured the hull and of course inevitably it was a gale and inevitably we had night coming on. We had a pretty dismal night pumping her out until dawn and then George and Trondur managed to get a patch stitched on her in mid ocean which you couldn’t do with anything other than a leather hull”.
“Did it leak other than that?”
“No we were actually taking less than eight gallons a day”.
“Is there any sign at all of it deteriorating after all these months?”
“Absolutely none and believe me if we had been in a wooden boat in the ice we would have just been crushed”.
“Does this satisfy you that the Christian Irish probably did come across here?”
“It satisfies me that they had the technical knowledge and the ability to get here”.
“Thank you very much and welcome again”.
So I stress we only showed that it was possible and not that it was done.
Brendan is now in a Museum in County Mayo not far from Shannon Airport, Trondur is now a well-known artist, George has been delivering yachts for years, Arthur lives in Ireland and I’ve gone on to do other expeditions, all the maritime ones with Trondur as a companion. Bringing things right up to date for you, and giving a slight plug, because I have had this experience of those waters I have actually become a historical novelist writing a series called Viking in which, should you ever read any, you will recognise these conditions.
© Tim Severin, Gresham College, 3 October 2005
This event was on Mon, 03 Oct 2005
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