Cover Story: Hell Bent for Leather

Adventurers follow the wake of St. Brendan in a leather boat


Truth is supposedly stranger than fiction. But adventurer/historian/author Tim Severin has made a career of proving there is sometimes little difference between the two. In several nonfiction works of adventure, Severin has sought a thread of truth in the legendary and mythological. For The Sinbad Voyage, Severin captained an Arab sailing ship from Muscat to China to investigate the legends of Sinbad the Sailor. For In Search of Moby Dick: The Quest for the White Whale, he went in search of Melville's leviathan among the islands of the Pacific. And in The Brendan Voyage, originally published in 1978, but recently reprinted in paperback as part of the Modern Library Exploration series, Severin sailed from Ireland to North America in a leather boat to prove the legend of St. Brendan the Navigator and the Irish sailor saints.

According to the 7th-century Navigatio of St. Brendan, the holy man and a crew of 16 other monks set sail in search of the Promised Land of the Saints. Considering geographic clues of the text, their destination was most likely North America, which would have them landing in the New World nearly a thousand years before Columbus.

There is much in the Navigatio that is fantastic. Brendan and his crew discovered the Paradise of Birds, set up camp on a giant sea creature and came upon a fire-spewing mountain at the edge of Hell.

The voyage of Severin and his crew is decidedly less fabulous, and the writer accounts for some of the earlier crew's supernatural visions with geographical and meteorological explanations.

What is perhaps most difficult to explain is how a boat of leather, which would normally decompose quickly in salt water, survived in the Atlantic Ocean. But Severin's faith in Brendan's text lead him on a hunt for leather and wood workers with the archaic knowledge and technique to make the voyage a reality. It's uncanny the way Severin, through luck and a good deal of detective work, found just the right people at just the right time. And readers are likely to feel, as Severin does, that the Brendan voyage was less a matter of his own efforts than a matter of destiny.

As compelling as any fictional adventure tale, The Brendan Voyage opens with the leather-hulled Brendan being tossed savagely in a ferocious storm. This turbulent chapter recalls Stephen Crane's short story masterpiece, "The Open Boat," as the exhausted crew works to keep their claustrophobic sea vessel from becoming a coffin.

Over 50 days and 3,500 miles on the open sea, the Brendan faces many challenges: sub-zero conditions, jagged ice and a rip in the hull that causes the boat to take on a terrifying amount of water. But whether on land or sea The Brendan Voyage is equally fascinating.

Part journalism, part adventure story and part history, The Brendan Voyage offers the sort of exciting reading that will have you searching for the rest of Severin's mostly out-of-print titles. ©

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