At 8pm on the evening of Sunday, June 26 1977, something historic happened at Peckford Island, Newfoundland. It was there that a tiny, open wooden boat, its leather skin only a quarter of an inch thick, touched the New World. Having set sail with a five-man crew from Brandon Creek in Dingle, Co Kerry, on Monday, May 17, 1976, the Brendan — a boat built using only techniques and materials available in sixth-century Ireland — had faced an arduous 4,500-mile (7,300km) journey and its prospects of success had been dismissed as impossible by many.
Hand-crafted with traditional tools, the 36-foot (11m), two-masted boat was built of Irish oak and ash, hand-lashed together with nearly two miles of leather thong, and wrapped with a patchwork of 49 traditionally tanned ox hides. The Brendan was then sealed with wool grease.
Using the 1,200 year old Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot) as his guidebook, the British explorer and writer Tim Severin theorised that the Navigatio — which tells the story of the voyage of the Irish Saint, Brendan the Navigator (c 484 — c 577) to “the Promised Land” far across the sea to the west — might actually be based on historical fact.
The Navigatio tells of Brendan’s adventures during his seven year voyage, mentioning landmarks such as “The Island of Sheep”, “The Paradise of Birds”, “pillars of crystal” and “mountains that hurled rocks”. En route from Dingle, the Brendan visited the Hebrides, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and rounded Greenland. On its way to “the Promised Land”, the crew noted many real-life parallels to St Brendan’s tall tales.
Just over a year after the launch of Brendan, Tim Severin and his crew landed at Newfoundland and proved that Brendan the Navigator may well have reached America, 500 years before the Viking Leif Erickson and a full 900 years before Christopher Columbus.
Four decades on, Tim Severin’s bestselling book The Brendan Voyage: Across the Atlantic in a leather boat remains a fantastic read. It is a classic adventure story, a page-turner written by a born storyteller.
“It was a project which completely changed my life,” says Severin, who regularly lectures on the Brendan Voyage.
“It also changed the lives of many of those involved in the project, notably the life of Tróndur Patursson, who joined us in the Faroe Islands and is now considered one of Scandinavia’s leading maritime artists. He always refers back to his time on Brendan.”
There have been so many ripples spread out from the project, Severin says. He was deeply honoured when the Irish composer Shaun Davey, who had read Severin’s book, wrote The Brendan Voyage Suite.
Many people got involved in the Brendan project, he says and, 40 years later, their involvement still resonates. He speaks fondly of the late Paddy Glennon of Glennon Brothers, who provided the timber for Brendan, recalling that when the Brendan was built, Glennon Brothers sent a truck to take the boat on a publicity tour.
“The truck came and it had a small hoists at the back — and I’m sure this was way beyond the official capacity of the hoist — but they hoisted the leather boat on the back and took her off on display. That was the sort of enthusiasm that made it possible.”
Severin speaks of “Brendan luck”, the good fortune and eerie coincidences which blessed the project.
“Many years afterward, I was driving across the bridge in Cork by the Cork Harbour Commissioners building and I looked to my right and there, looming over the bridge, was the bow of a Canadian Coast Guard ship, the John Cabot. That gave me a real surge of emotion, because it was the John Cabot which came out from Newfoundland to greet us at the end of our voyage. And there it was moored in Cork Harbour! That was really quite something.”
Brendan became a kind of calling card for Severin, he says. “Because of Brendan, I was able to do a number of other projects of similar kind, mainly investigating legendary voyages by building a ship of the time and sailing.”
In Tim Severin’s own later career, he has become a successful historical novelist and he feels that he owes much to Brendan. “My books have a strong maritime element. The first trilogy I did is called Viking and I send our hero on a boat journey which essentially replicates the journey from Iceland to Newfoundland.”
The Brendan now resides at Craggaunowen, Co Clare. Tim Severin ended his interview with the Irish Examiner to head back to a ship-board lecture tour, sailing from Cobh to Donegal, up to the Hebrides and on then to the Arctic Circle.
For the youthful 76-year-old Tim Severin, the adventure continues.