Tim Severin, Seafarer Who Replicated Explorers’ Journeys, Dies at 80

Tim Severin, a British adventurer who meticulously mimicked the journeys of real and mythical explorers such as St. Brendan the Navigator, Sinbad the Sailor and Marco Polo for 40 years, died on December 18 at his home in West Cork, Ireland. He was 80 years old.

His daughter Ida Ashley said the cause was cancer.

In May 1976 Mr. Severin left Ireland on his boldest journey: After St. Brendan, a 6th century monk followed, who is said to have undertaken a spectacular journey from Ireland with a group of other monks across the Atlantic to the “Promised Land” in one Leather wrapped boot.

St. Brendan’s was a seaman who spread the gospel while traveling in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. If the story of his trip to America were true, he would have beaten Leif Ericson and Christopher Columbus by centuries.

After studying a travelogue – in a medieval Latin text that was written many years later with the title “Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis” or “The Journey of Saint Brendan the Abbot” – Mr. Severin put together a team of designers and craftsmen who helped him build a ship. The 36-foot two-masted oak and ash boat was covered with a quarter-inch thick oxhide.

The boat’s small crew, named Brendan, set out from Brandon Creek on the Dingle Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland. They sailed north to the Hebrides and west to the Faroe Islands on a course to Iceland. Day after day, whales visited that stayed near the boat; Mr. Severin thought they might have mistaken the boat for another whale.

Their arrival in Reykjavik in August 1976 enabled them to investigate the condition of the Brendan. After scraping barnacles off, they found that the leather had held. But because of pack ice, which would make navigation impossible, the crew encamped the Brendan and returned home to wait for better conditions.

When the crew went back on board the Brendan in the summer of 1977, they went to Greenland, where they had to cross the Denmark Strait, a dangerous canal.

“We knew that this would be the actual test of the boat,” said Severin in a 2012 lecture at Gresham College in London. “It was inevitable that we would have terrible weather in the Strait of Denmark. But we made a commitment that there was no going back. “

The Brendan survived the strait, but ice prevented landing in Greenland, and the Brendan sailed around it. But soon they were shrouded in fog – no one responded to the boat’s distress signal – and then slowed down by melting patches of ice in the Labrador Sea.

On June 26, 1977, the Brendan finally arrived on the coast of Newfoundland.

The purpose of the trip, he said, “was to show that the Irish monks’ technology was able to reach North America.” He added that he could not be sure that St. Brendan and his crew had sailed to North America, only that it could have done.

Mr. Severin, who funded his adventures with book advances and other sources, wrote The Brendan Voyage, published 1978, about the trip.

A review of the book in The Guardian called the trip “the most remarkable sea voyage since Thor Heyerdahl to prove that a balsa raft can cross the Pacific”.

Mr. Severin was born Giles Timothy Watkins on September 25, 1940 in Jorhat, Assam, in northwest India, where his father Maurice Watkins ran a tea plantation and his mother Inge (Severin) Watkins was a housewife.

Tim’s wanderlust was sparked by his early years in India – where he said in a 2015 interview on his publisher’s website: “The entire family environment consisted of living and traveling in distant, often exotic places.” And it grew up at boarding school in Tonbridge, Kent, England, where he read adventure books that fired his imagination.

He took the surname Severin to honor the maternal grandmother who looked after him in England while his parents were in India.

He holds degrees in history and geography from Oxford. While he was still studying there, he and two other students followed Marco Polo’s caravan route with motorcycles in 1961: They started in Venice, then traveled to the Chinese border in northwest Afghanistan, down the Grand Trunk Road in India and ended the trip in Calcutta.

The journey led to his first book – “Tracking Marco Polo” (1964) – and a career of adventure. In order to explore the stories of the fictional navigator Sinbad the Sailor, Mr. Severin sailed in a replica of an Arab sailing ship from Muscat in Oman to China. To follow the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, as well as that of Ulysses, he traveled in a replica of a Bronze Age galley.

His other adventures included riding with Mongolian nomads to explore the legacy of Genghis Khan. Tracing the path of the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace through the Spice Islands in a Prahu, a kind of sailing boat; and to see if there ever was a white whale like Moby Dick.

In his review of “In Search of Moby Dick” (2000) in the New York Times, W. Jeffrey Bolster wrote: “Severin operates at the intersection of imagination, action and myth and is as ripe as any other place for a miraculous White to find whale. “

He wrote more than 20 books – Reports of his travels and historical novels based on his expeditions.

“To write about my own travels, I have to be sharper, more precise and clearer to tell what happened,” he said in an interview on his publisher’s website when his 2016 novel “The Pope’s Assassin” came out. “In contrast, writing historical fiction is a more casual, impactful process that stimulates the imagination and allows the plot to go its own way.”

On his last great trip, he searched for the true origins of Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe on islands where shipwrecks occurred, as well as in Central and South America. His book “In Search of Robinson Crusoe” was published in 2003.

In addition to his daughter, his wife Dee (Pieters) Severin and two grandchildren Mr. Severin survive. His first marriage to Dorothy Sherman ended in divorce.

The first wife of Mr Severin – a specialist in medieval Spanish literature – played a role in his decision to recreate the St. Brendan’s expedition. While reading The Voyage of St. Brendan, she told Mr. Severin that the story contained far more practical details than most medieval texts.

“It tells you about the geography of the places Brendan visits,” he recalled when she told him on “The Brandon Voyage”. “It carefully describes the progress of the journey, the time and distances and so on. It seems to me that the text is less of a legend than a story that embroidered a firsthand experience. “

Mr. Severin soon created his own legendary story.

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