The brendan voyage, p.1

The Brendan Voyage, page 1


The Brendan Voyage

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The Brendan Voyage


  Farthest North

  by Fridtjof Nansen

  La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West

  by Francis Parkman

  The Last Place on Earth

  by Roland Huntford

  Starlight and Storm

  by Gaston Rébuffat

  Weird and Tragic Shores

  by Chauncey Loomis


  Tim Severin, explorer/traveller, author, filmmaker, and lecturer, made his first expedition by motorcycle along the route of Marco Polo while still a student at Oxford. In addition to sailing a leather boat across the Atlantic in the wake of St. Brendan the Navigator, he has captained an Arab sailing ship from Muscat to China to investigate the legends of Sinbad the Sailor; steered a replica of a Bronze Age galley to seek the landfalls of Jason and the Argonauts and of Ulysses; traveled on horseback with nomads of Mongolia in search of the heritage of Genghis Khan; sailed the Pacific on a bamboo raft to test the theory that ancient Chinese mariners could have reached the Americas; and retraced the journeys of Alfred Russell Wallace, Victorian pioneer naturalist, through the Spice Islands of Indonesia using a nineteenth-century prahu. His most recent quest, “In Search of Moby Dick,” seeks the great white whale of Melville’s famous novel among the islands of the Pacific.

  For his many books, he has received the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, The Book of the Sea Award, a Christopher Prize, and the literary medal of the Academie de la Marine. Additionally, Severin holds the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 1996 he was conferred with the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, by Trinity College, Dublin.


  Jon Krakauer

  Why should we be interested in the jottings of explorers and adventurers? This question was first posed to me twenty-four years ago by a skeptical dean of Hampshire College upon receipt of my proposal for a senior thesis with the dubious title “Tombstones and the Moose’s Tooth: Two Expeditions and Some Meandering Thoughts on Climbing Mountains.” I couldn’t really blame the guardians of the school’s academic standards for thinking I was trying to bamboozle them, but in fact I wasn’t. Hoping to convince Dean Turlington of my scholarly intent, I brandished an excerpt from The Adventurer, by Paul Zweig:

  The oldest, most widespread stories in the world are adventure stories, about human heroes who venture into the myth-countries at the risk of their lives, and bring back tales of the world beyond men…. It could be argued … that the narrative art itself arose from the need to tell an adventure; that man risking his life in perilous encounters constitutes the original definition of what is worth talking about.

  Zweig’s eloquence carried the day, bumping me one step closer to a diploma. His words also do much to explain the profusion of titles about harrowing outdoor pursuits in bookstores these days. But even as the literature of adventure has lately enjoyed something of a popular revival, several classics of the genre have inexplicably remained out of print. The new Modern Library Exploration series is intended to rectify some of these oversights.

  The first six books we have selected to launch the series span fifteen centuries of derring-do. All are gripping reads, but they also offer a fascinating look at the shifting rationales given by explorers over the ages in response to the inevitable question: Why on earth would anyone willingly subject himself to such unthinkable hazards and hardships?

  In the sixth century, according to medieval texts, an Irish monk known as Saint Brendan the Navigator became the first European to reach North America. Legend has it that he sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland in a diminutive boat sewn from leather hides—a voyage of more than three thousand miles across some of the world’s deadliest seas, purportedly to serve God. The Brendan Voyage describes modern adventurer Tim Severin’s attempt to duplicate this incredible pilgrimage in 1976, in an exact replica of Saint Brendan’s ancient oxhide vessel—professedly to demonstrate that the monk’s journey was not apocryphal.

  La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, by the incomparable prose stylist Francis Parkman, recounts the astonishing journeys of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, as he crisscrossed the wilds of seventeenth-century America in hopes of discovering a navigable waterway to the Orient. La Salle did it, ostensibly at least, to claim new lands for King Louis XIV and to get rich. He succeeded on both counts—his explorations of the Mississippi Basin delivered the vast Louisiana Territory into the control of the French crown—but at no small personal cost. In 1687, after spending twenty of his forty-three years in the hostile wilderness of the New World, La Salle was shot in the head by mutinous members of his own party, stripped naked, and left in the woods to be eaten by scavenging animals.

  Weird and Tragic Shores, by Chauncey Loomis, is the story of Charles Francis Hall, a flamboyant Cincinnati businessman and self-styled explorer who, in 1871, endeavored to become the first person to reach the North Pole. Hall, Loomis tells us, was “impelled by a sense of personal destiny and of religious and patriotic mission,” and displayed “energy, will power, and independence remarkable even in a nineteenth-century American.” He got closer to the pole than any Westerner ever had, but perished en route under mysterious circumstances and was “buried so far north of the magnetic pole that the needle of a compass put on his grave points southwest.” In 1968 Loomis journeyed to this distant, frozen grave, exhumed the corpse, and performed an autopsy that cast macabre new light on how Hall came to grief.

  Farthest North is a first-person narrative by the visionary Norse explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who in 1893 set sail from Norway for the North Pole with a crew of twelve in a wooden ship christened the Fram, hoping to succeed where Hall and so many others had failed. Nansen’s brilliant plan, derided as crazy by most of his peers, was to allow the Fram to become frozen into the treacherous pack ice of the Arctic Ocean, and then let prevailing currents carry the icebound ship north across the pole. Two years into the expedition, alas, and still more than four hundred miles from his objective, Nansen realized that the drifting ice was not going to take the Fram all the way to the pole. Unfazed, he departed from the ship with a single companion and provisions for one hundred days, determined to cover the remainder of the distance by dogsled and on skis, with no prospect of reuniting with the Fram for the return journey. The going was slow, perilous, and exhausting, but they got to within 261 statute miles of the pole before giving up and beginning a desperate, yearlong trudge back to civilization.

  Unlike La Salle, Hall and Nansen couldn’t plausibly defend their passions for exploration by claiming to do it for utilitarian ends. The North Pole was an exceedingly recondite goal, a geographical abstraction surrounded by an expanse of frozen sea that was of no apparent use to anybody. Hall and Nansen most often proffered what had by then become the justification de rigueur for jaunts to the ends of the earth—almighty science—but it didn’t really wash.

  Robert Falcon Scott, Nansen’s contemporary, also relied on the rationale of science to justify his risky exploits, and it rang just as hollow. The Last Place on Earth, by English historian Roland Huntford, is the definitive, utterly riveting account of the race for South Pole, which Scott lost to Nansen’s protégé, Roald Amundsen, in 1911—and which cost Scott his life as well. In death, Scott was mythologized as the preeminent tragic hero in the history of the British Empire, but Huntford’s book—lauded by The New York Times as “one of the great debunking biographies”—portrays him as an inept bungler unworthy of such deification. Huntford also reveals that while Scott was marching toward his demise in Antarctica, his wife, Kathleen, was consummating an affair with his riv
al’s mentor, Nansen, in a Berlin hotel room.

  In Starlight and Storm, the dashing French mountaineer Gaston Rébuffat recalls his ascents of the six great north faces of the Alps, including the notorious Eiger Nordwand, during the years following World War II. An incorrigible romantic, he describes his climbs in luminous, mesmerizing prose that is likely to inspire even dedicated flat-landers to pick up an ice ax and light out for the great ranges. And how does Rébuffat reconcile the sport’s matchless pleasures with its potentially lethal consequences? He resorts to bald-faced denial: “The real mountaineer,” he insists, “does not like taking risks” and shuns danger. Although he acknowledges that in certain unavoidable situations “a thrill runs through him,” he quickly (and unconvincingly) avows that it is “much too unpleasant a thrill for him to seek it out or to enjoy it.”

  If none of the extraordinary people featured in these chronicles adequately answers the nagging question—why?—perhaps it is simply because adventurers, on the whole, are congenitally averse to leading examined lives. “If you have to ask,” they like to mumble by way of dodging their inquisitors, “you just wouldn’t understand.” Rest assured, however, that the convolutions of the adventurous psyche are richly illuminated in these six compelling volumes, however enigmatic the protagonists may have remained to themselves.


  Malachy McCourt

  Actions, like water ripples, have continuous motion with varieties of consequences both good and ill. I’m sure if we knew the exact results of our doings there’d be more thinking and less doing.

  There was a bold seafarer named Niall of the Nine Hostages who roamed far and further in search of booty and bodies (live ones, that is) to sell to the folks of Ireland who needed cowherds, shepherds, and goatherds. On one of his forays abroad, probably to France, he came upon a healthy enough young fellow of fifteen years of age. He swept the lad into his craft and took him to Ireland, where he sold him to a man called Milchu who put him to work looking after the sheep in the Glens of Antrim. Patrick was the lad’s name and, lonely and miserable as the job was, he became attached to the Irish that he met on the hills and to their land. One day he persuaded another roving Hibernian to help him escape and give him passage to France, where he studied for the priesthood and later returned to convert the pagan Irish to Roman thinking, thus destroying a wonderful and rich culture. After hundreds of years of communalistic living and resisting invaders (tribes like the Firbolgs, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and the Milesians), the Irish succumbed to the sorcery of organized religion and gave up their wild roving to work the land for their new ecclesiastic masters.

  The only traveling abroad recorded after that was done by monks and other tonsured types. A hardy crowd of ascetics were these lads, well versed in the Greek classics, fluent in Latin, they knew the world was round and they navigated by sun, stars, and, that most dangerous of all sextants, the conviction in the rectitude of their beliefs and the error of all others.

  As Tim Severin writes so beautifully in the story of the Brendan voyage, the ancient pre-Patrick Irish had a vision and a fairly concrete knowledge of a Promised Land far off to the west. Some of them may have popped over there over the centuries and perhaps more of them would have if it were not for the Irish propensity toward procrastination, to wit, “When God made time he made plenty of it.”

  They would come to the Promised Land in the hundreds of thousands later, horrified by an Ireland crazed with thirst, mad with hunger, and staggering with disease. They traveled on what were known as “coffin ships,” where many of them are resting to this day beneath the merciful waters of the Atlantic. Tis said if there were a white cross on the waters for every Irish refugee who died fleeing the Great Hunger the Atlantic Ocean would look like a vast cemetery.

  But Brendan the Navigator, with faith, a flickering flame, and, tis said, a rudder that was a gift from St. Bridget, sailed those almighty seas. Hundreds of years later, Tim Severin and his fearless four replicated the journey, wherein one quarter inch of oxhide was all that was twixt them and perdition. The detailed account Severin renders in this book draws the reader into the feeling of being there, hearing the creaking of the masts on quiet nights, and the roaring of the storm on many others. The five men on the craft were never alone; they were exhausted, sunburned, windburned, and without privacy. The power of wind and water over their flimsy curragh is only mitigated by the energy of their faith, intelligence, and teamwork. At times the exhaustion is so overwhelming that the reader can barely sustain the holding and reading of the book so great is the empathy.

  To some people there is a foolhardiness to these expeditions, but the men and women, who scale the mountains, who fly the machines into the air, and go down to the sea in ships, glorify the human spirit and give praise to a God of their choosing. They add to the store of human knowledge and leave us proud.

  Having faced the perils of rubber rafting on the six-inch whitewater on the Delaware River and heroically guided a rowboat on Central Park’s lake in New York City, I can hardly write with authority on crossing the Atlantic, the ocean that vanquished the unsinkable Titanic, in an oxhide boat. To read of human beings at one with God, arcing the centuries, reverently utilizing that which nature provides leaves one agape at the magnificent simplicity of this wondrous and wonderful odyssey. I read The Brendan Voyage and am left with the absolute conviction and inspiration that all things are possible. What man has done, man can do and I, too, can sail the ship of my visions. Get aboard the Brendan, fasten your lifelines for the waves are deep, the waves are high, but there’s the Promised Land.


  MALACHY MCCOURT is the author of the memoir, A Monk Swimming.


  Introduction to the Modern Library Exploration Series

  by Jon Krakauer

  Introduction by Malachy McCourt


  1. STORM













  Appendix I The Navigatio

  Appendix II The Navigatio and Brendan

  Appendix III Brendan


  When Brendan set sail from Ireland, the enthusiasm and kindness of many people had already turned an idea into reality. By the time Brendan reached the New World, that circle of friends and supporters had grown even larger. So one of the most gratifying results of Brendan’s Atlantic achievement is that her success can be offered as a partial repayment to those people who did so much for her and the project as a whole. Several of the leading personalities will be met in the text of this book and the appendices. Others deserve special mention: In particular there were my literary agents Julian Bach, Anthony Sheil, and Gill Coleridge, who appreciated at the very start the importance and potential of the project and labored on its behalf. They in turn introduced me to the two leading editors, Bruce Lee in New York and Harold Harris in London, whose steady encouragement was the motive power to keep the project moving in the right direction through troughs as well as peaks. In Iceland Hjalmar Bardarson was always working behind the scenes and always seemed to be able to smooth our path; while the very efficient Arnor Valgeirsson made sure that Brendan received her supplies. Johann Sigurdsson and Icelandic Airlines held open one avenue of transport, while the Icelandic Steamship Company was equally generous with another. Finally in Iceland the British Ambassador there, Sir Kenneth East, was a most generous and thoughtful host.

  It is interesting that before Brendan had covered a single yard of her Atlantic crossing, the project itself was half over. Her departure from Brandon Creek was the halfway point in the time span of the venture. Thus many of the firms whose names follow had helped
Brendan long before she came to any public notice, and even longer before there was any chance to recognize their involvement. Often the help was the result of personal decisions made by individuals within the firms concerned, and although these individuals have not been listed person by person they themselves will know who they are. To all of them I should like to say—thank you:

  B & I Line and Blue Peter Shipping (St. Johns) for transport; Brookes & Gatehouse, Lucas Marine, Flint & Brown, Incastec, Royada, John Gannon, Wiggins Teape, Earnshaw Ltd., Rolex, Ronson, Taylors Para-Fin, Morelands and Mallory Batteries for chandlery and equipment; Dr. David Ryder and Bandon Medical Hall for medical advice and equipment; Irish Distillers, Jordan Mills, Glynn Christian, Guinness, Rieber & Son, and Tiedemanns Tobaksfabrik for stores; Henri-Lloyd, Helly Hanson and Underwater Instrumentation for clothing; Bord Failte, Lloyds Intelligence Unit, Meteorological Office at Bracknell, U.S. Parks Service at Charleston Navy Yard, M. J. Higgins, Gomshall Tanneries, Emerald Star Lines, and Tanners Council of America for a great variety of vital services.

  A glance at this roster of the Friends of Brendan shows just how complex and diverse a project like the Brendan Voyage can become. While in one sense it may be exhilarating to tackle new and bizarre problems day after day (where, for example, does one find a horse-collar-maker’s palm on twenty-four hours’ notice?), the office work can be a nightmare. Throughout, there was just one desk for the whole unlikely system; and there, keeping track of the enterprise, was the poised figure of Brigid Aglen who, working only part time, was utterly indispensable. To her and all the others I hope that this account of the Brendan Voyage is a worthwhile record.

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