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 Ashworth 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 made a spectacular journey from Ireland with a group of other monks across the Atlantic to North America – the “Promised Land” – in a boat wrapped in leather.
St. Brendan’s was a seaman who had 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 set out to build a ship – a thirty-six-foot, two-masted boat made of oak and ash, covered with a quarter-inch thick oxhide.
The boat’s small crew, named Brendan, took off from Brandon Creek on the Dingle Peninsula on Ireland’s west coast. They sailed north to the Hebrides and west to the Faroe Islands on a course to Iceland. Day after day, whales that stayed near the boat visited; Mr. Severin thought they might have mistaken the boat for another whale.
Their arrival in Reykjavik, Iceland, in August 1976 enabled them to check the Brendan’s condition. After scraping barnacles off, they found that the leather had held. Due to the pack ice on the sea, 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 get 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 so the boat sailed around her. They were soon shrouded in fog – no one responded to the boat’s distress signal – 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, Severin said, “was to show that the Irish monks’ technology was able to reach North America.” He added that he could not be certain that St. Brendan and his crew had sailed to North America, only that it could have.
Mr. Severin, who funded his adventures with book advances and other sources, recorded the journey in “The Brendan Voyage,” published in 1978.
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 northeast India, where his father Maurice Watkins ran a tea plantation and his mother Inge (Severin) Watkins was a housewife.
Tim’s wanderlust was inspired by his early years in India, where “the whole family environment consisted of living and traveling in distant, often exotic places,” he recalled in a 2015 interview on his publisher Pan Macmillan’s website. It deepened when he was at boarding school at Tonbridge, Kent, England, reading adventure books that sparked his imagination.
He took the surname Severin to honor the maternal grandmother who had looked after him in England while his parents were in India.
He holds degrees in history and geography from Oxford. In 1961, while still studying, he and two other students followed Marco Polo’s caravan route on motorcycles. They started in Venice, then traveled to the Chinese border in northwest Afghanistan, down Grand Trunk Road in India, and ended the trip in Calcutta.
The journey led to his first book “Tracking Marco Polo” (1964) and an adventurous career. 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 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 Book Review, the historian W. Jeffrey Bolster wrote: “Severin operates at the intersection of imagination, action and myth as a mature point like everyone else finds wondrous white whale. “
Mr. Severin wrote more than 20 books – reports of his travels and historical novels based on his expeditions.
“When I 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 editor’s website when his 2016 novel “The Pope’s Assassin” was published. “In contrast, writing historical fiction is a more casual, high impact process that stimulates the imagination and allows the plot to go its own way. “
On his last big trip, Mr. Severin searched for the origins of Daniel Defoe’s fictional castaway Robinson Crusoe on islands where shipwrecks had occurred. 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.
Mr. Severin’s first wife – 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 in “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.