Dec. 28/2020: I am sure I wasn’t the only one who noted with raised eyebrows that Tim Severin, aged 80, passed away in Ireland earlier this month. When I was much younger, I was fairly blown away by his first successful book and the great adventure that made him famous. The Brendan Voyage, first published in 1978, tells of how Severin built a historically accurate 36-foot leather currach and sailed it with three other men from southwestern Ireland via the Scottish Hebrides, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland on to Newfoundland. The point being to prove that it was entirely possible that the legendary St. Brendan the Navigator had 1,500 years earlier discovered North America in just such a vessel.
Severin’s currach was not a craft to inspire much confidence by modern bluewater sailing standards. It had a wooden frame lashed together with nearly two miles of leather thong and was skinned over with 49 ox hides sewn together. The leather hull was sealed up watertight with a thick slathering of wool grease. Severin sailed this unlikely contraption 4,500 miles between May 1976 and June 1977 and had some close calls along the way. He and his crew were swamped and nearly sank east of Greenland and later the boat’s hull was punctured by ice.
Severin’s currach underway
After the huge success of the Brendan voyage Severin went on to recreate and write about other mythical voyages made by Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Ulysses, and even Capt. Ahab. Usually there was a good bit of filmmaking involved. I never read any of these later books, as to me they always smelled a bit like exploitative sequels.
I was also very pleased to find the following remembrance in my e-mail box. This was written by Clare Allcard, who with her husband Edward spent a number of years roaming the planet in an old 69-foot trading ketch named Johanne Regina. A good part of these adventures are recounted in Clare’s excellent memoir, A Gypsy Life, which I heartily recommend. The following, however, is a more recently written note on what happened when Clare and Edward encountered–and indeed rescued–Tim Severin during his Sinbad voyage (1980-81), in which he sailed a traditional 87-foot Arab dhow named Sohar from Oman to China.
Tim Severin and the Sinbad Voyage, by Clare Allcard
Tim was still an Oxford undergraduate studying geography and history when, in 1961, he and some friends set off on motorbikes to follow the route taken by Marco Polo, a trip which resulted in his first book, Tracking Marco Polo. By 1967 Severin was ready for his next adventure. Recounted in The Brendan Voyage, Tim retraced the 6th century voyage of St. Brendan as described in a medieval text. Was it really possible for the Irish monk to have crossed the Atlantic in an open leather curragh thus becoming the first European to discover the Americas, a thousand years before Columbus? Well, with exemplary attention to research and detail, Tim and his crew managed it, so why not the monk?
I next came across Severin on a publicity flyer handed to me dockside in Galle Harbour, Sri Lanka, where we were moored in 1981. A very persuasive man, this time Tim had convinced His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman to construct for him a magnificent replica of a 10th century, traditional Arab dhow in which he hoped to prove that Sinbad the Sailor could have sailed from Oman, right across the Indian Ocean, to the city of Canton on the shores of the South China Sea.
This vessel was some 26 meters on deck and built of wood specially selected from India’s Malabar coast. No nails were used. Rather the planks were all sewn together by hand following the ancient Arab tradition using some 650 kilometers of coconut coir string while thick leather and rope straps held on the heavy rudder.
Edward, ashore in Galle, was making an international phone call when I dropped the pamphlet on the desk before him. He picked it up, gave it one quick glance and, covering the telephone mouthpiece with his hand, said, “He’s got the winds wrong!” And he had.
According to the pilot book, the favourable Asia-bound southwest monsoon wasn’t due until mid-April. Yet in the flyer, Tim had Sohar leaving Galle in February. Edward warned the crew that if they left in February, they would end up in Africa not Asia. They left in February. And spent some six weeks being pushed towards Africa meanwhile eating and drinking their way through their precious stores. On 5th April the first whispers of the southwest monsoon arrived, eventually carrying Sohar and her crew to Indonesia, 56 days after they left Galle. In his book, The Sinbad Voyage, Tim wrote, “The southwest monsoon was late, disastrously late.” It wasn’t.
Waiting until the full change of wind, we left on 11th April, in our similar-sized Danish sailing cargo boat, Johanne Regina, and arrived off Indonesia just 16 days later, one day after Sohar herself. At least we arrived. They didn’t. Failing to allow for the famously strong northbound current, Sohar was whisked past Sumatra and northeast towards Thailand.
Ashore, in the port of Sabang off the northern tip of Sumatra, we found Tom Vosmer, the Sinbad Expedition’s good-natured American radio operator and organiser. He had flown in from Sri Lanka to arrange for the Great Arrival but was now desperately trying to coordinate a Great Rescue to tow the engineless dhow back to port. He’d persuaded the captain of a Japanese fishing boat, docked alongside, to let him use his ship-to-shore radio to call Tim, but couldn’t persuade the man to dash to the rescue without an accurate knowledge of Sohar’s position. Unfortunately, navigation was not Tim’s forte. Just 36 hours out from Oman, a crew member was injured when a generator fell on his foot – not one of Sinbad’s problems. Summoning a doctor with Sohar’s radio, one was rushed out in an Omani naval launch – which spent 14 hours trying to find them. Severin was already 60 kilometers out in his estimated position. Now, as he drifted towards Thailand, he was again unsure of his exact location.
The rescue that the Japanese captain turned down, Edward seized with clear delight. What a blast! Indeed he’d predicted we’d end up rescuing them from the moment he saw their map. The only problem was, unlike the replica dhow, Johanne had no functioning ship-to-shore radio, so we had to make all preparations using the Japanese boat’s radio before we left.
Saturday, 18th April 1981. Operation Sohar began at 13.30h. The arrangement was simple. We would set out in the direction the current had probably carried them and, as soon as darkness fell, they would fire off an emergency distress flare every half hour on the dot. With a rocket capable of launching a flare up to a height of some 300 meters, at night its red flame can attract attention from 65 kilometers away. The flare then burns for 40-60 seconds as it slowly descends into the sea on its own miniature parachute. We would simply scan the horizon until we spotted one.
This time ‘we’ consisted of Edward and myself, a Dutchman, Retze, his German partner, Anke, and a beautiful French hippie lass, Claude. Loading extra fuel drums aboard, we set out in search of Sohar. Being Easter Saturday, it was the night of a magnificent full moon.
Anke and Edward loading diesel aboard Johanne in Sabang in preparation for the rescue
Imagining their frustration and resentment after 40 unnecessary days at sea, we left Edward at the helm and went below to bake chocolate cup cakes covered with chocolate butter icing and to hard-boil 20 eggs, Easter presents for when we found them. Anke, our onboard artist, delicately painted each one with a different scene. (One of Sohar’screw was to say later it was the first humanitarian gesture they had seen since leaving Galle.)
At dusk we ranged the deck and, as darkness fell, we peered intently, our eyes sweeping the horizon. And “There!”at 18.30h Retze had spotted the red flare just peaking above the horizon before vanishing into the night. Altering course, we headed for Sohar. Without radio contact, they couldn’t know that they’d been spotted so, in the end, they sent up a total of 10 distress flares while it took us five hours to hove into view.
Sohar close astern
I remember that night as one of the most splendid of my life. With very little wind, the full moon glinted off the glassy water. As we drew close, shadows of men flitted back and forth across Sohar’s moonlit deck, her huge wooden spars pointing into the sky while the dhow herself creaked and murmured as she lazily rose and fell on the inky ocean swells.
At 23.50h, Tim greeted us over his loud hailer, sending over three crew to help us with the tow, including Musalam, a highly knowledgeable and charming Omani petty officer. They had their towing system honed to perfection, but then they had had lots of experience as they had needed to be towed into several other ports along the way. A double tow line ran from either side of their bow, down through a rubber tire half way along, before arriving either side of Johanne’s stern to be made fast to our heavy iron deck bollards. (The tire was there to stop the lines snatching if we met any waves.) In just 30 minutes we were underway.
The 247-kilometer round trip to tow Sohar into Sabang
Sohar’s crew was a pleasingly diverse bunch consisting of eight Omanis: two on loan from the Sultan’s navy, two from the Marine Police, two fishermen, a professional dhow sailor and one other. They were joined by a Pakistani cook, an Indian shipwright and six Anglo-Saxons who were mainly yachting marine scientists. Lastly, there was a three-man TV crew to film the action – or at least selected parts of it.
Below decks, Severin had a spacious cabin in the stern of the ship, while the 19 crew occupied the rest of the hold. He kept his cabin locked for it was in there that he stowed the charts on which he calculated their daily position. Our loaned crew told us how, after some 50 days adrift, the yachtsmen staged a mutiny, demanding to see the chart and to know where the heck they were.
I found our return voyage fascinating as the hugely exasperated men poured out the tale of their crazy voyage. How, by the time the monsoon finally arrived, they were running low on food and water. Then a shoal of mackerel-sized fish surrounded the boat, which in turn attracted a frenzy of sharks. In ten minutes the Omanis had caught 17 sharks around 1.5m a piece. Food problem solved. And then a massive rain squall came to fill their tanks.
They also revealed to us the interesting involvement of the National Geographic in the whole venture. Various rules applied. Each crew member had had to sign an agreement that they would not talk to any journalists. Then the magazine provided unlimited film to be used by the crew but the Geographic had first rights to any resulting photos. Thus they could buy any photos they wanted to use – or destroy. For the basic ‘story’ of the voyage had been written before they ever set sail. After all, the whole point was to show that Sinbad could have made it to China.
So, for instance, Tim forbade anyone to photograph the tow and that included the onboard documentary TV team, there to create a film of the epic voyage. I, however, climbed Johanne’s 21 meter mast and took my own photos, and mine didn’t belong to the National Geographic. Quite unusual and historic photos really as a 1929 Danish Baltic trader towed a replica 10th century Arab dhow over the Indian Ocean and into a port in Indonesia. Not till the tow lines had been cast off, was the television crew allowed to start shooting again.
Sohar’s TV crew after we arrived in Port Sabang, tow rope well stowed
At 18h on 19th April we arrived back in Sabang. We had motored at full speed for 28.5 hours and towed Sohar for 17.5 hours of that on a round trip of 247 km. But, of course, that was not in the Sinbad script.
Shortly after we dropped anchor, Tim came over to thank us profusely and pay for the fuel. A good-looking man, aged around 40, he asked if there was anything more he could do for us.
Mischievously, I said that actually there was one thing. “I have some excellent shots of the tow from up the mast, but I’m sure you must have some good ones too. It would be great if you could send copies to me.” And Tim agreed… though of course no photos existed.
In his book, The Sinbad Voyage, Tim recorded the rescue succinctly in half a sentence, “Sohar came into Sabang harbour with the help of a friendly cruising yacht, the Regina Johanna (sic)…..” Thus are ‘proofs’ created.
Sohar eventually arrived in Canton to huge celebrations. I noted with interest that a number of the crew later re-joined Tim on his next adventure, The Jason Voyage – re-enacting the voyage of the Argonauts, despite their many previous grumbles. But maybe some of those had simply been triggered by being confined with 19 others in a 26 meter space for 56 days?
RIP: Timothy Severin, September 25, 1940 – December 18, 2020
[Editor’s Note: The last four photos appear courtesy of Clare Allcard]