National Post (National Edition)
Explorer retraced historical journeys
Voyages replicated ancient methods
Tim Severin, the explorer, who has died aged 80, made his name in a highly specialized niche of travel literature: retracing epic journeys made by historical and mythological figures.
Severin's “replica journeys” included riding through Europe along the route of the first Crusade; captaining an Arab sailing ship to China to investigate the legend of Sinbad the Sailor; steering a replica Bronze Age galley to trace the Mediterranean journeys of Jason and Ulysses; crossing Mongolia on horseback after Genghis Khan; and sailing the Pacific on a bamboo raft to test the theory that Chinese mariners could have reached the west coast of America several hundred years before the birth of Christ.
His most famous expedition, and the subject of his bestseller The Brendan Voyage (1979), involved sailing a 12-metre wooden ox-hide covered currach, a traditional Irish boat, across the Atlantic in the wake of St. Brendan the Navigator, an Irish monk reputed to have discovered North America in the 6th century.
The voyage, in 1976, took Severin from Ireland to Newfoundland, via the Hebrides and Iceland, during which the boat dodged circling killer whales and was punctured by pack ice.
After several false starts, Severin did complete it. Many of the natural wonders described by St. Brendan (the “Island of Sheep,” the “Paradise of Birds,” “pillars of crystal,” “mountains that hurled rocks” at voyagers) did exist.
Interviewers expecting an explorer's rugged features were surprised by his dapper grooming, tweed jackets and cravats.
Naturally reticent, in his writing Severin tended to stick to his theme. In films, he remained behind the camera. This approach may have cost him fame, but he won a slew of awards.
Giles Timothy Severin was born Sept. 25, 1940 in India. He won a scholarship to Oxford to study geography.
His adventures began when he and some student friends (one being Stanley Johnson, father of Boris) took off on motorbikes across central Asia to trace Marco Polo's journey to Cathay.
Eventually, Severin decided to stay home, and became an author of historical novels.
He is survived by his second wife, and by a daughter from his first marriage.