Over 1,500 years ago, a monk from southwestern Ireland named Brendan gathered a crew of fellow Celts, boarded a small boat, and set sail from the Irish shores heading west, searching for the Garden of Eden. Along the way, the story goes, Brendan’s band discovered several islands, some with a riot of exotic birds, one populated by a group of mystics who couldn’t speak and do not age, and one island that turned out to the back of an enormous sea monster. But Brendan also spied, and possibly went ashore at, an island he called the Island of the Blessed, described only as an island covered in trees. These tales are written in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, laid down in the year 900 common era, some 480 or so years after Brendan’s epic quest.
Centuries later, as European sailors began returning to the continent with tales of a vast new world far to the west across the Atlantic, some began to wonder: Did Brendan, now St. Brendan the Navigator, actually reach North America? Was his Island of the Blessed perhaps a forested chunk of land off eastern Canada? For that matter, could mariners possibly sail that far in the 6th century?
Tim Severin sought to find out. Not necessarily whether Brendan did sail to North America, but whether he could.
In 1976, Severin assembled a crew and stuffed food and water and a radio into a 36-foot, leather-sided two-mast sailboat and departed Ireland’s Dingle Coast, tracking St. Brendan’s wake, 1,500 years after the monk set sail into the unknown.
Recreating ancient adventures was something of a thing with Severin.
He was born in India in 1940, the son of a tea plantation worker. His parents sent him to boarding school in England as a child, and later, at Oxford, he studied history and geography, two subjects he put to use throughout his life. In 1961, while still studying, Severin and two friends set out from Italy on motorcycles to retrace some of Marco Polo’s epic journey. They rode from Venice east to the Chinese border with Afghanistan, planning to ride south into India, finishing their voyage in Calcutta.
“We got as far as the Chinese border, by which time all three of us were riding on one motorbike,” Severin later told an interviewer. “But we had been able to identify some of the caravan trails that Marco Polo would have used, and still existed.”
Severin was hooked. Hooked on the adventure, yes, but also on tracing the footsteps of history’s most traveled adventurers. On the romance of peering through the haze of time to peel away modernity, save a motorcycle or two, to inhabit a world with a great deal more mystery than Severin found in the 20th century.
Other adventures immediately followed, including a push up the Mississippi, retracing the ancient footsteps of Spanish adventurers who sought gold in the New World. But Severin had his eye on a bigger quest—St. Brendan’s mythical voyage deep into the Atlantic.
Severin could read Latin—he studied history at Oxford, remember—and he’d been studying the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis for a time, his interest piqued by the seemingly absurd question: Could a band of 6th-century monks actually sail that far? For Severin, there was only one way to find out.
He put together a crew. First, designers and engineers who could help him build a boat at least reasonably close to what Brendan would have used. They built a 36-foot double-masted boat of ash and oak beams and covered it in oxhide. Severin’s team christened the boat Brendan and in the summer of 1976 pushed off from Ireland’s Dingle peninsula.
Sailing for Iceland, they made for the Hebrides, then the Faroe Islands, tracing Brendan’s likely path. They were in the near-constant presence of whales, almost as if traveling by escort; perhaps these were the inspiration for Brendan’s story of sea monsters as large as islands.
They made Iceland in August, spent time repairing Brendan, then stowed her until the following summer to avoid the sea ice already beginning to gather in northern latitudes. The real test was still before Severin and his crew, as they set out again in the summer of 1977. First, they passed through the Denmark Strait, a treacherous band of sea exposed to foul North Atlantic weather. They experienced horrendous seas, gale-force winds, and their little boat was almost overcome. Then they became lost in a fog in the Labrador Sea, their radio useless. Finally, in June, they emerged from the fog, drifted slowly west, and came ashore on Newfoundland.
Had St. Brendan made the same voyage? Impossible to say. Could he have? Severin sure thought so. Brendan proved that “the technology of the Irish monks was capable of reaching North America,” he said.
“I recreated the boat of St. Brendan and set out to see what would happen and it was in that way that I discovered for me, the fascination of travel wasn’t just space but being able to go back in time and it was here that that new dimension opened for me—on the Atlantic.”
Severin wrote a book about the experience, The Brendan Voyage. Advances from the book’s publisher helped finance the trip, and the wild success of the bestseller gave Severin the means to pursue other, similar journeys.
He recreated an ancient Arab sailing ship to follow the fictional journeys of Sinbad the Sailor, then later did the same with a Greek vessel in an attempt to trace the stories of Jason and the Argonauts. Severin rode horses with Mongols to trace Genghis Khan’s travels, only after arriving in Mongolia via Israel on a project to follow the path of the crusaders from Europe to the Middle East.
Severin’s final voyage was in 2003, a sailing trip off South America in a bid to discover the truth behind Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
He was a prolific author, with more than 20 books to his name, both accounts of his travels, as well as works of historical fiction inspired by the places he saw and the mysteries still unexplored. Severin eventually retired from traveling, preferring instead to write novels from a modest home in Cork, Ireland. He passed away in December 2020, at age 80. His beloved Brendan rests on display in an Irish museum today.
Severin’s The Brendan Voyage is a classic, pick up a copy here.