It is a sunny Saturday in Ireland and PW has arranged to meet Tim Severin in a lively Cork City cafe. Severin, the explorer and writer, is traveling in from his home in remote West Cork, a beautiful, rugged region where sheep farmers share stony soil with poets, batik-makers and New Age mavericks. The lonely roads seem to lead nowhere and a wild, spectacular coastline makes travelers feel they are at end of the earth. Next parish, America, as the locals say. Is West Cork a restful place for an adventurer between trips? "Not at all," Severin laughs mischievously. "It is a splendid training ground!"
"There is an openness and respect for all types here," he continues, contentedly sipping his tea. "I see attitudes here which are transferable to anywhere else in the world." Talking to the easygoing 59-year-old, with his short graying hair, tidy salt-and-pepper beard and sinewy, tanned figure, it is easy to imagine him comfortably transferring himself anywhere in the world. Cozy inside his zip-up fleece jacket, he possesses a benign, hard-earned calm. He seems ready for anything.
West Cork is an appropriate backdrop for discussion about Severin's latest book, In Search of Moby Dick: The Quest for the White Whale (Basic Books). Not only was whaling once an important activity in this region, but John Huston's famous movie version of the Melville novel was filmed here, with Gregory Peck as Ahab, the demonic captain. In a delightful twist, the picturesque town of Youghal was dressed up to resemble Nantucket, the Massachusetts whaling town. In the course of the voluminous research he d s for all his books, Severin checked with the main newspaper in Cork and was delighted to find, still undisturbed in the paper's files, some original stills from the filming.
In Moby Dick, Severin sets out to discover whether Melville's mythical white whale had a real-life counterpart. He begins in the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific, where the 21-year-old Melville deserted his whaling ship and lived briefly among the locals, collecting sea lore and yarns that would later be woven into his fiction. Intriguing links lead him on to the southern Philippines and Tonga in the South Pacific and then Lamalera in Indonesia.
As ever with Severin, the naturalistic and cultural detail described en route are as absorbing as the book's main conclusions, not least his accounts of whalehunting expeditions with the natives. Vivid and real-life characters are befriended: fishermen who still hunt the sperm whale by hand, and so-called hook-jumpers who earn their living by jumping on the backs of ten-ton whale sharks--not an occupation for the faint of heart.
In Search of Moby Dick is the latest installment in Severin's long and illustrious series of adventure tales. His most famous book is probably The Brendan Voyage (Hutchinson, 1978), his breakthrough bestseller, in which he sailed the Atlantic in a oxhide-covered boat, trying to prove that St. Brendan, the Irish saint, and not the Vikings nor Christopher Columbus, may have discovered America first--a claim that endeared him mightily to the Irish.
With four companions, he crossed the North Atlantic, steering a course past Iceland and Greenland, in a 36-foot open boat similar to those used by the early medieval monks. It sounds like a shuddering experience, and after some harrowing brushes with death, Severin and his friends must have been as happy as any Ellis Island immigrant to reach American shores. The Brendan Voyage was a huge success and has been translated into 18 languages. Most recently, it appeared on Jon Krakauer's first list of classic adventures tales he is editing for Modern Library. But, as Severin points out, when it came out, he had already published many books with a raft of different publishers. "It is like the Broadway actress who is heralded with the headline A Star Is Born, but who has on actually played 10 seasons on Broadway!"
Indeed, by the late '70s, Severin had already made some extraordinary expeditions. For The Sinbad Voyage, he sailed from Muscat to China in a replica of an early medieval trading ship to examine the tales of Sinbad the Sailor. In a similar exercise, he rowed a 20-oar Bronze Age galley from Greece to the Black Sea to explore the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their famous quest for the golden fleece. In 1985, he completed The Ulysses Voyage, in which he charted his attempt to follow the route, as described in Homer's Odyssey, that the Greek hero took from Troy back home to Ithaca. Again, Severin was in a 20-oar galley. Given all that old world rowing, the thought occurs that Severin would be a fine man to have on your side in the event of a donnybrook.
Unlike writers who content themselves with desk-bound research, Severin sets out to directly emulate his subjects and in the process immerses himself in the role. Like Robert De Niro preparing for a movie role, it's easy to imagine him living off locusts and honey in an effort to truly understand John the Baptist. In 1987, he took a sabbatical from sea travel, and set out on an eight-month horseback ride from Belgium, retracing the route of the First Crusade to Jerusalem as traveled by Duke Godfrey de Bouillon. But surely, in emulating the assault on the infidel, he must have been the target of every Islamic militant around?
"Not at all," he responds chirpily. "We were welcomed everywhere we went. After Istanbul, I don't think we ever put our hand in our pocket. Wherever we passed through, people begged us to come and break bread with them." Severin visibly glows at the memory of oldfashioned hospitality, a generosity he has encountered often in his journeys.
Perhaps this tireless adventurer was born with an itch for travel. He came into the world in Assam in Northwest India, where his family were tea planters. After studying the history of exploration at Oxford, he decided that the most effective way of testing what he read was to get into the field--or head off to sea. In 1961, he and two other students took off on motorcycles and traveled the route of Marco Polo from Venice as far north as the Chinese border in northwest Afghanistan, and then down the Grand Trunk Road in India, finally ending up in Calcutta. Not your usual student holiday--Severin was barely 21 at the time.
The journey did more than give Severin an intimate relationship with his presumably battered motorbike. It proved that much could indeed be learned from retracing the old caravan route used by Polo and, armed with that insight, Severin was provided with the key to his life's work. On this and future expeditions, he was able to flesh out the background of the great historical narratives often taken for granted by modern-day readers. Or at least he was able to question their veracity and inquire whether they were true historical narratives, or fables and stories. In 1964, his first book, the fresh and compelling Tracking Marco Polo, was published; it was reissued in 1985 in the U.K., and in the U.S. the following year.
In 1965, Severin came to the U.S., intending to follow in the wake of early explorers on the Mississippi, sailing the river's length by can and small launch. His account of early French and English travel was published in 1968 as Explorers of the Mississippi (Knopf). Interestingly, he is sometimes confused in this region with Jonathan Raban, another English writer who has traveled and written about the Mississippi. There followed four more books: The Golden Antilles (Hamish Hamilton, 1970), The Africa Adventure (Dutton, 1973), Vanishing Primitive Man (American Heritage, 1973) and The Oriental Adventure (Angus & Robertson, 1976). Then, Hutchinson took a flyer on The Brendan Voyage, which has never been out of print in the 23 years since publication. However, when Hutchinson was incorporated into Century, which was then bought by Random U.K., Severin was steered by his then agent, Anthony Sheil, to Little, Brown, which continues as his British publisher. Severin's projects all require considerable organization of resources and people; he often enlists the help of companies and even governments, and he is quick to cite the aid of his agents in making these things happen. His main agent now is Bill Hamilton at A.M. Heath in London, who took over when Sheil went into semi-retirement. Stateside, Severin is represented by Henry Dunow.
In Search of Moby Dick arose out of Severin's long exposure to, and respect for, the sea lore and tales of fishermen and sailors. Severin believes that such an oral culture represents a form of empirical truth that cannot be replaced by laboratory research. In his own writing, he retains the simplicity and lyrical quality of the tales he has been told. Reading his accounts of the great white manta ray, the reader feels like a child enraptured by a fireside chat. Perhaps the air of West Cork and the Irish storytelling tradition have had an influence. His accounts are intensely evocative and balanced between action and reflection, the research and background detail always lightly borne, just like one of his heavy sailing boats coming under a gentle wind.
Severin's work method is now well established and each book takes him about three years to complete. The first year is spent developing the concept and doing intensive research, usually at the British Library in London, to determine if the idea will "stand up." This period also involves low-key, low-budget reconnaissance "in the field." Like "the mouse behind the wainscoting," as he quaintly puts it, he plots his future course. The next year he embarks on the real field work, the journeying and note-taking, and the third year is spent writing and refining the story, polishing his prose until it acquires its crisp, beautifully pared-down quality.
Clarity is something he strives for, not just in the interest of the immediacy of image but also as an aid to translation. His books are widely translated, as befits his international subject matter and his universal and historical themes: exploration, discovery, endurance. One of his books, he was told, was being translated into "Chinese, with complicated characters." "I hoped they weren't referring to the plot," he says, laughing. In Search of Moby Dick has already been snapped up for translation into several European languages.
The nature of Severin's field work has changed somewhat now that he also carries a camera and shoots film for documentaries. The camera, Severin believes, is not intrusive--it is hard to imagine this diffident English gentleman ever being intrusive--but rather enables him to give something back, since afterward he sends tapes to the communities concerned so that a record of a way of life that may soon be extinct can be shown to subsequent generations. One of the most striking scenes in this book (literally) comes when Severin is under water, filming a roped-up and dying shark, and his camera suddenly knocks up against the shark's snout and teeth. It is a curious moment and, as Severin reflects on this magnificent, humiliated beast, his writing becomes ethereal, almost existential.
Such encounters barely faze Severin, who has risked life and limb many times. "The best thing is to get a bad shock early on," he says. His advice might bring to mind the wisdom of battle-hardened war reporters, but he mischievously indicates he means that a bit of excitement sells more books. A glutton for punishment, his next project is a reenactment of the journeys of old galleon ships, whose wrecks now litter the Caribbean floor. "Hopefully it won't be the same for ourselves."
Despite his dedication to recreating historical voyages, Severin is no sentimentalist and recognizes the necessity of change. Old ways are fading and not always for the worse. He stresses, for example, that whale-hunting in the Pacific is is motivated by the need for meat and livelihood. "If there were an easier way of making a living, they'd do it." Even Greenpeace, he stresses, has agreed that aboriginal whale-hunting should be allowed to continue so long as it is essential to the islanders' way of life.
Seeing Severin so at ease with his life in County Cork, and contentedly draining his tea in a Cork City shop, one can't help but ask if he has ever been tempted to write about the region. "No," he replies simply, showing not so much the modesty or reserve of an Englishman, but the good sense of an intrepid traveler who cherishes the sanctity of the place he calls home. "In the same way that one wouldn't write about one's favorite bar or restaurant," he says warily. And then he disappears into a throng of Irish citizenry.
Delaney is a Dublin journalist and author. His memoir about his time in the Foreign Service, An Accidental Diplomat, will be published in Ireland in September by New Island Books.