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News > Deaths & Obituaries > SEVERIN, Tim


You are warmly welcomed to leave a message below, share your memories, and celebrate the life of Tim Severin who we sadly lost in 2020

Tim Severin, explorer who retraced the journeys of Ulysses and Genghis Khan: Obituary

Source: The Telegraph Obituaries, posted on 19 December 2020

In his most famous expedition he crossed the Atlantic in the wake of St Brendan the Navigator in a 36-ft wooden ox-hide covered currach.

Tim Severin, the explorer, who has died aged 80, made his name in a highly specialised niche of travel literature: retracing epic journeys made by historical and mythological figures.

Inspired by the voyages of his hero Thor Heyerdahl, Severin’s “replica journeys” included riding through Europe along the route of the first Crusade; captaining an Arab sailing ship from Muscat to China to investigate the legend of Sinbad the Sailor; steering a replica of a Bronze Age galley to trace the Mediterranean journeys of Jason and Ulysses; galloping across Mongolia on horseback in search of Genghis Khan, and sailing the Pacific on a bamboo raft to test the theory that ancient 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 36-foot wooden ox-hide covered currach, a traditional Irish boat handcrafted using traditional tools, across the Atlantic in the wake of St Brendan the Navigator, an Irish monk who is believed to have established monasteries across northern Europe during the 6th century and is reputed to have discovered North America.

The voyage, in 1976, took Severin from the Dingle peninsula in Ireland to Newfoundland, via the Hebrides and Iceland, during which the boat dodged circling killer whales (Brendan’s “sea monsters”, Severin surmised) and was punctured by pack ice. As a reviewer observed in National Geographic, “you begin to wonder whether Severin is out of his mind. Few modern yachts would attempt this route so how on earth would a boat made out of medieval materials and using medieval technology complete the journey?”

Yet, after several false starts, Severin did complete it, and he concluded that the Irish monks of the 6th century had the technology to reach America. Moreover 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) had their counterparts in the real world.

Photo: Tim Severin with a model of the ship he sailed in the wake of Sinbad CREDIT:  UPPA/Photoshot / Avalon

Severin published an impressive collection of books, but his formula varied little. His travelling arrangements replicated historic accounts as closely as possible, and theresulting books were collages of previous writings on the subject and Severin’s own experiences.

Outside the ranks of travel writing connoisseurs, however, Severin was little known because he refused to play up to expectations. Interviewers expecting the explorer’s rugged features and shaggy locks were surprised by his dapper, upper middle-class English grooming, his tweed jackets and cravats – “more captain of the golf club than Sir Ranulph Fiennes” as one observed.

Naturally reticent, in his writing Severin tended to stick to his theme rather than indulge in agonised Ellen MacArthur-style tussles with his own psyche. In the films he made of his journeys he remained steadfastly behind the camera.

Photo: Tim Severin's account of his travels in a replica of a Bronze Age galley to trace the Mediterranean journeys of Jason

This approach may have cost him popular fame, but his well-crafted writing and academic sure-footedness won him a fan club of serious-minded readers- as well as a slew of awards, including both the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Giles Timothy Severin was born on September 25 1940 in Jorhat, Assam, India, where his father was a tea planter. He was the fourth generation of his family to be born in India, and at the age of six, like other “colonial brats” he was sent “home” to boarding school in England. But he never felt that England was home and the romance of travel always held an allure. At Tonbridge School, he devoured adventure stories in the school library and won a scholarship to Keble College, Oxford to read Geography.

His adventures began when he and a couple of student friends (one of them was Stanley Johnson, father of Boris) took off on motor bikes across central Asia, with the aim of retracing Marco Polo’s journey to Cathay. The plan was that one of Severin’s friends would write a book about the journey, but when it was rejected Severin himself was approached by a publisher. His book, Tracking Marco Polo, was published in 1964 to favourable reviews, one critic praising its “entrancing blend of hilarity and high adventure, chaos and revelation”.

He went on to combine graduate work as a Commonwealth fellow in the United States with two further books based on the history of exploration – one on the Mississippi, another on the Caribbean.

Photo: Tim Severin with the Omani who captained the ship he sailed in the wake of Sinbad CREDIT: TALKING SPORT/Photoshot / Avalon

In the early 1970s Severin moved to west Cork, Ireland, because “it was the only place I could afford”. He remained there for the rest of his life, subsidising his adventures by renting out holiday cottages and making television documentaries.

Oddly, perhaps, given the rickety character of the vessels on which he plied the oceans, it was Severin’s land-based travels that proved the most hazardous. After he mounted the saddle in 1987 to relive the 11th Century Christian crusades that took 100,000 European knights and pilgrims across 16 countries to conquer Jerusalem, he and his horses were hit by an army truck, buzzed by a military helicopter, stoned by children, covered in boils and gashed in accidents.

Moreover as one reviewer pointed out, in emulating the assault of the Infidel on the Holy Places, Severin was blithely risking the wrath of every Islamic militant in the world.

Severin’s earlier voyages captured the imagination, but some felt that his later adventures – such as sailing in the tracks of the Pequod in search of Moby Dick or searching for the “real” Robinson Crusoe (not Alexander Selkirk, Severin claimed, but a ship’s surgeon called Henry Pitman) – were more gimmicky and less scientifically useful.

Eventually Severin decided to turn some of his adventures into fiction and embarked on a new phase of his career as an author of historical novels. His first fictional efforts, the Viking trilogy, were set in the Norse world of the 11th century, with a hero called Thorgils who travels from Byzantium to the shores of America, surviving the battle of Clontarf and other historical engagements. Another series was set in the 17th century and focused on the exploits of a half-Irish, half-Spanish hero, Hector Lynch.

Tim Severin married, in 1966, Dorothy Sherman, but the marriage was dissolved. He is survived by his second wife Dee and by a daughter from his first marriage.

Tim Severin, born September 25 1940, died December 18 2020

(MH 54-57)


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