The Sindbad Voyage by Tim Severin

The age of adventure is not dead. Not every corner of the world has succumbed to the Internet and its all-pervasive cataloguing of our lives. For those with the courage, the skill and the money, epic voyages and strange encounters are still there for the taking. Back in 1980 when sailor Tim Severin set out on The Sindbad Voyage, the world was even more rich and strange.

Sindbad the Sailor is the original Middle Eastern superhero. Little is known about his life today. For children of the 1970s, his name immediately evokes the creaky stop-motion cyclops in the Ray Harryhausen film. In fact, we have very few original sources relating to this oriental Ulysses. Most of his voyages appear in The 1,001 Nights but even there they are a late addition, added by the nineteenth-century French translators to the original Arabic sources.

Tim Severin set out on the Sindbad Voyage to find out more about this legendary explorer. Alas, the obstacles set against him were worthy of a hero from The Arabian Nights. First of all, he had to construct a boat based on those of the early medieval Arabs. No ships survive from those times, so he had to draw inspiration from drawings in ancient manuscripts.  Eventually, he settled on a vessel known as a boom.

A boom was a sewn ship. Traditional Arab ships were not built with metal nails. Instead, planks of wood were fitted together and then sewn in place by use of strong strands of coconut fibre. Even in 1980, this was a lost art but Severin was able to track down the last workmen capable of constructing such a craft.  Bringing them from India to his base in Oman, he set them to work building a ship the like of which had not been seen for centuries.

Sindbad most probably hails from Oman and so the Sultanate was the most logical place to begin their voyage. Thankfully, the royal family were enthusiastic supporters of Severin’s extraordinary plan and provided him with all the money, resources and manpower that he needed. Unfortunately, they also set him a near impossible deadline for launching his boat. His shipwrights had to work night and day in blazing heat to make the appointed day. Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can never put it back again.

Building the boat was only half the battle. Severin also had to travel to India to gather timber and fibre for his vessel. This led to one of many comic interludes as his buyers test the honesty of dodgy merchants by examining all their wares. One method is chewing coconut fibres to check for the right taste of sea water. Severin is co-opted into the game:

he would turn to me, and offer me a sample to taste. Reluctant to spoil the pantomime, I too would munch solemnly on the coconut rope, trying not to think of the stagnant ooze of the fetid backwaters where the coconuts were retted.

His ship finally built, the next task was to find a crew capable of piloting this vessel out of time. Fortunately, the long Omani tradition of seafaring had not yet perished and there were still sailors who could handle this type of craft.

For Severin’s ambition was not just to build a boom. He also intended to recreate Sindbad’s voyages through the Seven Seas from Oman to Canton in China (modern Guangzhou). The challenges were every bit as terrifying as the giant birds known as Rocs and other monsters that menaced Sindbad. Relatively small and lacking most modern communications, his ship Sohar would be invisible to many other ocean-going vessels:

we entered the main shipping lane, a frightening experience … a thick line of thundercloud blotted out the sky. A blast of wind and rain swept across Sohar, and she began to surge forward through the murk, heading directly into the path of the ships like a blind pedestrian stepping out into a motorway during a rainstorm. It was a sinister moment. We peered through the baffling blanket of rain, looking for the looming grey shapes of the tankers moving like juggernauts through the downpour.

Severin is a fabulous writer. In fact, these days he has dropped anchor and has a second career as a historical novelist. In The Sindbad Voyage, he revels in his numerous snapshots of faraway lands:

As the sun rose higher and the light strengthened there came the unmistakeable sounds of a new day at Beypore – the raucous cries of thousands upon thousands of Indian crows which had their nests in  the coconut groves. Soon the crows began taking to the air, rising like black flakes of ash, flapping their way towards the waiting town where they would scavenge for their existence

Witty, exciting, exotic and eye-opening, The Sindbad Voyage is a tale of high adventure in the present day. It’s also an inspiring story of teamwork and cooperation as Indian shipwrights, Omani sailors and Western scientists work together to pull off a seemingly impossible vision. They even survive several weeks at sea with the world’s worst cook and bilges teeming with cockroaches.

I loved The Sindbad Voyage so much that I immediately bought its predecessor, The Brendan Voyage. What more recommendation do you need?

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4 responses to “The Sindbad Voyage by Tim Severin

  1. I love books like this, Thor Heyerdahl was immense…travel writing is a bit of a mine field as a lot of authors these days go for humour over the travel. I have Seeking Robinson Crusoe by this author though and will get to that when I have read Robinson Crusoe…either way some of Severin’s other voyages could be in the offing for me as well.

    • Me too, especially because there is no way that I would ever do a voyage like this myself! In the end, I preferred the Sindbad Voyage to the Brendan Voyage. The Brendan Voyage felt cold, damp and miserable by comparison.
      I had never heard of Seeking Robinson Crusoe, so I’m going to put that on my ever-growing list right now!

    • I have heard of the Kon Tiki expedition but never read it so I’ll have to give that a look. These guys are incredible. I couldn’t even imagine setting out on a trip like this.

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