A few years ago Tim Severin sailed across the North Atlantic in a boat made of stitched ox hides, thus proving that the sagacious Irish monk, Brendan, could have reached the shores of America in the 6th century. Severin wrote a popular book about it, The Brendan Voyage and immediately wondered, "was there another, equally famous, legendary figure whose exploits might also be based on real voyages by real people?"
There was, indeed. Severin turned his entrepreneurial adventurer's eye eastward, and was soon sailing across the Indian Ocean in an Arab boom tied together with the remains of old coconut hulls.
In the meantime he had made two fortuitous connections. One was that the tales of Sinbad the Sailor taken from The Thousand and One Nights "were closely connected with the golden age of Arab geography which flourished between the eighth and eleventh centuries" when they sailed from the Arabian Gulf to China by way of Ceylon and Southeast Asia.
The other connection was His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, better known as the Sultan of Muscat, who decided to bankroll Severin.
"The Sinbad Voyage," writes Severin, of his latest nautical dementia, "needed the research, design and construction of a full-sized sailing ship . . . a place to build her, a port to fit her out, and a large crew to sail her. On board we would have to carry enough spare materials to maintain an early medieval ship for at least eight months."
He also needed those accoutrements of all contemporary voyages: photographers (whose work is gorgeous), a film cameraman and a sound recordist, as well as sailors familiar with an exotic double-ended, spar-rigged boat, and a working knowledge of Arabic with which to issue orders. "The list was endlesss," and so, apparently, was the depth of the Sultan's purse.
The building of the Sohar, named after Sinbad's birthplace, is one of the best parts of the book. Severin and two of the Sultan's endearing cohorts went off first to India, a kind of cultural Neiman-Marcus for browsers in arcane seafaring gear. There they bought, among other baubles, 140 tons of aini, a teak-like wood used in Arab boats that Severin found depicted on early Portugese seafaring charts, and, for the keel, a single monstrous tree that had shaded an Indian village for a couple of centuries (the Indians were understandably impressed, performing a ceremony when the tree toppled).
They also bought huge poon logs for spars, 400 miles of coconut string, 40 bundles of mangrove root to tighten all that string, 500 pounds of chundruz (tree gum), 50,000 coconut husks, six barrels of fish oil, and a battery of strange tools that included the tails of six stingrays, substitutes for wood rasps used by the Laccadive islanders. Unfortunately, Severin has too much taste to tell us what the bill amounted to.
The early Arab navigators did not use nails in their ships, fearing that a great magnet beneath the sea would draw them out. One in 10 of the tied boats disappeared anyway on the voyage to China; to minimize his risk, Severin hired a crew of expert shipwrights from the Minicoy Islands to oversee the project and housed them in an abandoned mansion on the coast of Oman.
When the boom--an unfortunate name for a boat that could well come apart violently on a coral reef--was completed they swabbed the inside with vegetable oil, and the outside with an anti-fouling mixture of lime and mutton fat. The Minicoys dismantled the shed over the boat. "As they pulled away the rolls of palm matting, the new ship emerged like a butterfly breaking out of its chrysalis."
Severin had the Sohar loaded with dates, fresh water, and a million odds and ends that included three Kalashnikov assault rifles from the Sultan's armory, to be used against the infamous pirates of the Malacca Straits. They sailed southeast, toward the tip of India, learning the ways of the Sohar as they went, ignored by the supertankers shipping oil to the industrial nations that were indirectly responsible for the romantic, unlikely sight of a wooden vessel sailing out of the past.
One of Severin's objectives was to understand how the Arabs could sail a quarter of the way around the world "at a time when the average European ship was having navigational problems in crossing the English Channel." They steered by the stars, using a wooden tablet with a hole in the middle, attached to a piece of (coconut!) string.
The Sohar plowed through "great swaths of pollution lying floating in windrows on the sea," as well as limpid waters thick with fish. They had to bribe petty bureaucrats in Calcutta, and endure legions of stowed-away cockroaches crawling over their faces at night. They were becalmed in the Doldrums, the sea there "like hammered steel," but they were fortunate enough to catch a store of rainwater, and sharks whose meat they dried and salted for emergency rations.
They lost spars and sails in arch squalls raking the South China Sea, and lived in a constant, muscular proximity that soon destroyed the societal boundaries between scientist and sailor, easterner and westerner. They finally arrived at Canton, to a warm welcome, after seven and a half months of notable risk and enterprise, just ahead of a typhoon that probably would have sunk them.
Severin writes well, if at times a bit too cozily, of exploits ashore and afloat, and the bizarre personalities involved. Thieves are "rogues," and mis-cast shipmates are viewed in retrospect with a bemused tolerance worthy of St. Francis. The reader can only imagine the anxiety engendered by canvas-shredding gales, and the amount of spleen that must have been directed at venal customs agents, the Sohar's inept cook, the bungling photographer, and living conditions akin to those of galley slaves in Sinbad's day.
The elements of Severin's tale, however, are so good that they would survive a much less felicitous rendering. The best character is the Sohar herself, her triumph a daring and truly fabulous voyage.