St. Brendan: Did An Irish Monk Come To America Before Columbus?

Today is St. Brendan’s feast day. To the Irish, St. Brendan needs no introduction. For those less fortunate in their birth, let me tell you that he may have been Ireland’s first adventure traveler.

Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.

It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.

They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?

Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.

But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.

%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.

How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.

Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

How to row across the ocean

Over the weekend, the New York Times memorialized adventurer John Fairfax in the most awe-inspiring obituary ever written. In it, we learned that Mr. Fairfax had run away to the Amazon jungle at 13, then later worked as a pirate’s apprentice out of Panama. But the main narrative of Mr. Fairfax’s life was that he had rowed across not one, but two oceans: the Atlantic in 1969 and the Pacific in 1972. In fact, he was “the first lone oarsman in recorded history to traverse any ocean.”

While ocean rowing sounds like a near impossible feat, there are still dozens of adventurers in pursuit of this challenge. Earlier this month, Gadling profiled the Pacific Rowing Race, which is set to take place in 2014 following a course from Monterey Bay, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. No doubt, the Ocean Rowing Society, the organization charged with the adjudication of all ocean rowing records and on whose steering committee John Fairfax was a member, will be on hand as rowers set out on their quest.

The Ocean Rowing Society devised a set of guidelines for ocean rowers in a meeting in 2000. The guidelines cover acceptable crossings for the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, definitions of assisted and unassisted rows, and minimum compulsory safety measures and equipment for undertaking an ocean row:

  • It is noted that Christopher Columbus’ route from Spain to the Bahamas is the traditional Atlantic crossing route (“Departures from Cape Verde will be recognized as an Atlantic Ocean crossing with the words “shortened crossing” added to official listings.”)
  • Auto-steering is optional.
  • Wind generators may be used.
  • Solar panels should be used for generating all electrical power on board the row boat.
  • Canopies are not allowed.
  • Ocean rowing is a drug-free sport.

Head over to the Ocean Rowing Society website to learn more.

Image Flickr/TrueFalseFilmFestival

VIDEO: Astronaut’s view of the world

Need a few moments of Zen? This video from NASA‘s Johnson Space Center has seven of them, traveling over the Earth from the coast of Namibia to the Amazon Basin to capture an astronaut’s view of the world. The incredible images are narrated by Dr. Justin Wilkinson, a soothing astronaut who points out the many rivers, mountains, deserts, and other features shown on NASA’s camera from far above. You can see Utah‘s Salt Lake, Sicily‘s cloud-covered Mt. Etna; there’s even footage of Hurricane Florence, forming a perfect spiral over the Atlantic Ocean.

Sit back, put the video in full-screen mode, and start dreaming of your next travel destination. What an astronaut’s camera sees.

British woman sets out to pedal and paddle around the world

British adventurer Sarah Outen has set out to circumnavigate the globe under her own power. The 25-year old has dubbed her expedition “London2London via the World,” and vows to complete the journey by pedaling and paddling the entire way, which means she’ll be either on her bike or rowing a boat, for every mile of the journey.

Outen set out on her round-the-world excursion last Friday, April 1st, by paddling a kayak under the London Tower Bridge. The first stage of her journey will take her down the Thames River and across the English Channel to Brussels. From there, she’ll get on her bike and pedal across Europe and Asia, a trip that will take months to complete. When she’s finished that leg, she’ll get back into a boat and paddle across the Northern Pacific to Vancouver. After that, it’s back on the bike for a short jaunt to New York City, where one final challenge will await – rowing across the North Atlantic. If all goes according to plan, she’ll be paddling back under the London Tower Bridge sometime in 2013, ending the journey where it all started.

Outen is no stranger to challenging adventures. Back in 2009 she made a solo row across the Indian Ocean, becoming the first woman, and the youngest person, to accomplish that feat. She spent weeks alone at sea on the journey, which has helped to prepare her for the London2London expedition, but this latest adventure will test her in some unique and interesting ways.

You can join Sarah on her journey by following along on her website and reading updates to her blog. This promises to be one amazing journey, and Outen will be a great travel guide.

[Photo credit: Sarah Outen]

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Transiting the Atlantic Ocean by ship

Seated in a barber’s chair securely bolted to the stern deck I watch the sunrise over the heart of the Atlantic Ocean. A thin layer of pale blue sky rims the horizon, holding aloft a next layer of billowy cumulus. The air temperature is exactly the same as that of the sea, 77 degrees.

We are equidistant between the coast of Portugal and our goal, Puerto Rico, each 1,800 miles away. As far as I can see, 12 to 15 miles, there is no break on the horizon. In the past five days we’ve seen just three cargo boats in the far distance. The captain told me yesterday the longest stretch of open ocean he has ever covered – across the Atlantic, from Angola to New York City – took him twenty days during which time he saw not a single boat.

Except by satellite, this part of Planet Ocean is little seen, under-known territory.

The S-shaped basin brushed by the shores of Europe, Africa and the Americas, which has been known as the Atlantic since the days of Herodotus (450 BC) today seems almost void of life. The water is clear and dark, with very few fish near the surface; in five days I’ve seen just a handful of petrels feeding in the wake of the boat and the fin of a solitary yellowtail tuna.

As vast as the ocean is, what we don’t know about what lies beneath is even moreso. The ocean floor lies more than three miles beneath us, a place we know far less about than we do about the surface of Mars and the moon.All of which, from this vantage point, my feet dangling now over the railing of a dark, vast sea, makes it somehow difficult to shout out those claims that the world’s ocean is overfished, polluted, acidifying and rising. Out here in the heart of the 41 million square mile Atlantic, all seems very pacific.

It is one reason I like coming to the middle of the ocean because it such a powerful reminder that many of the its real troubles lie closer to shore, closer to where man lives and works. As a species we do have a tendency to muck up the very place we call home.

Ever since the first man, most likely a Phoenician, wandered out of the desert and down to the ocean’s shore we have flocked to the coasts. Today sixteen of the 20 largest cities in the world – from Tokyo (33 million) to Dhaka, Bangladesh (11 million) – are on the coast. Sixty percent of the world’s human population of 6.8 billion lives within 30 miles of a coastline.

Go get a globe or an atlas. Run a finger down the coastlines of the six populated continents. It is easy to see that’s where people have congregated, for obvious reasons of commerce and pleasure (the ambitious and the poor move to the big cities on the coasts for jobs, the wealthy head to the beaches for escape).

While there are some fishing fleets that still scour the far corners of the ocean and we know of a growing number of gyres far from shore swirling with plastic – and acidification, of course, knows no boundaries – the real hurt we cause the ocean is closer to home. The biggest competition for fish takes place within 200 miles of shore, often closer. Pollution of all kinds – oil, plastic, trash – line the beaches nearest where we live.

It’s not just manmade problems impacting coastal livers. Natural calamities impacting the ocean – more frequent and powerful storms thanks in part to rising sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels (expected to be three feet by 2100, perhaps double that) – most affect those living on or near the sea.

Maybe one of the answers to helping to clean up the ocean is for man to stay further away from it. As I’m floating here, atlas now in hand, feet still dangling over the three-mile deep Atlantic, maybe Kansas or Kamchatka, Saskatchewan or Siberia should become our new paradises … at least for the ocean’s sake.

Flickr photo By Nantaskart!