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]

Norwegian yacht goes missing off Antarctica

A Norwegian-flagged yacht known as the Berserk has gone missing off the coast of Antarctica after activating its emergency rescue beacon yesterday. The 14-meter, steel hulled ship was last known to be sailing rough seas in the Southern Ocean approximately 18 nautical miles north of the Scott Research Base and was believed to have been carrying as many as five passengers at the time.

Rescues ships have been dispatched out of New Zealand to look for the missing yacht, but all attempts to contact the crew have failed and the emergency beacon is no longer transmitting its location. Bad weather in the region is hampering rescue efforts as well, with 75 knot winds and 6 to 8 meter swells reported in the vicinity.

The ship is captained by Norwegian sailor Jarle Andhoey who is a seasoned skipper with years of experience under his belt. There were three other Norwegians and a British national on board the Berserk at one point, although two of the passengers may have been dropped off on the Antarctic continent to attempt a journey to the South Pole. Details as to who was exactly aboard the ship at the time of the distress call are still unknown.

Weather conditions are expected to improve later in the day and search planes and helicopters may be employed to help find the missing the vessel. Rescuers are still holding out hope for good news, but considering the poor weather conditions and the loss of the signal from the ship’s beacon, the outlook is a bit grim at this time.

[Photo credit: Berserk Expeditions]

Sailor makes epic 1,152 day voyage without touching land

American sailor Reid Stowe just finished an endurance test that beats pretty much anything on the high seas.

He set off in a sailboat on April 21, 2007 and didn’t touch land again until he returned to port in Manhattan on Tuesday. That’s 1,152 days at sea.

His girlfriend Soanya Ahmad, who had no previous open ocean sailing experience, joined him for the expedition but had to return to land after ten months because she was feeling seasick. That “seasickness” turned out to be morning sickness, and the first thing Stowe got to do once getting home was to greet his 23-month old son Darshen. Ms. Ahmad says she and Stowe agreed that he would continue the trip. Ahmad told the BBC that he would have gone back to sea sooner or later anyway.

That’s one understanding woman, Stowe. You better keep her.

Stowe had to fight hard to make his dream come true. He originally wanted to leave in 1992, but he had trouble finding funding. One of the reasons for the expedition was to simulate the isolation and stress of a Mars mission, which would take a similar amount of time. The original plan called for a crew of six to eight, the number generally agreed upon to make an effective interplanetary team. It seems Reid had trouble convincing others to join him so he set off with only his girlfriend. Reid kept his sanity by practicing yoga and writing a book. Maintaining a ship for that long without refitting took a major effort too.

The Guinness Book of World Records is checking his claim and if verified, he’ll certainly become a new entry. Considering that he was tracked by GPS, things are looking good for Mr. Stowe.

14-year old girl denied solo circumnavigation attempt again

14-year old Laura Dekker, who we first mentioned last year when she first announced that she hoped to circumnavigate the globe at the age of 13, has been denied permission to set sail once again. Yesterday, a Dutch court ruled that Dekker would remain a ward of the state until August 1st, and that conditions were not safe for her to set out on her journey at this time, much to the dismay of the teenager who hopes to break the record for the youngest person to sail solo around the world.

Last August, the Dutch courts intervened in the girl’s plans, preventing her from sailing at that time. In December of last year, she ran away to St. Maarten in the Caribbean in the hopes that she could somehow get a boat there and begin the voyage on her own. When she was returned home to the Netherlands, child protective services took her under their care, and although she was allowed to live at home with her father, all major decisions regarding her welfare had to be approved by the government.

Following her flight to St. Maarten, the court promised to review her case and give her a chance to demonstrate her skills as a sailor. Since that time, Laura has purchased a new, larger boat, and has taken it on several solo cruises, while also undergoing a battery of tests to provide proof of her ability to sail. Both of her parents are experienced sailors, and the girl was even born on a boat while at sea, so her technical skills are not in question.

The current record for the youngest to sail solo around the world is held by Jessica Watson, who completed her journey last month, three days shy of her 17th birthday. Laura has said that she hopes to break that record, even if it is just by one day. That would give her more than two full years to make the journey, but for now, she won’t be able to get underway until at least August of this year.

There is no indication if the recent struggles of American solo-sailor Abby Sunderland played a role in yesterday’s decision by the Dutch courts either.

[Photo by: Valerie Kuypers/EPA]

Teenage Aussie set to sail around the world

Jessica Watson likes to travel, but she approaches the concept a bit differently. The 16-year-old Australian just left Sydney Harbor today, and she wants to take on the world. Her goal is to sail 23,600 miles alone — through some of the toughest waters in the world — and become the youngest person in history to do so.

The trek has kicked off some debate in Australia as to whether Watson’s parents are nuts for letting her attempt this (not a position that’s hard to imagine).The family claims that the kid is plenty salty and knows her way around a ship, and she’ll have radio and e-mail access. She’ll be blogging, too. In the Netherlands, a pair parents disagreed on whether to let their 13-year-old daughter, Laura Dekker, attempt the same feat. A Dutch court put Dekker in the custody of childcare authorities while the parents fought it out.

For Watson, just getting her pink, 34-foot yacht to the starting line has been difficult. Last week, she collided with a cargo ship while sailing to Sydney to make a few last preparations for her journey. And, strong winds last week prompted the sailor to push back her start date.

There are two ways to categorize these around-the-world trips: assisted and unassisted. Watson is gunning for the latter. The youngest person to do this so far is Jesse Martin, also an Australian, who was 18 when he circled the world in 1999. To qualify as “unassisted,’ the vessel can’t take any new supplies, materials or equipment on board once the trip starts. Repairs can be made, but they must use stuff already on the yacht.

The youngest circumnavigating sailor is Mike Perham, from Britain, who went 28,000 miles in nine months, but his trip counts as “assisted,” because he stopped for repairs. Zac Sunderland, from California, was a few months older than Perham when he completed the trip in 13 months, but his was also assisted.