Tim Severin

Born Timothy Severin
25 September 1940 (1940-09-25) (age 76)
Assam, British India
Occupation explorer, historian and writer
Period 1978–present
Genre Historical fiction, non-fiction

Tim Severin (born 25 Sept 1940)[1] is a British explorer, historian and writer. Severin is noted for his work in retracing the legendary journeys of historical figures. Severin was awarded both the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. He received the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for his 1982 book The Sindbad Voyage.

Early life and career

He was born Timothy Severin in Assam, India in 1940. Severin attended Tonbridge School and studied geography and history at Keble College, Oxford.

Recreating ancient voyages

Tracking Marco Polo (1961)

While he was an undergraduate at Oxford University, Severin, Stanley Johnson and Michael de Larrabeiti retraced Marco Polo's thirteenth-century journey through Asia on motorcycles, using Polo's The Description of the World as a guide. They travelled from Venice through Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan, surviving sandstorms, floods, motorcycle accidents, and time spent in jail. Severin and his guides rode camels through Deh Bakri pass to identify the Persian "apples of Paradise" and the hidden hot springs described by Polo. They were unable to complete the voyage due to visa problems at the border of China and returned to England by sea from Bombay.

Explorers of the Mississippi (1967)

From conquistadors to nineteenth-century gentlemen explorers, Severin follows the routes and tells the stories of the adventurers who have travelled the mighty Mississippi for hundreds of years—and does so while navigating the length of the river by canoe and launch.

The Brendan Voyage (1976–1977)

It is theorized by some scholars, that the Latin texts of Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot) dating back to at least 800 AD tell the story of Brendan's (c. 489–583) seven-year voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to a new land and his return. Convinced that the legend was based in historical truth, in 1976 Severin built a replica of Brendan's currach. Handcrafted using traditional tools, the 36-foot (11 m), two masted boat was built of Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with nearly two miles (3 km) of leather thong, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease.

Between May 1976 and June 1977, Severin and his crew sailed the Brendan 4,500 miles (7,200 km) from Ireland to Peckford Island, Newfoundland, stopping at the Hebrides and Iceland en route. He considered that his recreation of the voyage helped to identify the bases for many of the legendary elements of the story: the "Island of Sheep", the "Paradise of Birds", "pillars of crystal", "mountains that hurled rocks at voyagers", and the "Promised Land". Severin's account of the expedition, The Brendan Voyage, became an international best seller, translated into 16 languages.

The boat is now featured at the Craggaunowen open-air museum in County Clare, Ireland.

The Sindbad Voyage (1980–1981)

The famous adventures of the medieval sailor Sindbad, as recorded in One Thousand and One Nights, became the inspiration for Severin's next voyage. After three years of researching the legend and early Arab and Persian sketches of medieval ships, he brought the project to Sur, Oman in 1980. Sponsored by His Majesty Qaboos bin Said al Said, Sultan of Oman, he guided Omani shipwrights in the construction of the "Sohar", an 87-foot (26.5 m) replica of a ninth-century, lateen-rigged, cotton-sailed Arab dhow. The ship was constructed in seven months of hand-sawn wooden planks sewn together with nearly 400 miles (640 km) of hand-rolled, coconut-husk rope.

Sohar left Oman on 21 November 1980. Navigating by the stars, Severin and his crew of 25 travelled nearly 6,000 miles (9,600 km) in eight months. From Sur they sailed east across the Arabian Sea, south down India's Malabar Coast to Lakshadweep and on to Kozhikode, India. The next phase of their voyage took them down the coast of India to Sri Lanka. They were becalmed in the doldrums for nearly a month, suffered broken spars, and were nearly run down by freighters, but arrived in Canton, China on 6 July.

The Jason Voyage (1984)

The epic poem Argonautica, first written down by Apollonius of Rhodes in Alexandria in the late 3rd century BC, became the basis for Severin's next expedition. He began his research into ancient Greek ships and the details of the text in 1981. Master shipwright Vasilis Delimitros of Spetses hand built a 54-foot (16.5 m) replica of a Bronze Age galley based on a detailed scale model of the Argo. In 1984, with twenty volunteer oarsmen, Severin rowed and sailed from northern Greece through the Dardanelles, crossed the Marmara Sea, and passed through the Straits of Bosphorus to the Black Sea—a voyage of 1,500 miles (2,400 km). Along the way they identified many of the landmarks visited by Jason and his Argonauts, and found a likely explanation for the legend of the Golden Fleece. Severin recounted the expedition in The Jason Voyage (1985).

The Ulysses Voyage (1985)

Once again making use of the Argo from The Jason Voyage, in 1985 Severin followed the route of Ulysses' voyage home in The Odyssey, from Troy to Ithaca in the Ionian islands. Along the way, Severin made tentative or conclusive identifications of The land of the Lotus-eaters, King Nestor's palace, the Halls of Hades, the Roving Rocks, and the Sirens Scylla and Charybdis. The Ulysses Voyage, published in 1987, tells the story of the expedition, the historical research that went into it, and the discoveries Severin and his crew made along the way.

In Search of Genghis Khan (1990)

While still a student at the University of Oxford, Severin wrote his thesis on the first European travellers in Central Asia during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. With this background, to commemorate the 800th birthday of Genghis Khan he rode with Mongol herdsmen along the route once used by couriers of the Mongolian empire, mingled with camel herders in the Gobi Desert, and ate with Kazakhs in their yurts. In addition to finding evidence that the bubonic plague had been introduced into Europe by Mongolian traders, Severin gave the world a rare view into this little-known country. His story, part travelogue, part research paper, was published in 1993 under the title In Search of Genghis Khan.

The China Voyage (May–November 1993)

Ancient Chinese texts tell the story of Hsu Fu, a navigator and explorer sent by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, in 218 BC into the "Eastern Ocean" in search of life-prolonging drugs. Hsu Fu completed the voyage on a bamboo raft, which some believe took him to America and back.

Severin set out to prove that such a voyage really could have been made. On the beach at Sam Son, Vietnam, he oversaw the construction of a 60-foot (18.3 m) long, 15-foot (4.6 m) wide raft built of 220 bamboos and rattan cording, and driven by an 800 square foot (74 square metre), junk-rigged sail. After leaving Asia in May 1993, Severin and his crew faced monsoons, pirates, and typhoons before the rattan began rotting and the raft began falling apart in the mid-Pacific. After travelling 5,500 miles (8,850 km) in 105 days, they were forced to abandon the raft about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) short of their destination.

Although the Hsu Fu, as the craft was named, did not complete the trip, Severin believed the voyage had accomplished its purpose. In The China Voyage, published in 1994, he wrote that the expedition had proved that a bamboo raft of the second century BC could, indeed, have made a voyage across the Pacific, just as Hsu Fu's account recorded.

In Search of Moby Dick: Quest for the White Whale (1999)

Following the path of the Pequot, Severin sets out to find a living, white sperm whale. His quest takes him to the remotest parts of the South Pacific: the Philippine island of Pamilacan, whose people hunt whale sharks with their hands and grappling hooks and the Indonesian island of Lamalera, whose people hunt sperm whales with harpoons from open boats. Throughout his expedition, Severin is able to compare Melville's account with the reality he discovers, and to show that much of Melville's material was either borrowed or fabricated.


Severin has also written historical fiction. The Viking Series, first published in 2005, concerns a young Viking adventurer who travels the world. In 2007 he published The Adventures of Hector Lynch series set in the late 17th century about a 17-year-old Corsair.


Non fiction


Viking Series


The Adventures of Hector Lynch

Awards and honours


  1. "Birthdays". The Guardian. Guardian News & Media. 25 Sep 2014. p. 43.
  2. "In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin". FantasticFiction. Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  3. "Tim Severin – explorer, author, film-maker". timseverin.net. Archived from the original on 17 November 2007. Retrieved 29 January 2008.
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