Book Review  
By Brian Anderson - Cologne, Germany

A Speck on the Sea:
Epic Voyages in the Most Improbable Vessels
by William H. Longyard
384 pages
International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press
1st edition (July 27, 2004)

In August 1967, an English adventurer named Francis Brenton set off from Newfoundland into the Atlantic on a sort of catamaran, cobbled together from a dugout canoe made by the Cuna Indians in Colombia, a second canoe he had made himself, and odds and ends of sails and whatnot he had scrounged up. In one hull he had 600 pounds of calcium hydride sealed in drums and an enormous bundle of plastic sheeting. Lashed on deck was a shiny new red kayak. He was heading for West Africa.

At this point in the story most will be asking themselves: Why?

The answer comes in layers.

Why was he sailing to Africa? Because the bale of plastic sheeting was a home made, square, balloon under which, riding in the kayak, Brenton planned to fly across the Atlantic. The drums of calcium hydride were to be mixed with water to produce the hydrogen to fill the balloon. He was sailing across the Atlantic because he couldn’t afford the airfare to deliver himself and the chemicals and other equipment he would need.

Why did he think he could make it across the Atlantic in a tiny improvised catamaran? And what was up with the Colombian dugout canoe? He had bought two Cuna dugouts in Colombia the year before, lashed them into a catamaran with vines and sailed them across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico (and through the tail of a major hurricane) to the Mississippi River, bought a small outboard there, and motored the makeshift craft up the river to Chicago, where he sold one of the dugouts to Chicago’s Field Museum.

After a trip like that, what was an Atlantic crossing?

In the end he made it to Africa, the balloon didn’t work out, and he sailed his catamaran back across the Atlantic, up the Intracoastal Waterway to the Great Lakes and back to Chicago.

But WHY?

In William H. Longyard’s book, “A Speck on the Sea: Epic Voyages in the Most Improbable Vessels, there are a lot of facts, dozens of ripping good stories about long voyages in tiny boats, and many answers. He even takes a stab or two at WHY? Wanderlust, a thirst for fame, “easy” money, adrenaline junky. But it is a kind of desultory inquiry, because when one is out where the people in these stories are, Longyard and after a few chapters, his readers too, have realized that there really isn’t any answer.

Some people just got to do what they got to do.

“A Speck on the Sea” will be a compelling read for anyone interested in boats and the sea, or even just daredevilry in general. I read it pretty much straight through in a couple of days, and enjoyed every page.

Basically it is a history of voyaging in small boats, from Pliny the Elder’s account, in 63 AD, of the King of Swabia receiving a present of “some Indians, who on a trade voyage had been carried off their course by storms to Germany” to Sebastian Naslund’s 1996 voyage in a rebuilt 14-foot lifeboat from his native Sweden to Barbados.

The book details, in sections ranging in length from a couple of paragraphs to many pages, maybe a hundred significant voyages in everything from a folding kayak to pontoon-like “skis” to more conventional small sail and row boats.

There is an excellent index and good endnotes - “A Speck” a nautical trivia hound’s dream come true.

But there were a couple of false notes.

One was that although many of the people wrote books, there were no quotes or sections from their books included. After the 50th story of incredible daring-do reduced to facts and dates and construction details, it all started to blur a bit. It would have been nice to have heard from the people themselves to flesh things out a bit. There is a good bibliography, and perhaps Longyard ran into copyright permission problems. But it wouldn’t have been too hard to get permission to use a couple of paragraphs or pages here and there, and it would have improved the book a great deal. There is nothing like a first-person account: the damp and the solitude and the boredom interspersed with moments, or days, of both indescribable beauty, and of fear.

The other, rather inexplicable part, was Longyard’s categorical rejection of the idea that St. Brendan the Navigator, a fifth-century Irish monk, might have been the first European to set foot in North America. Longyard notes, rightly, that there is no concrete proof that he did. No Celtic crosses dug out of the ground in Nova Scotia, for instance, or a first person account of the voyage dating back to the period.

But a subchapter named “Brendan the Non-Navigator” seems kind of gratuitous, considering that many reputable historians think it easily possible that the Brendan legend is based on fact.

Longyard does give some credit where it is due, mentioning Tim Severin’s “The Brendan Voyage,” in which Severin builds a 36-foot boat made of an ash frame covered with oak-bark tanned ox hides, as described in the Brendan legend, and still in use in Ireland with some modifications to this day, and sails it from Ireland to North America.

There is good evidence that the voyaging Irish monks made it to Iceland, and it is certain that they made long voyages in their skin-on-frame boats. These were men who lived their lives in some of the most inhospitable places in Europe and were hardened to cold and hunger and work in ways that few if any modern men could claim to be. The distances between Ireland and the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and what is now Canada are really not all that great -- a week or two’s sailing with fair winds, no more.

Ironically, Longyard himself provides an interesting bit of circumstantial evidence that Severin apparently didn’t know about, and that I haven’t see elsewhere in discussions on the subject. Apparently, according to Pliny the Elder, mentioned above, and no less a source than Christopher Columbus, among many others, Inuits in skin boats had apparently been washing up on shore in Ireland and North West Europe for all of recorded history. Could one or two of the castaways have picked up enough of the local language to describe their voyages and their homeland, and possibly even practical sailing directions for getting there? Over many centuries of contact, it becomes pretty likely. Above all it is interesting that Pliny the Elder says that the men given to the King of Swabia were on a trading voyage and blown off course in a storm. Trading with who? Where?

Maybe the best hint as to why Longyard is so eager to dismiss the Brendan story is in his airy mention of “Gaelic pride,” and passages like “The switch to the high-tech longboat, brilliantly employed by the Norsemen, seems like a cultural admission that the world had changed and that the future of sea power lay in clinker-built wooden craft, not traditional Irish Curaghs.” Or “Probably their (Irish) fishermen, who had occasional contacts with kayaks, passed this knowledge to the Vikings yet wanted to retain for themselves some measure of glory - even though the Vikings had the technology to get there and they didn’t.”

Just on the face of it, if “A Speck on the Sea” demonstrates anything, it is that people can cross oceans in almost anything. The skin-on-frame kayaks were certainly getting across. As Severin demonstrated so conclusively, Irish technology was more than up to the voyage. And of course, whatever reasons these seafaring Irish monks had for their voyages, it is crystal clear that “glory” and “sea power” were not among them.

It sounds like Longyard, who is British, is himself indulging in some pretty shameless Anglo-Saxon chest thumping.