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