The China Voyage
Tim Severin
Little, Brown and Co., 1994

Review by Nick Burningham

The real life adventures of Tim Severin, which include The Brendan Voyage and The Sinbad Voyage, are well known and need little recommendation. My excuse for foisting this review on you is the uncommon opportunity to review a book from the perspective of a (minor) character in that book.

Looking for a new adventure, Tim Severin was interested by a theory of Professor Needham who speculated that the ancient Chinese had navigated across the pacific to Mezzo-America. Needham's Science and Technology in Ancient China runs to almost as many volumes as the Encyclopedia Britannica and must be one of the largest works ever published by a single author. With such compendious knowledge, it is not surprising that he was able to identify some cultural parallels in ancient Mezzo-America. His interpretation of those parallels as evidence of contact is questionable. Thor Heyerdhal's theory of American origins for the population of Polynesia is at least as lunatic, but it was the origin of Kon Tiki -- one of the most entertaining and inspiring maritime adventures ever recorded. Tim's choice of project should probably be judged in that light.

If the Chinese did voyage to the Americas some three thousand years ago, they would probably have sailed on a form of raft. The development of the planked boat came relatively late in that mainly terrestrial civilisation. It is generally assumed that such a raft would have been made of bamboo. Indeed large seagoing bamboo rafts can still be found in a few corners of the South China Sea. By far the best of these surviving rafts are built in Thanh Hoa, Northern Vietnam: and so it was there that Tim decided to have built a “super-raft” for an attempt at the Pacific crossing. (It has been tried before but the bamboo became completely waterlogged and eaten by teredos before the Pacific was half crossed.)

The sailing rafts of Thanh Hoa are usually 9 to 10 metres in length, but for an ocean voyage Tim calculated that he needed a raft of twice that length and three layers deep. The raft builders were understandably doubtful about such a craft and asked that an “engineer” be brought in to supervise the project. That was were I came in and appear as a character in The China Voyage. I actually appear as “a character straight out of a Conrad novel” and ten years older than my actual age (thanks to Tim's self-confessed inadequacy as a mathematician). Apart from the geriatric decay, my brief appearance is fairly flattering and contains no inaccuracies that I choose to point out.

The China Voyage is a very good read. My father started reading it to see if he could recognise any of the favourable characteristics ascribed to me, but said he found himself continuing to read the account of the voyage (which I did not go on) with real enjoyment.

Having taken part in the early chapters of the book I feel I have some insight into how such books are written. To be successful in this genre you have to simplify everything. The reader wants a comfortable armchair adventure so everything gets simplified to a kind of armchair daydream of the actual events. Virtually all the difficulties, compromises and squalor are skirted, the only discomfort is noble endurance.

The team of men who built the raft were wonderful: hard-working and raucously enthusiastic. But the local officials, who appear in Tim's story as helpful and energetic, were thieving, boastful, lazy and obstructive from my point of view. We probably could have built three rafts for a quarter the cost had we not needed them to “facilitate” things.

There is no disguising the discomfort of the later stages of the voyage: forty degrees north in the Pacific, flayed by a succession of winter gales with the raft disintegrating under them. Even the phlegmatic Faeroese fisherman Trondur became a little irritable. But Tim continues being calm, polite and stoically cheerful. I mentioned that aspect of the narrative to one of his former shipmates who remarked “Yeah, he just goes on driving everyone else round the bend.”

So, The China Voyage is not a book to read for the searing honesty of the introspection, but it is a very lucid and entertaining narrative by the most successful adventurer of recent decades.

Copyright © 1997 by Nick Burningham
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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