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Explorer so gloriously out of time

There's something gloriously out-of-time about Tim Severin. With his cravat just so, a voice like tarnished silver and a certain tweedy charm, he seems like an essential part of high tea at the Merrion. He looks like he stepped out of one of their oil paintings. They should pay him just to sit there and regale people with his anecdotes.

You feel certain that someone like Tim could never have something as tedious as a normal job, and, in fact, he's an explorer. The difference is that, rather than planting empire flags on unmapped islands and enslaving the locals, as traditional explorers did, Tim does it all for the sense of adventure.

Over the years, he's recreated the voyages of among others, St Brendan, Sinbad (which he pronounces in the correct Arabic way), Marco Polo and Ulysses. By recreated we mean in painstaking historical detail, right down to sowing the boats together himself at his home in West Cork, where he has lived for more than 30 years. It all seems like a rather dangerous line of work for such a slight man, but Tim waves away the notion that it's all reckless fancy.

"I'm actually a rather cautious person. I never take needless risks. I dispense with the technology, but then I always added the fourth dimension -- time. I look at an island I might encounter from an historical point of view. I'm actually following an account written in maybe 1670, but I take the extra time needed. It's more difficult to do these things over land because the land has changed. But the sea has more or less stayed the same."

He gives an example by way of illustration: "I sailed into the Cayman Islands in the night and dropped anchor and in the morning the police boat came out and told me we weren't allowed in without clearance. And I said, 'But we came in during the night' and they said, 'Well, you could have radioed' and I said, 'We don't have a radio, we don't have electricity on board'. And these guys had a very difficult time getting their heads around that."

In a former age, explorers made their money by selling spices or people, but Tim is involved in the more agreeable trade of stories. He has written a series of best-selling books chronicling his odysseys and is now working on the second part of a fictional series about his own invented buccaneer, Hector Lynch.

"Whereas previously I would look at mythical figures like Brendan the Navigator, now I take my history and I put a mythical figure into it. So people can't say my description of a storm isn't accurate because it is as I imagine it."

Severin has always had a rich imagination. Born in 1940 in India to a family of second-generation tea planters he grew up learning the local language and culture but there was a rule that he had to speak English in the house.

At just six years old he was sent "home" to England where he attended a rather strict boarding school. The romance of travel and of the East always held a nostalgic allure for him, however, and he devoured adventure stories in the school library. "I knew I was never going to work on the farm."

He got a scholarship to Oxford, where he studied geography, but claims he was "never scientific enough" to have been a geographer. His thesis gave him the perfect opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway, embark on a huge expedition and still call it work.

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Accompanied by two friends he retraced the route taken by Marco Polo. The plan was that one of Tim's friends would write the book, but when it was rejected Tim himself, who had already written for a magazine at this point, was approached by a publisher. Since then, he has been writing and filming documentaries about his travels.

Even after nearly 30 years on the high seas his fascination with travelling is still palpable. He talks with an almost childlike wonder of the recently photographed giant squid (another of which was found this week off the coast of New Zealand).

"The sea is still a bit of an undiscovered continent in the sense that people don't see it at eye level any more. When I did the Brendan Voyage we were crossing the north Atlantic off the southern coast of Iceland and suddenly these orca (killer whales) appeared in the water. You could see them from about half a mile away and the leader with his dorsal fin high in the water.

"We saw them turn and come towards us. They came and one slid right under the boat, which was only about 36 feet long. The whale was about 40 feet long, so you can imagine how we felt. We thought it was coming to take a bite. The boat was made of leather, so we thought they could smell it."

Severin survived the encounter and feels vindicated that a lot of the animal behaviour he observed, previously dismissed as the stuff of idle sailor's yarns, has since been confirmed by scientists and filmed by David Attenborough.

Amicably divorced, he has one grown-up daughter and tells me that he stands out in west Cork because he has no cousins. His 98-year-old mother died a year ago and her house, he tells me, was full of emblems of India, old photographs and books by Rudyard Kipling.

"There was a taxidermed elephant's foot and I told her that it wasn't very politically correct to have one of those. And she gave me this look and said 'but that was your grandfather's favourite elephant'."

He tells me he rarely finds his everyday life boring but commercial travel can seem like second best after the excitement of a one-man leather boat. He smiles knowingly when I wonder aloud if he will ever get tired of adventure, of pitting himself against the elements.

"My life's work hasn't been about testing myself, it's been about testing ideas."

'Buccaneer,' A Hector Lynch Novel by Tim Severin is published by Macmillan priced €16.99


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