In the Wake of the Vikings

 Re-Discovering the Viking Longship

The Vikings! From the eighth century until the invasion of England in 1066, they voyaged along the coast of northern Europe and ventured up rivers to raid cities far inland. They were feared from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and all over the Mediterranean. Today we remember them most for crossing the Atlantic via Greenland and arriving in North America several centuries before Columbus. Though it has been a thousand years since they settled down in the lands they had conquered, their name still evokes such dramatic images it’s hard to tell where the truth ends and the myth begins….

In 2000, the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark began a research project to construct a replica Viking longship based on a scuttled ship recovered from the bottom of a nearby bay. It was built using the most authentic techniques possible, then tested for a couple of years in protected waters. Last summer this ship, called the “Sea Stallion from Glendalough,” was rowed, sailed (and towed during a prolonged calm) around the north of Scotland to Dublin. I learned about this thanks to daily reports from the BBC–and soon decided I wanted to learn more–and then write–about the Vikings.

There are plenty of sources of information, and without exception, they all begin with the most recognizable symbol of Viking culture–the longship, sometimes called a “drakkar” or dragon ship. It is praised in the sagas and skaldic verse and its unmistakable shape, which once struck terror into the hearts of the victims, has ironically become the universal emblem for Scandinavian heritage and tourism. It’s even the logo for Wooden Boat magazine! (The typical illustration always includes the obligatory row of shields along the gunwhale. However, this may be another artistic invention based on a minor reference, since shields were far too important to risk them falling overboard when struck by an oar.)

When research began in the 19th century, the basic shape of the ship was estimated from depictions on tapestries and bas reliefs, but these provided very limited information. With the discovery of the 80′ Gokstaad ship in 1880 near Oslo, the study of the Viking ship moved from art to science. Since then, many more ships of all sizes have been excavated–each providing new archaeological evidence. With the basic shape of the Gokstaad ship as their guide, generations of Viking enthusiasts have set out to re-create a “real” Viking ship.

Naturally, the first was a Norwegian effort to build a full-size Gokstaad replica. The crew showed no hesitation in setting off across the Atlantic in 1893, and arrived in Newfoundland in 28 days. Then they crossed the Great Lakes and arrived in Chicago for the World’s Fair. The theme of the fair was the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, so their presence was a “politically incorrect” reminder that the Vikings were here first! This hull still exists in Chicago, but like most wooden boats exhibited in the open, it has been ravaged by rot. In 1926 a modern 42′ version of a Viking trading knarr sailed 10,000 miles from Scandinavia via Greenland to Duluth, Minnesota, a state that has a strong Scandinavian tradition.

1926 Lief Erikson Voyage Still Celebrated in Duluth

The Leif Erikson was built in Korgen, Northern Norway from Norway Pine by a small group of patriotic sailors. They based the boat on the archaeologist’s drawings available at that time, and they created a knarr-type craft like Leif Erikson used in the discovery of America in the year 997.  It was 42′ long, 13′ wide and drew 4′. The dragon’s head and tail designed by architect Gerhard Lilletvedt of Bergen were carefully handcrafted from small pieces of pine. Here are some excerpts from the log of the Leif Erikson skippered by Captain Folgaro:

“The vessel sailed from Bergen on May 23rd, 1926, with provisions for 3 months. The first port of call was the Shetland Islands. From there we proceeded to the Faroe Islands where the vessel was received with great ceremony and festivity. From the Faroe Islands we sailed for Iceland. After 5 days hard battling against storm and sea we arrived in Reykjavik. Only one day was spent in this place which Leif Erikson started.”

“When we were 50 miles off Agmajsolik, Greenland, we encountered a hurricane from the north east with heavy fog and haziness, also drift ice, but we kept going for 3 days, very dangerous and arduous sailing.  About 100 miles north of Cape Farewell, we were closed in by the ice, but after a hard battle, which meant life or death, we finally succeeded in getting out and clear of the drift ice.”

“After several days futile effort to find an open harbor, the course was set for Labrador. After sailing 13 days in nothing but fog we discovered we were 280 miles off Labrador.  The same evening, we met our first iceberg.  During the night a hurricane-like storm came up and heavy fog set in. We tried to steer clear of the iceberg, but in the heavy fog it was a great undertaking. But after strenuous work and with great care we succeeded in getting out of this trying situation, which was indeed a miracle.”

“We were now near the coast of Labrador. We tried to land and find an ice-free port along the shore, but this was found to be impossible. The course was then set for St. Johns, Newfoundland, and after a hard battle and great exertion, we reached St. Johns July 20th, 1926.  We reached Boston, Massachusetts August 12th, 1926. We had then covered 6,700 miles

“We have during the entire time followed Leif Erikson’s route taken in the year 997 A.D. We are the first who have achieved this since the days of Leif and the smallest boat in fact that has sailed this route in history.”

Duluthian Emil Olson purchased the ship soon after the voyage, and he donated the Leif Erikson to the City of Duluth. The ship was placed on display in Duluth’s Lake Park, which was later named Leif Erikson Park around 1929. There the Leif Erikson steadily deteriorated from years of neglect and vandalism.  The state of the ship reached a low point in 1980, prompting a former Duluth City Councilor to suggest that the Leif Erikson be burned in the traditional Viking manner of putting a ship to rest!  This suggestion inspired Olson’s grandson, Willie Borg, to help form a restoration committee that has completely restored the little ship.

The voyage of 1926 was a magnificent achievement and almost certainly the first small vessel to sail the northern route in modern times. It might also have been the smallest vessel of any kind ever to follow that route to the New World. However, a glance at pictures of the boat reveals that it was actually “inspired” by Viking ship design, as opposed to a real replica. From the center rudder to the cut-away for the propeller, it shows that authenticity wasn’t a serious consideration until the 1960s.

Discoveries of the 1960s Inspire New Viking Voyagers

The excavation of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadow in Newfoundland in the early 1960s and the recovery of five completely different ships at the bottom of the Roskilde fjord, near the village of Skuldelev in Denmark in 1962, put the study of Viking navigation on a modern scientific footing. The five ships were taken to the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde “in 1500 plastic bags containing 50,000 wood pieces.” It took many years to re-assemble this fragments after they had been flattened under water for nearly a thousand years! Since then, the facilities have been enlarged many times as copies of all five ships were built. Today it is not only a museum but a marine historical center with its own shipyard and harbor.

As yachting increased in popularity in the 1960s, the international infatuation with the Vikings and their ships began to inspire numerous reproductions. Today, there are over 40 of these afloat or on display in any country where Scandinavians are found–from Iceland to Australia! In north-west waters, the 40′ Munin is based at the maritime museum in Vancouver B.C. These craft vary widely in their authenticity but not in the enthusiasm of their crews to demonstrate their seaworthiness.

The Danish researchers had found clear proof that the Vikings had developed a more seaworthy type of ship for voyaging than the drakkar called the knarr, referred to as Skuldelev 1. There have been several attempts to build this type. In 1996, the American Hodding Carter organized a voyage via Greenland to Newfoundland in an authentic 54′ knarr named Snorri that had been built in the Maine and shipped to Greenland. Other re-enactors like the Heimlosa Rus team from Finland have followed the Viking routes around Europe in a lighter smaller type, crossing from the Baltic to the Black Sea by river and portage.

But historians still had many questions about the design and handling of the Viking longship, and the experts have continued to debate how seaworthy their ships really were. That issue was bought home to me this summer as I followed the progress of a meticulously-built replica longship from Roskilde, Denmark to the banks of the Liffey River in Dublin, Ireland. This was as realistic a voyage as possible, but it included survival suits to ward off the cold, an escort boat, and even a long tow when the wind failed to cooperate!

This project was based on the largest ship found under the mud of Roskilde called “Skuldelev 2.” It measured an impressive 30 meters long and 3.8 meters wide, and is one of the longest Viking warships ever found. It was estimated that it could transport a crew of 60 oarsmen, plus 10-20 crew, and was also designed to sail at great speed. A scientific analysis of the growth rings in the timber concluded the trees for of Skuldelev 2 were cut in 1042. More remarkable than this was the ship’s surprising origin: it had actually been built in Dublin, at the time when the Irish city was a major Viking settlement.

Building the Sea Stallion

Almost a thousand years later, in 2000, the Viking Ship Museum started a project to reconstruct the “Skuldelev 2” warship with the financial help of the Tuborg Foundation. Over four years, more than 600,000 visitors to the museum watched six boat builders at work using the same tools, materials, and building methods that the Vikings would have used. The oak planks were split radially for maximum strength, overlapped and nailed together. The sail, mast, rigging and rudder on the original were missing so these were copied from other finds.

The goal of this marathon effort was to find out whether the unique flexible Viking longboat hull was capable of making the kind of journeys the Vikings once undertook, to test and document the seaworthiness, speed and maneuverability of the ship on the open sea and in coastal waters with strong currents. This sea trial was to take place over 1,000 miles of notoriously rough water across the North Sea to the Orkney Islands and south down the Irish Sea to Dublin. The museum took pains to stress that this voyage was not simply another highly-publicized adventure: it was a serious investigation to understand how the Viking ship behaved in rough weather and managed to carry the Vikings so far.

The deck of a drakkar was completely planked over, but there was only a crawl space under the deck–so no shelter from the weather, no galley and no heads! Crewmen and warriors stored their personal belongings in chests on the deck. The oarsmen sat on these chests when rowing. There would be about a square yard of deck space for each crew member in which to live and sleep Since the Vikings appeared to manage without bunks, the volunteer crew of 65 would be sleeping on the open deck as best they could, on top of the oars! Cooking on an open fire was not practical for the Vikings while under way in wet weather, so the Viking’s seagoing diet consisted of dried meat, freshly caught fish, sour milk, water, beer, nuts and berries. With enough privations to cope with, the modern Vikings were given the benefit of modern food and packaging.

While the Vikings were the best boat builders and sailors of this historical era, they were still living in what we call the Dark Ages. For example, their culture had lost the understanding of the block and tackle and the compass, which the Chinese and the Arabs had known for hundreds of years. Apparently, the Vikings did not devote much effort on improving their technology or navigation methods, they refined techniques that had evolved over many centuries.

And while modern theorists like to claim that the side rudder used the principal of “balance” a thousand years before it was-rediscovered in the 20th century, the truth is not nearly so glamorous. It’s evident from the numerous re-enactments that the side rudder is a disaster waiting to happen and immediately render the ship helpless. The Vikings learned by error how to make it work, but we will never know how many ships were wrecked because their rudders failed. Today, no one except wacky amateur proa builders seriously considers using side rudders. (However, its thanks to the Vikings, who liked to steer right-handed, that we have a nautical word for the right side of our boats–“steerboard.”)

Learning to Sail the Viking Way

On 4th September 2004, the reconstruction was launched by Queen Margrethe of Denmark, and christened Havhingsten fra Glendalough (Sea Stallion from Glendalough), referring to the monastic site of Glendalough, south of Dublin. The launch was attended by 15,000 visitors and was shown live on TV. The next three years were spent testing the boat in Scandinavian waters, recruiting and training the crew, and preparing the details of the expedition. Safety was the most important issue, since with a freeboard of just over 3′, water often found its way onboard. There was also the very real risk of the ship breaking up in a gale, so it had to be equipped with life rafts and communication devices, and the crew had to attend cold water survival and maritime safety courses given by the Danish Navy.

The crew was mostly Danish with others from the rest of Scandinavia, Ireland, Canada and Scotland, plus of course, a New Zealander or two! “It’s the adventure of crossing the North Sea, in an open boat like this, and also the social project; to see how you will perform. It pushes boundaries, in all sorts of ways,” said Hans, a young Danish crew member, summing up the feelings of many on the expedition. “I was sailing with it to Norway last year and I noticed that when we were surfing with the waves, when the bow of the boat got pushed into another wave that there was only about two centimeters of freeboard.”

Carsten, the skipper of the Sea Stallion, is on the museum staff: “It’s a big responsibility; I am always thinking about it, day and night, and now the time to leave is coming I wake up in the night thinking how will it go?” The two cooks must sustain the crew with limited rations, working with primitive equipment, limited space and exposed to the weather. On 1 July, 2007, the Sea Stallion set sail from Roskilde followed by a flotilla of spectators, a camera boat with a BBC film crew and a North Sea oil-rig supply boat as escort.

They found the ship could sail at an average speed of 7 knots, but that didn’t automatically translate into a fast passage. Adverse weather conditions would oblige the Vikings to stop and wait for days, weeks or months. The Vikings also had to make many stops on their coastal journeys because they could only carry limited amounts of water and food, and the crew would need time ashore to recover from the lack of comfort in the ship. These were all factors that the Sea stallion would soon encounter.

In the Vikings’ Wake

After days of torrential rain across northern Europe rain (causing extensive floods in England), the new Vikings departed on July 1. The whole dockside had been taken over by a Viking festival including of course Viking re-enactors camped on the lawn in front of the museum. (Note that helmets with horns are frowned on: they may look the part but were invented by the costume designer for one of Wagner’s Nordic operas!)

The researchers had decided that every crew member and their kit for the next six weeks had to be weighed. This was to find out how much weight the ship could carry, and also to monitor any loss of bodyweight. (I don’t think anyone was under the illusion that they were going to put on weight!) Then it was time to squeeze all 65 crew plus their kitbags, food and water on board.

The crowd cheered and the Sea Stallion set off in sunshine with a following wind–a situation that wasn’t to be repeated too often during the voyage! Progress was so good that the captain decided the ship would sail through the night to make the most of the wind. That meant a tough first night for the high spirited crew. While one half of the crew stood watch, the other half attempted to get some sleep. Not many of them managed it. Those that did nod off were soon woken by a wave splashing over the deck.

The rain returned with more wind that pushed the speed up to 12 knots. Even with the sail reefed, they soon passed the northern tip of Denmark. The second night, the rain increased, soaking anyone who wasn’t already drenched. The sea state worsened: at one point the stern lifted clear of the water, exposing the rudder, before crashing back down. The medical professional in the crew detected the early signs of hypothermia among several would-be Vikings. Despite the rough water, four of the crew were safely transferred to the support ship to warm up and rest.

The Sea Stallion didn’t reach harbor until the early hours of the morning. Those that had the energy set up tents on land, while others just stretched a canopy over the boat and laid down there. It had been a tough baptism into the reality of “re-enactment.” When they departed, the wind refused to blow and it was time to take to the oars. Although the boat was equipped with 60 oars, it worked best when the crew rowed 30 at a time. But even with the current in their favor, they only managed two and a half knots.

After a couple of hours at the oars, the wind picked up a little. Unfortunately it was in the wrong direction. The captain decided to raise the sail anyway and practice beating into the wind. The end result wasn’t any faster than rowing, but it gave the crew more practice in handling the sail. By the afternoon, a light drizzle was falling and the ship was piloted into Lindesnes at the southernmost point of Norway.

Here the Vikings set their slaves to dig a canal to allow ships to cross a narrow spit of land, saving them a considerable journey around the peninsula. Over the centuries the canal silted up until almost no trace was left. After its discovery and excavation in 2001, the decision was made to re-dig the canal and July 5 was the official opening day.

Europe Hit by Powerful Rain Storms

To the west, England was still being pummeled by storms that flooded towns and brought Wimbledon to a halt. On the opposite side of the North Sea, the Sea Stallion was also a victim of the weather. The rain was almost constant for three days with a solid west wind. It wasn’t until July 13 that the ship could make any progress by tacking north along the Norwegian coast under clear skies. Once past the Lindesnes peninsula, at the western tip of Norway, it was back on the wind.

Although to a modern sailor the ability to put 65 bodies on the weather rail might seem like the answer, but several of them are needed to bale and the drakkar sailed no better to windward than any other historic ship. The square sail made of wool, and the flat-bottomed hull combined to reduce progress to weather to around two knots. The crew now began to observe the motion of the ship: as it lifts over a big wave, the entire hull flexes. If you’re lying on the deck, you feel the timbers shift beneath you.

The next day the weather situation reversed: the wind shifted to the south and the rain returned. Reeling off the miles, things were looking good again when the helmsman lost control. The thick leather strap that holds the side rudder in place had snapped. Without a rudder, dropping the sail will cause the ship to drift beam on to the swell–which isn’t a good idea in an open boat. Like a bicycle, a Viking longship needs forward motion to gain stability. With a temporary strap in place, the ship sped on to the fjord at Egersund in time for lunch.

A conference was held here with the skipper Carsten, the museum and captain of the escort boat. After much soul-searching, they decided that the Sea Stallion should be towed across to the Orkney Islands north of Scotland. “Unfortunately we are not Vikings–we have a time schedule,” said Carsten. “The ship has to get to Dublin, and the crew have jobs and homes to go back to. They want do as much sailing as possible during their 6 weeks on board. There’s also important research to be done on the ship and that means sailing it. We will miss the North Sea but we still have a chance to sail the ship in its home waters from the north of Scotland to the Irish Sea. Really this area has the most challenging sailing.”

Time Runs Out to Reach the Scottish Islands

So the mighty Sea Stallion crossed the North Sea on a towrope for 1 1/2 days. Happily, a light breeze filled in, allowing the ship to arrive in Kirkwall, the island’s main settlement, under sail. The Orkneys still have a strong seagoing culture, so the crew were determined to do better when they left. That meant rowing out of the harbor as hundreds of well-wishers gave a rousing three cheers, and the crew gave their customary Viking roar back.

The next few hours were very hard work, head north into the wind in a race to catch the tide. Currents in this area are incredibly strong, so the crew put their backs into it for five hours. With a light east wind, carrying them over the sea to Skye. A stopover was scheduled in the Hebrides to test the boat among the islands. The waters here differ in a number of ways from those of Scandinavia. In particular there are much stronger tidal currents causing whirlpools, overfalls etc. The ship came through all these tests with flying colors. The crew enjoyed visiting the local distilleries and also returned to the ship in good shape.

Sailing south on the Irish Sea towards the Isle of Man, the rain began to fall again and the wind picked up. Soon they were sailing in the strongest wind of the voyage with the third reef in the sail. At this point, the Captain ordered everyone to put on their survival suits. With the crew barely able to move in the cumbersome suits, the order was given to lower the sail immediately. The leather rudder strap had broken again. The ship turned beam-on and the bigger waves started to break over the boat. Plenty of the stalwart crew began to suffer from sea seasickness.

When a temporary repair was made, the sail was raised with the fourth reef tied, and still drove the ship at 9 knots. The wind subsided, and the sun showed its face. Conditions improved enough for a hot supper of freeze-dried food. After the long, tiring day, people were exhausted, but prepared for a last night at sea.

The Manx Isle

The Isle of Man, in the middle of the Irish Sea halfway between Ulster and Cumbria, has the best-preserved Viking monuments in all the British Isles. The Vikings called it Sudreyjar or “southern island” and ruled for 400 years. The left behind the site of the oldest-known parliament in the world, an outdoor stone meeting place called the “tynwald” that is still part of the island’s independent government.

In Peel harbor there are regular rowing races between Viking-inspired longboats. The local Manx men challenged the visitors to a race and the crew responded with a team of five men and five women who proved their mettle by winning the race. Then it was time to depart for the last open-water leg to the Irish coast.

They arrived at Port Oriel, a busy fishing harbor near Clogher Head on the Irish coast at around 4 in the morning. Some of the crew were woken at 7am by reporters turning up with their cameras and wanting an interview. There were also some Viking re-enactors who’d flow over from Denmark for a Viking festival this weekend at the nearby town of Annagassan. A short leg down the coast brought them to Malahide, the last seaport on the route. The crowds remained through the day, watching the crew scrub the decks, dry out wet clothing, and pack their luggage ready for their flights home.

The Civic Welcome at Dublin Right on time, 45 days after leaving Roskilde, the Sea Stallion arrived in Dublin, its final destination. There were bands playing and the waiting thousands clapped and cheered. For the first time in over a millennium a Viking long ship arrived in Dublin–it was really emotional for the crew after overcoming so many trials. As they moored up, Carsten stepped onto the quayside to meet the Mayor of the city and the official delegation, as he shook their hands, the mate Kjetl led the Viking crew in a rousing Viking roar.

The ship will stay at the National Museum of Ireland as the centerpiece of a Viking exhibition through the fall and winter months before returning to Denmark in 2008. The final cost of the ship and the voyage was about 20 million Danish kroner or $3.5 million– a price that doesn’t seem high considering the educational, political and cultural value of the voyage.

Postscript: Why a Viking boat built in Ireland ended up in Denmark remains a mystery. But in 1066, (the most famous date in English history) William king of Normandy, a Viking colony on the French coast, sailed across the Channel with a huge fleet and defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. Two years later Godwinson’s sons fled to Ireland. Skuldelev 2 could have carried the news from Dublin to Denmark. It probably remained in use until the decline of the Viking culture late in the 11th century, when it was scuttled to block Roskilde Fjord to deny entry to an enemy ships. this defensive measure suggests that the people in this region were becoming more attached to their homeland. The introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia is considered the main reason why Viking journeys ended and they turned to more peaceful pursuits.

Irish Vikings?

The first Viking raids on Ireland, at Rathlin Island, took place in 795. What is considered the second wave of Viking attacks on Ireland began in 914 with their arrival in Waterford. Eight years later they made it as far as Limerick. Wexford was also touched by the Vikings, indeed, its name is  distinctively Scandinavian,  from the Norse Ueigs-fjorðr. In 1014 the Battle of Clontarf in Dublin saw Brian Boru defeat the Vikings only to lose his own life. At first, the Vikings established fortified towns and acted as mercenaries in the tribal battles between Irish leaders. By 1054, the last Scandinavian ruler in Dublin was replaced by an Irish king.

The Scandinavians were by then culturally and ethnically assimilated, and stayed on as part of the Irish population. They taught new skills to the native Irish, and discoveries of their artefacts like coins, pottery, combs, weapons, shoes, and clothes have been made all over the country. The most famous find of all was at Wood Quay in Dublin in the 1970s. The excavation revealed a massive Viking settlement with thousands of artifacts intact along with a section of the old City Wall. The ship’s homecoming in Dublin featured government ministers from Denmark and Ireland, the Lord Mayor of Dublin and thousands of on-lookers.


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