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Sailing a Real-Life Viking Ship Across the Atlantic Is Still Hard Work

We talked to the shipbuilder and the captain of the Draken Harald Hårfagre.

by DJ Pangburn
08 October 2016, 10:11pm

Images courtesy the Draken Harald Hårfagre

In the popular imagination, the Viking ship was the scourge of the North Sea, allowing its crew to sack and pillage the British Isles and Normandy. But these ships were also the vessels that brought Viking traders to North Africa and its explorers to North America.

As a tribute to the Viking’s shipbuilding prowess and expeditionary spirit, the oil and gas entrepreneur Sigurd Aase began building a Viking ship back in 2010. Called the Draken Harald Hårfagre, this Viking vessel is 115' long, 25' wide, and comes equipped with 25 oars and one large mast with a single sail that is 3,200 square feet.

This past April, the Draken left its home port of Haugesund, Norway, setting sail for North America. “Expedition America,” as it was called, was planned and executed in order to “relive” the first documented transatlantic crossing by the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson. (As many kids learned in elementary school, it was Eriksson, not Christopher Columbus, who discovered America—in 1001 AD, no less.)

After hitting ports at Eriksson’s likely birthplace, Iceland, and then Greenland (where he was blown off course), the crew sailed the Draken for Newfoundland where the explorer made landfall. After that, the ship sailed through various cities in Canada and locations in the Great Lakes, before hitting New York City and Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

On break for the winter in Mystic before sailing back to Norway, the Draken’s shipbuilder Arild Nilsen tells The Creators Project that he started working on the ship shortly after the project was begun. He says a big inspiration were the Norse Sagas, which—along archaeological and old sailing records—described the shape of the ship and the materials used in their construction.

“We used a little bit different shape to find the best one for this ship,” Nilsen explains. “I used an old technique for the construction. We used oak for the wood and then made wooden pegs and nails, and then iron for the clink [where the wooden planks converge].”

Nilsen was very impressed with the Viking shipbuilding techniques. While no one knows when the tradition originated, Nilsen says the ships are still incredibly seaworthy. After two-and-a-half years spent building the ship, the crew got to see the Draken, and Viking shipbuilding in general, in action.

“We had a couple of storms and the biggest problem is the waves breaking onto the ship—and then, of course, the icebergs,” Nilsen says. “I was very impressed by the ship, but you can’t do fast maneuvers very easily, so you have to be looking for the ice in the distance. When we came into Newfoundland there was a storm and it was dark—there was too much wind to bring the sail down so we just handled it how it was.”

The ship’s captain, Björn Ahlander, tells The Creators Project that he signed on as the ship’s skipper in 2012. Ahlander had been retired for all of 14 days, but when asked to come down and take a look at the Viking longboat, he couldn’t resist taking the helm. He says he was selected because of his experience with long ocean voyages and historical ships.

“There is one big difference between this vessel and modern sailing ships and it’s that it only has one mast and one huge sail and it’s hard to handle,” says Ahlander. “The other thing is that it’s an open ship, so you have to consider when things [like water] come in and you have to get it out. That, of course, is a bit more risky than other ships, and we didn’t know how much the ship could stand in bad sea conditions or how we should handle it.”

To get a proper handle on Draken, the crew spent all of 2013 training aboard the ship. In 2014, the crew launched an expedition to the United Kingdom, stopping in Liverpool before sailing up to Scotland. Ahlander says it’s very much like the original Viking ship that Eriksson would have used in discovering North America.

“There are a lot of Viking shipwrecks in Norway and Denmark,” he says. “This is a bit bigger than the ones you would have found in Norway, but the methods to build it are the same. She’s a very fine ship to sail on.”

“Of course sailing to America is a big challenge and responsibility with 34 people on the crew, so you have to be aware of what’s coming up,” he adds. “So we were will prepared, but of course you have to be aware of what time of year it is and what type of winds there are. And you have to be more careful about how you handle the ship in heavy weather.”

After staying Mystic for the winter, Ahlander says there will be a new expedition. At the moment the crew isn’t quite sure where they will sail.

“We know she’s a fine ship,” says Ahlander. “And she can take nearly anything out there.”

Click here for more info on Draken Harald Hårfagre.

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