A Viking longship visits Michigan

Having sailed across the north Atlantic, Draken Harald Hårfagre delights the Great Lakes

Photo: Karla Lunde Barber The Draken Harald Hårfagre is in good company at the Bay City Tall Ships Festival in Michigan.

Photo: Karla Lunde Barber
The Draken Harald Hårfagre is in good company at the Bay City Tall Ships Festival in Michigan.

Karla Lunde Barber
Lansing, Michigan

My Norwegian ancestors include a ship’s carpenter who sailed around the world; his son who brought his family to Michigan where he had a shipyard; and my grandfather who owned a series of wooden lapstrake pleasure boats in the Norwegian style. During a visit to Norway, I saw the Gokstad and Oseberg ships in their museum setting. I was very excited to have a chance to see and board a real functioning Viking longship here in Michigan.

Michigan’s Bay City Tall Ship Celebration 2016 was held July 14-17 on both sides of the Saginaw River. Wenonah Park on the east riverbank featured six ships, including an amazingly large Spanish Galleon, and many food vendors, creating a carnival-like atmosphere. The galleon was hugely popular, with three-hour waits in line and an early cut-off to allow those in line to go on-board before closing. On the other side of the river was Veterans Memorial Park with four ships to visit and two others taking passengers for a sail. And the festival was the location of the very popular Draken Harald Hårfagre.

Expedition America 2016: The Viking longship, Draken (DRAH ken, not Drāy ken) Harald Hårfagre sailed across the Atlantic following the old route of the Vikings to Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. Then she traveled into the Great Lakes to visit Quebec City, Toronto, and Bay City, Michigan. From there, Draken visited Chicago (July 27-31). The tentative plan is to continue on to Green Bay (August 5-7) and Duluth (August 18-21). After that she will return to the St Lawrence Seaway, go down the Hudson River to New York City (September 15) and sail to Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, for the winter. As of this writing, the complication of unexpected piloting fees has not been resolved.

Friends had reported large crowds and long waits at the festival on Saturday, so I set my alarm for an early hour and drove the 100 miles from Lansing to Bay City, arriving well before the park’s opening at 10:00 a.m. When we were allowed in, we went directly to Draken, where the crew was waiting to welcome us onboard one small group at a time. Within a few minutes, there was a long line waiting. And so it went all day long.

In the water behind the ship was a small boat with lovely lines. The “Baby Viking ship” is one of three prototypes that were built before the plans were finalized for the Draken. This one can be sailed and was carried across the Atlantic on the escort ship. The prototypes were named Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld after the three Norns of Norse mythology who decide fate.

Photo: Karla Lunde Barber The stern is a mix of traditional and modern, with ornate carving and necessary navigational equipment.

Photo: Karla Lunde Barber
The stern is a mix of traditional and modern, with ornate carving and necessary navigational equipment.

The stern of the Draken is a mix of the Viking way and the latest in modern navigation. She has an ornately carved sternpost and tiller, but mounted on the sternpost is modern equipment and nearby is a navigational stand that also covers a motor. The ship has two propellers, which are moved out of the way when sailing. Christian, who answered many of my questions, made sure I knew that the nautical term “starboard,” designating the right side of a ship, comes from the Norwegian practice of always having the steering board on the right.

The deck is composed of many loose pieces with slots used to lift the section and access the storage areas located below. There each of the crew can stow their dry bags while sailing. Food and water supplies are also stored below and the ship has one refrigerated section. Also located under the deck are two heads (toilets) accessed by lifting a deck cover and climbing down to the small space.

“It’s a big challenge to sail a ship of this old variety, and to prove that it is possible to sail a large open Viking ship across the seas,” says Björn Ahlander, Captain of the Draken Harald Hårfagre.

What must it be like?

The crew sleeps on deck in a two-layered tent, which also contains the kitchen. There is a regular cook and meals are prepared to be easy to eat out of one container. Sample breakfast menu: gruel, eggs, some dried fruit, nuts, and milk all mixed together. The fresh water supply is used only for drinking and cooking. Any washing up is done using sea or lake water.

During an earlier sail, the Draken’s original mast broke and the ship motored to a Scottish port for repairs. There they were able to obtain the current 79-foot mast, which is Douglas Fir from Scotland. The mast’s rich natural color is continuously maintained by adding new layers of pine tar, applied by a crew member in a bucket hoist. What is pine tar? An online search is informative: pine tar is a brownish, thick, sticky, smelly liquid made by high-temperature distillation of pine wood. It originated in Scandinavia hundreds of years ago, where it was used to weatherproof and preserve wooden ships and ropes made of natural fibers such as hemp. Most of the rigging on the ship is made of natural hemp, which was grown specially for the Draken.

Photo: Karla Lunde Barber These carved birds represent the two ravens of Norse mythology who went out each day and returned to Odin’s shoulder with all the news of the world.

Photo: Karla Lunde Barber
These carved birds represent the two ravens of Norse mythology who went out each day and returned to Odin’s shoulder with all the news of the world.

All the wood on the ship is kept treated with the pine tar or linseed oil. All the wood and rigging is in such wonderful condition it almost glows. The overall effect makes the ship seem very alive, beautiful and rough and sturdy all at the same time. It is a remarkable contrast to the ancient ships that are so carefully kept in the museum. To walk on the deck and look closely and to be able to touch things, and to listen to the people who had sailed her across the ocean, was a wonderful experience.

When under sail, the ship operates with three eight-hour watches of eight to 10 people. When changing course or in rough weather, many more, if not all, are needed to operate the ship. Sailing speed is about six to eight knots with a record of 14 knots. When asked about the record, a female deckhand said it was very hard work and took three people to control the steering oar. In the north Atlantic, one or two people would keep watch from the bow for icebergs and growlers. A growler? According to NOAA, a growler is a piece of ice that floats less than three inches above the surface and is about the size of a truck or grand piano.

Many ships have scuppers, which are openings along the edge of the deck that allow sea water to drain off. There is no such thing on the Draken. Any seawater that comes over goes right through the deck pieces into the bilge. Fortunately this Viking ship has an electric bilge pump.

At dockside after the tour, people could stand and admire the ship for as long as they wished. It is a beautiful piece of work. Nearby, there was a large open red-striped tent staffed by crew members, containing exhibit photos and a video screen. Crew members wandered through and talked and answered lots of questions. There were also items for sale including T-shirts, water bottles, postcards, posters, and a book.

Outside the tent there were oars lying in the grass. They are amazingly long with a double cutout handgrip plus a grip on the end. The Draken has 25 pairs of oars, and each oar requires two people, so it would take 100 people to row the ship. There are currently 33 in the crew, so rowing is not an option. Visitors couldn’t resist lifting the end of an oar to check the weight. Christian showed where the balance point was and then both children and adults could try rowing.

“This Viking longship is the outcome of my daydreams,” says Sigurd Aase of Haugesund, Norway, owner of the Draken. “I believe that everyone should be given the chance to realize at least one of their daydreams. It doesn’t matter whether it’s big or small.”

He set his idea into action in 2008 and construction began in 2010. An actual longship would have been much larger than the 78-foot Gokstad ship. There was no existing model or plan, so the design was devised based on Gokstad and traditional Norwegian ship-building (lapstrake/clinker-built), along with information in the sagas. The three prototypes were built first. Then the actual ship was constructed and launched. It was tested and sailed in 2014.

Aase wanted the ship to retrace the voyage to Vinland. In order to cross the Atlantic, it was determined that some major changes needed to be made to the ship. Her 21 tons of rock ballast were removed by hand and she was taken out of the water. The changes took about two years and are shown in a video along with the re-launch out of storage using a crane.

The Draken is named after King Harald Fairhair, who unified Norway into one kingdom around 870 AD.

As Aase has said, “The aim of the Draken Harald Hårfagre project is to explore the world and embrace the Viking spirit—to look beyond the horizon and seek adventure and to inspire people to take on challenges.”

To learn more about Draken, and the challenge it’s currently facing, visit www.drakenexpeditionamerica.com.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.