A Viking ship sails the Potomac

Washington, D.C.-area Vikings learn to row and sail in an authentic Viking ship

Photo: William De Roche The Viking ship arrives at St. Clement’s Island. The lighthouse waits for them in the background.

Photo: William De Roche
The Viking ship arrives at St. Clement’s Island. The lighthouse waits for them in the background.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Favorable winds. A clear blue sky with a few puffy white clouds. No humidity. A perfect day for a cruise on the Potomac in a Viking ship!

With twenty fearless mariners on board, Sae Hrafn (the Sea Raven) set sail from Avenue, Maryland, at noon on September 20, and returned around 5:00 p.m.

Sae Hrafn is a 39-foot wooden replica of a 10th-century Viking Long Ship, and belongs to The Longship Company. Henry Hansen, a long-time member of both The Longship Company and the Sons of Norway, organized the cruise for members of the DC Sons of Norway lodge.

Before the departure, Leonard Leshuk, a captain of the Longship Company, provided a briefing on rules to follow and how to row the ship. The ship has twelve oars, six on each side. The rowing assignments were divided into three watches with two watches rowing at a time while the other rested.

Photo: Henry Hansen The intrepid mariners.

Photo: Henry Hansen
The intrepid mariners.

Marie Hansen acknowledges that rowing this heavy boat was not easy. She also concedes that the participants were not “overly fit” and they, therefore, rowed slowly with short strokes. They moved at a speed of one to two knots at the most. Fortunately, the Long Ship was accompanied by an escort boat with a motor that pushed the ship for part of the voyage. This boat is appropriately called a “push boat.” (You will, of course, not read in any history books about Viking push boats.)

Part of the time the ship was sailing into a headwind. According to Marie, this added some excitement to their adventure. She noted that sometimes it was “windy enough to stir up a little chop so that when the boat got up speed you got bounced around and those close to the sides got splashed a bit.” She added that “the wooden boat behaved as it was designed—to be flexible in these conditions. You could actually see the flex and hear it creak—just a bit, not enough to be scary.”

The ship’s destination was St. Clement’s Island, a 40-acre Maryland State Park. This island has important historic significance and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Maryland’s first colonists landed here on March 25, 1634, after a four-month voyage from Cowes on the Isle of Wight in England. They named the island in honor of Pope Saint Clement I, the patron saint of mariners. A 40-foot white stone cross stands on the island in memory of these first settlers.

After the arduous rowing, the mariners were happy to disembark and spend 40 minutes on the lovely island. They first consumed their bag lunches in the island’s small pavilion and then enjoyed a special treat for dessert. Rannveig Fredheim, a native of Stryn Nordfjord in Norway, had baked and brought along a kransekake (a Norwegian wedding cake) to share. After lunch, they walked around the island and climbed to the top of the lighthouse from which they appreciated a scenic view on a wonderfully clear day.

After enjoying their stay on the island, the mariners boarded their ship again to return to Avenue. This return voyage was less arduous for the rowers because the wind was behind them this time. And they had a special moment when they spotted a magnificent blue heron.

Everyone was thrilled to have had an opportunity to experience firsthand how a 10th-century Viking ship operated.

Denise Bowden notes: “We had fantastic weather and an opportunity to bond with other Norwegians. Rowing a boat is truly about teamwork—if one person is off, the whole boat is affected. Sailing was much easier than rowing, but just as much fun.”

Marie shares her cruise highlight: “My personal highlight was when we rowers finally got in sync enough for the Longship Co. coxswain to stop giving rowing directions (“in—row—out—in—row—out”) and started singing a sea shanty. The song really worked to keep us (mostly) in sync. Also I greatly enjoyed seeing people with no rowing and limited boating experience all get together and make this heavy boat go! We learned not only several rowing terms but also learned how to put up the huge royal blue sail.”

Bill De Roche finally had the answer to a question he had had for many years. He says, “I had my answer. I had the answer to the question that I had formulated almost a half century earlier as I stood in awe before the Oseberg ship in Norway. As I pulled my oar to the rhythmic chant of our captain and felt the cool breeze from the Potomac River, I began to understand what it was like to be part of a raiding party in the heyday of the Viking age.”

This experience was made possible by The Longship Company, which is, according to their website (www.longshipco.org), “a non-profit educational organization devoted to increasing understanding and knowledge of the life, culture, technology, commerce, and exploration of the early northern European seafarers and those with whom they came into contact.”

Their most important activity is the authentic reconstruction of Viking-era ships. They sponsor voyages from May to late November and then work on ship maintenance in the off-season.

If you would enjoy this unique Viking adventure or would like to support their ongoing effort to keep our Viking heritage alive, contact The Longship Company!

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 10, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.