Maritime historian releases new editions

Olaf Engvig

Photo courtesy of Olaf and Mona Engvig
Captain and maritime historian Olaf T. Engvig proudly stands at the helm of the ship Værdalen in Trondheim.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

Olaf T. Engvig, Norwegian American and celebrated maritime historian, doesn’t stop easily once he sets his mind on something.

Born in Trondheim, the son of a U.S. merchant marine captain, Olaf holds a graduate degree in maritime history from the University of Oslo. He immigrated in the early 1990s with his wife, Mona, and three young sons to California, where he became interested in the destiny of the 300 steam schooners that sailed the West Coast loaded with lumber and the Scandinavian immigrants that sailed them. Engvig took on two projects that would last over 30 years: to write the history of the Scandinavian steamers and to restore the last remaining ship, Værdalen.

For years, Engvig spent most of his free time working on Værdalen. The restoration was no small task, taking up all his earnings. During the summer months, his three sons were there to help him, along with other volunteers, and some good friends helped raise the needed funds for the project. It was a labor of love for Engvig, and today Værdalen is permanently moored in his hometown of Trondheim.

When I asked Engvig what is so special about the ship Værdalen, he explained that it is the only hybrid ship of its kind left from that era. Its drawings were drafted in San Francisco, but the ship was built in Norway. Unlike other wooden vessels of its day, Værdalen was made of iron and steel, which has allowed it to survive. Depending on the wind, the ship was powered by a steam engine on one end or a propeller on the other. The highly innovative design worked on principles similar to those behind the hybrid cars of today.

All of this history was documented in Engvig’s book, The Ships that Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, Wapama and Værdalen, successfully piloted as an e-book by Amazon last May (see Victoria Hofmo’s article and interview “How the watery west was won: The manuscript won the 9th Karl Kortum Maritime History Award, a program of the Friends of Pacific Maritime History in San Francisco, only one of many awards that Engvig has received during his career. Most notably, in 2015 he was named Scandinavian American of the Year.

There was no stopping Engvig, and he has gone on to realize another dream, to see the book appear in hardbound copy in English and Norwegian editions. He hired a translator, and now, just in time for Christmas, both are available from THEMO, a small independent publishing company that has put several other titles from Engvig in print. Recently, Engvig traveled back to Norway to celebrate the release of De bygde ville vesten—and to check on Værdalen of course.

When asked about what the future holds, Engvig shared that he has intentions to retire. Upon the urging of his family, the “jack of all trades” has plans to write his memoir, and he has dreams for his favorite ship, Værdalen. While it’s well taken care of in the harbor of Trondheim, he would like to see it housed in a boathouse museum so visitors could learn about the ship’s history year-round, not just during the summer months. He believes it’s important to share this history with future generations.

An ultimate dream would be to bring the ship back home to California, sailing it piggyback with a modern vessel. Now powered by diesel engines, the lumber schooner is still fully seaworthy, so don’t be surprised if you someday see Capt. Olaf Engvig at the helm, be it in Norway or California.

To learn more about Olaf Engvig’s research or to order his books, please visit his website at The hardbound editions are available for $49.95 plus shipping and handling, and may be shipped worldwide.

This article originally appeared in the November 16, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.