On the Atlantic with the Gokstad Viking
Intro by Kenneth Nordan
Many of us have either visited or seen pictures of the Gokstad Viking Ship currently on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. We’ve marveled at the size and construction of this wooden ship and wonder how it could carry Viking warriors, traders, and settlers over a stormy North Atlantic to places like England, Iceland, Greenland, and North America. How brave and hardy these men and women must have been to make a voyage over open ocean in a ship less than 80 feet in length with the surface of the water, when calm, only a few feet below the gunwale.
The Gokstad was unearthed in 1880 and the find caused quite a stir among historians and in the hearts of Norwegian sailors and countrymen. So much so that the people of Norway paid to have an exact replica of Gokstad built to be displayed at the World’s Columbia Exposition in 1893. Two hundred Norwegian sailors even volunteered to sail the replica over the North Atlantic to Chicago, Illinois, just to better understand what their Viking ancestors experienced. Eleven sailors were picked for the voyage and their experiences were recounted in many newspaper articles and in personal diaries.
The 1893 replica Viking Ship was Christened Viking and is now on display in Geneva, Illinois, by a group called the Friends of the Viking Ship NFP (FOVS). A translated version of a book by Viking crewmember R. E. Rasmussen and published by FOVS recounts the voyage and events of Viking that year. With the permission of FOVS a portion of that book is reprinted here for your enjoyment. To purchase a copy of this book or to help in preserving the first Viking ship built since the Viking Age ended, you can visit the FOVS website at www.vikingship.us.
Chapter 6: On the Atlantic
Soon we noticed that we were riding on the waves of the Atlantic. As it grew dark, there was a moderate gale. We were pumping steadily, as the Viking took on a good deal of water in the stern. This was expected, since we had all sails set and the currents there by the coast of Scotland made the waves choppy and crested. By midnight, the gale was increasing, so we had to take in the topsails. The sea ran rather high. Then we began to feel in earnest what a marvelous ship the Viking was. I can still feel how wonderful it was when she shot through the waters like an arrow, quick and lithe. Yes, the old ancestors knew the art of building seaworthy ships.
The wind steadily grew more brisk. Since there was no deck, scuppers, or galleys, all water had to be pumped out. At midnight our pump ran afoul. Viking’s pump was very simple and primitive. It collapsed time and time again. We repaired it, but to no avail. At last we took the whole thing apart, lifted the deck boards, and began bailing with all our might, using our zinc buckets. “Old Rasmus” gave us enough to do.
By 2:00 a.m., we had to take in the sails. The jib was reefed as well as two reefs in the square sail. This helped a bit. Although she was still taking in a lot of water, it was less than we expected in such a storm. Viking was still showing her best side. I do not hesitate to say that a better ship is not afloat in salt water. Even to port side, the side rudder served very well. The steering was quite easy. The tiller, which we all were afraid would prove to be too slender, was in fact too heavy, rather than too thin. For my part—and this is no exaggeration—as a helmsman, I have never had an easier or better ship to maneuver.
By 4:00 a.m., we were masters over the water on board; we were happy to see she was empty. At the same time, both the wind and the seas had calmed. By daybreak, we hoisted the reefs, and by 8:00 a.m. the pump was in order and in place. The speed at noon was seven to eight miles. During the gale, it had been twelve. Viking had ridden her first bout with honor. She had kissed the seas as only a Viking ship can. With God’s help, it didn’t look as if it would be difficult to reach America with that kind of ship. She had gotten wet, I admit, but she was always dry fore.
After a few days, I was ordered to take over the job of the steward, who needed some rest from the galley. I was not happy to take his place, as I have never liked to cook. The galley quarters on the Viking were not convenient. There were no tables, shelves, or pantry that are so essential to a cook. A small chest and a basket had to serve. Plates, cups, glasses, pots and pans, knives, forks, and spoons were no sooner cleaned than they were dirty again, since there was no place where they could be kept dry.
Besides that, there was endless smoke from the galley, which one could fight forever and never conquer. You had to light small kerosene Primuses and cook enough food for twelve grown men with Viking appetites. It was not child’s play. If you were unfortunate enough to turn the wick too high, there was nothing but soot and smoke, and the steward got the lion’s share of it. For the finishing touch, there was no other place to put the pump than aft in the galley, where the steward resided. The boiling room was there also. But what could be done? The steward was off duty and we needed food, so I was ordered to provide it. You have to obey authority whether you like it or not.
In the afternoon, the wind blew more briskly, and we now had a moderate gale from the south-southwest with high and rough seas. About 9:00 p.m., we saw a sailboat on course to Europe. Now things got lively aboard the Viking. The watch, who had turned it, came out of his tent in a hurry. We bore away and turned around with aft sail so that the other ship could sail leeward of us. At 10:00 p.m., she was on our side. It was a schooner-brig, but lightly laden. Our captain called out, “Where to?” All were listening, but the answer was indistinct. Captain Andersen then called, “Will you report us?” and the answer was yes. Then she was past us as fast as sails could pull. We braced around and started after her, but wind and sea had increased, and since we had a good wind for Newfoundland and the schooner didn’t have the sense to ease the helm, we were not going to spend time catching her. We bore away and continued on our course without further communication.
The wind force grew with each hour. By midnight, it was blowing strong. The Viking worked hard under the large sail pressure. It creaked and groaned everywhere. She was so limber and easy that it looked as if she could adjust to any weather. But the waves grew to mountains, so in spite of our doing 12 miles, the Viking could not reach the crest of the closest wave. The Viking was too short. For the first time, we were going to use our drift anchor. We got a buoy attached and out, but to no avail. Other methods were tried with the same result.
Little did the Viking care about our exertions. It looked as if she were saying, “Stop those experiments; I’ll manage anyway.” Even if she didn’t speak, she managed. We left the sea anchor, even though it didn’t help. Five points she lay there in those high waves without falling off, which was remarkable, if incomprehensible. She turned her nose calmly against the waves without showing any signs of falling off. She lay there so calmly that we lashed the rudder. We had oil buckets out, which helped, as usual. We continued to marvel at the ship’s seaworthiness and our love for it increased, even though there was no cover on the ship and anything not watertight was forever soaked by rain or waves. In addition, it was very cold. I struggled as cook, and was more than happy to give over these duties to the regular steward and resume my normal duty as helmsman.
We had brought along the first mainsail, which was sewn in Bergen and set aside before the trip. This fixed solid sail was rigged into two lec-sails, one port side and one starboard. The two bonnets (additional pieces laced to the bottom) of the mainsail were lashed together to a lec-sail to replace the corner-storm mainsail. The largest Viking oars became lec-sail booms. She also carried both the corner topsails. Even with a light wind, she now made 8 to 9 miles, and on the following day, a school of dolphins followed us.
This article originally appeared in the June 19, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.