Restored boat brings back memories of yesteryears
The story of a Norwegian coastal steamer
Don Pugnetti Jr
Gig Harbor, Wash.
Seeing the SS Oster carving the waters of Osterfjord north of Bergen rekindles memories of yesteryear when a huge fleet of steamers—rutebåter—served as a prime means of transportation along Norway’s west coast.
For 45 years, Oster was a welcome fixture on the fjord, stopping at 30 communities to board and deposit passengers and small assorted cargo. On its daily 40-mile run from Bergen Harbor, it motored the entire length of Osterfjord before entering Mofjord and venturing its full distance to reach the end of the line – the rural community of Modalen. Depending on conditions, the one-way trip took between five and seven and a half hours.
The 118-foot vessel was designed to carry up to 265 passengers. During the summer months, when city-folk fled Bergen for holidays on the fjord and in the mountains, more than 300 crowded on board. Oster also carried sheep, goats, cows, and horses, particularly when fjord-side farmers took their livestock into the mountains in the summer to graze.
“I have so many good memories as a small boy seeing Oster coming to Ostereidet where I was living,” said Tor J. Bjørgaas, now chief engineer of Oster. He retired in 2013 at 70 from a professional career spanning 54 years, much of it as a chief engineer on tankers and container ships. “Seeing her come into the dock were special moments for me. I’ve never forgotten them.”
Bjørgaas also heads a nonprofit organization—Nordhordland Veteranbåtlag—which acquired the aging ship and restored it to its glory days. Oster is now used exclusively for prearranged sightseeing excursions and private occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and business events.
Built by a Kristiansand shipyard and put into service in 1908, Oster has enjoyed a storied life and has served many maritime purposes. What made the vessel unusual was a reinforced steel hull needed to break through the iced-over end of Mofjord and to free Modalen villagers from land-locked isolation during frigid winters.
Oster served as the area’s main fjord route boat until 1939, when the Royal Norwegian Navy pressed it into service as a coastal patrol boat when the storm clouds of war surfaced in Europe. A cannon was mounted on the foredeck. After Nazi Germany’s April 9, 1940, invasion and subsequent five-year occupation of Norway, the German Kriegsmarine used it for the same purpose.
Returning to its original purpose in June 1946 during the post-war era, Oster again hauled passengers between Bergen and Modalen until 1964 when age began to catch up. Cracks surfaced in the boiler of the original coal-fired steam engine, and it was deemed too expensive to repair.
The public transportation authority sold the steamer to a private company, which converted Oster into a freighter with a new diesel combustion engine. It also carried a new name, Vaka, after the company owners’ family name. A decade later, it was sold again to another company that used the vessel as a sand hauler. Oster changed private hands a third time and hauled cargo.
Then in 1996, a group of 120 mostly former rutebåt employees, enthusiasts, and maritime retirees formed the Nordhordland Veteranbåtlag, obtained a bank loan, and bought Oster. The organization restored its original name and over time rebuilt the old workhorse into the glistening steamer, showing off its original historical legacy.
A steam boiler returned to the engine room with a Scottish-built, oil-fired engine, which itself had a history. The engine came out of a 1927-vintage dredging ship. Shipwrights found the vessel’s steel hull in good condition. But a new foredeck was needed and also had to be installed since the former private owners removed the original one for the conversion to a cargo vessel. The original deck at the stern had remained intact.
Bjørgaas, who has served as chair of the nonprofit organization that has owned the boat since its inception, remembered that day in June 2005, when the completely refurbished Oster was rechristened at a ceremony in Bergen.
“It was a milestone,” he said. “Oster was such a popular steamer and so important to the lives of people who lived on the fjords. I remember being very happy at the ceremony.”
The original core group of 120 has grown to 500 current members who pay dues that help defray operating and maintenance costs, along with revenue from the events.
Oster is now moored in the quiet harbor village of Bjørsvik just off Osterfjord. Three retired ship captains volunteer their time and alternate as skippers to pilot the ship on its outings. Bjørgaas serves as the primary engineer on the lion’s share of the voyages. His wife, Ragnhild, takes charge of the galley, serving coffee, waffles, and betasuppe, a delicious meat and vegetable soup. Others assist in the engine room and serve as crew.
“None of us get paid for doing it,” said Hugo Eikanger, a retired chief engineer who occasionally staffs the engine room with Bjørgaas. “We all enjoy it. It’s very meaningful to have this ship operating in her original condition and showing what the past was like.”
Eikanger brings a 45-year career as an engineer and later chief engineer on cargo ships, ferries, cruise ships, and seismic vessels. He remembers taking a trip with his father as a young boy on Oster from Salhus to Modalen.
“My father took me down to the engine room, and I saw all those moving parts,” he said. “I don’t know whether it influenced me in what I chose for a career. But I’ve seen many engine rooms since then.”
Oster is not the only coastal steamer to have been saved from the boneyard and avoid being stripped for salvage. Several others have been either restored or are currently undergoing reconstruction by other organizations in Bergen, Oslo, and other places.
But Oster remains an impressive historical relic of the bygone days, one still sailing on Osterfjord.
Photos by Don Pugnetti Jr.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.