Viking ship takes New York by storm

Photo: Dag Sjovold / Draken Expedition The Draken with Manhattan in the background.

Photo: Dag Sjovold / Draken Expedition
The Draken with Manhattan in the background.

Lagertha Aslaug
Brooklyn, N.Y.

My, she was yar! This iconic line was spoken by Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, about a boat she sailed on during her honeymoon. But it could certainly apply to the Draken Harald Hårfagre, the world’s largest Viking ship, as she glided along the Hudson, adding something totally unique to the New York skyline.

She docked not with a bang, but instead with the sound of a sonorous Viking horn. The owner, Sigurd Aase, descended, dressed as a Viking king, wearing a vibrant red, richly embroidered Viking robe rippling in the wind.

Also aboard was the Norwegian Consul General in New York, Elin Bergithe Rognlie. After embarking she spoke about the ship’s voyage and the role it plays as a cultural ambassador for Norway.

Aase, who is not only the owner but also the visionary of this ship and its journey, was also briefly interviewed, revealing that he first got interested in archaeology at the tender age of six. He then spoke about the ship: serving to create cross-cultural connections and as a conduit, educating the world about the craftsmanship and seafaring ability of the Vikings.

Inside Brookfield Place, abutting the dock, was a miniature ship on display and a panel exhibit offering additional information, as well as items for sale, including postcards, t-shirts, and a book with amazing photos. Tickets were being sold, offering deck tours of the Draken during the week.

The following day the captain and crew held a program at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which was organized by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum. Victoria Hofmo, SECM President, welcomed the captain and crew and explained how the Vikings are near and dear to the SECM, as they have held a Viking Fest for 15 years and use a Viking ship as their logo, tying our Scandinavian history to the East Coast with the Vinland settlement. She went on to speak about Sigurd Aase, “who like our Viking ancestors saw the horizon and was captivated by the possibilities it held. And not only did he dream about these possibilities, he also made his dream a reality.”

Hofmo was followed by a wonderful musical performance presented by the crew of the ship, the Draken Chanty Band. The 34 sailors, both male and female, were chosen not for their vocal pipes but maritime skill. (About 4,000 had applied in total!) But along the way, between the rigors of manning and womanning a ship, they began performing music. Unfortunately, the lead singer had lost his voice the evening of the performance, but this did not put a damper on the concert. The diversity of the crew members, hailing from 10 countries, was reflected in their musical choices, giving the concert an international flair. We heard sea shanties, Norse melodies, the Russian song “Ochi Chyornye” (Black Eyes), accompanied by guitar, and a lovely haunting French tune.

Hofmo then introduced “the fearless and tenacious Captain Bjorn Ahlander, who led the crew though both natural and manmade disasters.”

Commenting on the inclement weather, the captain said, “At least we got free showers.” Ahlander then spoke about their amazing voyage, whose purpose was to replicate the first transatlantic crossing, made by the Vikings, punctuated by their arrival in Newfoundland, Vinland.

We were fortunate to have images accompanying the talk. Ahlander began, “To create a Viking ship, you start with a forest.” We also learned that it is not an easy or quick endeavor. The project has been in the works since 2010.

He also relayed specific details about the ship, such as its beam, which is a soaring 26 feet long, and that Norwegian stones served as ballast. By 2012, they were ready to be on the sea for the first time with a crew of 100 rowers. By 2013 they were ready for a coastal trip, in order to “prove it was seaworthy, sailing every day with two crews from the 1st of May through the 1st of October. We tried to learn how to sail this ship that used 1,000-year-old construction techniques.

“By 2014, the expedition was permitted to sail from Haugesund, Norway, to the Orkney Islands in Scotland and on to New Castle. It starts off good and ends in catastrophe. We lost all the rigging after three or four days of sailing in the North Sea. No one was killed or injured. We went back to the Shetland Islands. We had two options; the first was to send everyone home. The owner said, ‘you can do what you want.’ We sent two guys to Scotland. They found a huge tree [to replace the mast] and we started journeying to Ireland and Liverpool without rigging.”

It took another year for the reconstruction to begin. Realizing that it was not sturdy enough, an entire new layer of deck beams was laid. Finally, on April 24, 2016, the voyage to recreate the first transatlantic crossing was able to begin. According to the captain, “It began in the long house where the first Norwegian king had lived. Of course, the band was playing.”

However, this pleasant vibe was temporary. After leaving Shetland, the weather turned so bad that the crew had to put on survival suits. Ahlander explained, “When the waves are dangerously breaking in an open boat, there is no protection. The suit makes sure that the body temperature doesn’t drop more than 10 degrees. Without it you would be lost in 10 minutes.”

The trip continued to be challenging, so much so that the ship suffered more damage. This seems inevitable, when you are experiencing 60-knot winds and choppy ice in an open boat. “It’s a hard job. You naturally have to take your gloves off for the lines. Everybody sleeps on deck in a tent and a sleeping bag in a survival suit, with some wool blankets to cover us,” describes Ahlander.

After all the ordeals, they reached the Faroe Islands. “I thought most [of the crew] would sign off.” Ahlander said. “One American girl took her bags to shore and left. I was expecting the rest to do the same. But I think all the crew saw how good the ship behaved, how she took the waves…”

So they made some repairs and headed on to Iceland, experiencing mostly smooth sailing. Ahlander commented on how Iceland housed the oldest democracy on earth, the Althing. Greenland was their next destination, which was not so balmy, as they had to veer away from drifting ice, causing them to change course.

However, it was the captain’s tale of a gathering held in Greenland that was the most touching of all of his stories. It occurred in a “small church made in Denmark and brought over. We had a concert there. An Inuit men’s chorus sang traditional Inuit music for us.” Ahlander was visibly moved by this gesture and it was wonderful to see the photos from this magical moment. For me it is a fortuitous place, for it is in Greenland that the Norse and Inuit settle simultaneously—possibly the first contact between the Old and New World peoples.

The captain and crew were also inspired by the place. Captain Ahlander said, “In Greenland, we traveled to find Erik the Red’s Viking Age settlement. It was the first decent temperature we felt—about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We reached the ruins of the church in Greenland. There was a couple who wanted to be married in this church and asked me to marry them.” And the captain in his humorous manner responded to them with the following, “Why would I do that? I like you both.”

It was time to shove off, as the last leg of the expedition was about to begin. The winds were down to 36 knots. But they had to hammer through three heavy gales and then another seemingly small problem—icebergs. In the photo Ahlander showed a peak of ice searing through the waters and explained that what you do not see below is seven times larger than what you see above. Luckily, they had radar to aid them.

The Labrador Coast was finally in view, but nature did not quit. The winds became so fierce that it was dangerous to keep up the sail. “We were lucky we made it and we are here,” stated the captain.

The captain then took questions from the audience and also had the crew weigh in:

Q: Do you get you seasick?
A: Maybe for the first 24 to 48 hours.

Q: How do you get your meals?
A: We have a great cook who prepares two meals a day, plus breakfast.

Q: How did you handle the sleeping situation?
A: You had watch for four hours, while others slept. It is hard work to handle this job.

Q: Who was taking photos?
A: They were taken from a ship that followed us. (The captain went on to explain how difficult this was, as well as dangerous. And that this ship also carried equipment in case of an emergency.)

Q: How did you handle bathroom needs?
A: We had two heads.

After the program ended, the captain signed books that were on sale. There were also postcards and time to meet and greet. The captain and crew headed to a nearby restaurant for pizza and a few locals joined them, learning more about this wonderful cast of characters. Their camaraderie was palpable.

The upcoming week was a busy one. The boat stayed docked at the North Cove Marina, in Manhattan, for admiration and deck tours. They also presented a program at the prestigious Explorer’s Club.

After New York, the ship sailed to Nantucket, but Mystic, Connecticut, is where they will spending the winter. The ship, owner, and interested parties will relax and regroup, determining the Draken’s next venture.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

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