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CALLING ALL VIKINGS: Volunteer Crew Needed for Transatlantic Voyage on a 115-Foot Longship

Harald under sail

Man, if I were younger (and childless) I’d be all over this opportunity like a fly on excrement. Draken Harald Hårfagre (that’s “Dragon Harald Fairhair” in English) is a modern interpretation (rather than an accurate replica) of an old Viking longship that was built in Haugesund, Norway, and launched in 2012. In May next year she will set out on a voyage from Norway to Newfoundland via Iceland and Greenland, and the project organizers have just announced they are accepting applications for volunteer crew. You need at least two months of free time to do it and presumably should have some sort of useful skill to boost your chances of being selected.

Conditions aboard look to be very Spartan by modern standards, with no shelter except for a tent on deck, but by traditional Viking standards it should be a veritable luxury cruise. The ship does have an engine, so you probably won’t have to do too much rowing, plus a modern stove and toilet. I’m also assuming you can wear modern clothing and foul-weather gear (see photo up top).

Harald profile

Harald in profile. The name honors an old Viking king, the first to unite Norway. You can see the tent amidships behind the mast. At 115 feet this is the largest Viking ship ever built in modern times. Beam is 27 feet. She displaces 80 tons and carries 3,200 sq.ft. of sail. Longships like this were vessels of war, used on those famous Viking raids

Harald building

Harald under construction

Sailing again

Under sail, showing cross beams used to brace the clew of the square sail to windward

To get a clear idea what it’s like sailing this thing, you can check out this great viddy:

This ship has been sea-trialed, as the viddy makes clear. Reportedly she has hit speeds of 14 knots. What most impresses me is the historically accurate side-slung steering oar (the English nautical term “starboard” actually comes from old Norse and originally referred to the steering side of a ship). Think of the huge loads on that thing when the ship is sailing at speed!

Evidently she was also dismasted on her shakedown sail across the North Sea to Britain, an event that for some reason was left out of the video.

The expedition organizers are painting this voyage as a recreation of the Viking voyages of discovery, but this is a bit disingenuous. Vikings never sailed from Norway to Newfoundland all in one voyage, and they did not do it in big longships. Instead Leif Ericksson, who is usually credited as the first to reach Newfoundland, sailed from an established Viking settlement in Greenland (which had been founded by his father) in a much smaller trading vessel known as a knarr. And lest we forget, the Viking voyages of discovery that led to the settling of Iceland and Greenland in the first place were in fact desperate voyages of exile made by convicted murderers who had been banished from the homeland. Modern historians believe all or most of these voyages were made in knarrs.

The best and most accessible account of the voyages in question that I’ve ever read is Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America by Farley Mowat (better known as the author of The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and The Boat That Wouldn’t Float). Mowat combined a very close reading of the old Norse sagas and his own vast experience sailing around Newfoundland and in the Labrador Sea to produce what seems to be a very reasonable chronology. He reckoned voyages between Greenland and Baffin Island, north of Labrador, were fairly routine prior to the discovery of Newfoundland and that Newfoundland in fact was first blundered upon by accident by one Bjarni Herjolfsson, who got blown badly off course trying to sail from Iceland to Greenland. Herjolfsson did not go ashore, however, and later described his voyage to Ericksson, who followed in his wake.

Mowat speculated that Ericksson’s deliberate voyage to Newfoundland landed him in the southern part of the island, at a place now called Tickle Cove. He got rich bringing the lumber he harvested there back to Greenland (hence his nickname, Leif the Lucky), and it was others trying to repeat his trick who voyaged to northern Newfoundland where the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement has since been found.

I also feel constrained to point out that an old friend of mine, W. Hodding Carter, mounted a much more historically accurate recreation of Leif Ericksson’s voyage back in the late 1990s, which is recounted in his epic book A Viking Voyage: In Which an Unlikely Crew of Adventurers Attempts an Epic Journey to the New World. Hodding built an accurate replica of a knarr (with no engine and no modern stove or toilet) and sailed it from Greenland to Newfoundland wearing nothing but traditional Viking garb. A damp experience indeed. It took two attempts, as he had his crew had endless problems with their steering oar.

Some may also recall that I mentioned Hodding in a previous (somewhat controversial) post discussing Herb Hilgenberg, the well-known volunteer weather-router.

UPDATE: Hokey smokes! This post has gone nuclear. All you people who want to volunteer: you can't do it here! Follow this link here to fill out an application. Thanks!

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