Sunday, May 27, 2007


Giant Viking longship to sail across North Sea to Ireland

May 27, 2007

ROSKILDE, Denmark: On the skipper's command, deckhands hauled in tarred ropes to lower the flax sail. Oars splashed into the water. The crew, grimacing with strain, pulled with steady strokes sending the sleek Viking longship gliding through the fjord.

A thousand years ago, the curved-prow warship might have spewed out hordes of bloodthirsty Norsemen ready to pillage and burn.

This time, the spoils are adventure rather than plunder.

The Sea Stallion of Glendalough is billed as the world's biggest and most ambitious Viking ship reconstruction, modeled after a warship excavated in 1962 from the Roskilde fjord after being buried in the seabed for nearly 950 years. Now it is preparing for a journey across the legendary Viking waters of the North Sea — leaving Roskilde in eastern Denmark on July 1 and sailing 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) to Dublin, which was founded by Vikings in the 9th century.

"It's like a banana boat. It moves like a snake," said crew member Preben Rather Soerensen, 42, after a recent test sail in the Roskilde fjord.

The crew will explore the challenges of spending seven weeks in an open vessel with no shelter from crashing waves, whipping wind and rain. Working in four-hour shifts, the history buffs and sailing enthusiasts will have to steer the 30-meter-long (100-foot-long) ship through treacherous waters with a minimum of sleep, comfort and privacy — just like the Vikings did.

"They must have been incredibly tough to do what they did," said 24-year-old crew member Triona Nicholl, an archaeologist from Dublin. "We all have waterproof gear. We have radios and life jackets and all the stuff. They must have been hardier people."

The Vikings turned to the stars and their ancient Norse gods for help as they navigated across the open sea, reaching as far as Iceland and North America. Many perished in the hostile waters of the North Atlantic.

This crew is putting their faith into modern technology: a GPS satellite navigation system and radar. They wear baseball caps and windbreaker jackets rather than chain mail shirts and helmets. Mobile phones are allowed, but no battle axes.

Nevertheless, the crew is likely to feel that they have been transported a millennium back in time when the voyage begins.

The ship — which will be accompanied by a modern support vessel with medical and rescue experts — has the curved hull and single square sail that typified the Norse longships, which were designed to sail on both open seas and shallow rivers.

Using replicas of Viking era tools — chisels, knives, spoon bits and axes — craftsmen built the 7.5-ton (8.25-short ton) Sea Stallion using 150 cubic meters (5,250 cubic feet) of oak and 7,000 hand-forged iron rivets.

"Within a certain framework, we knew how they built the ship and how the missing parts should be," said Erik Andersen, 68, who designed the replica. "The only guesswork was the color of the ship and the sail."

The builders settled for a brown-colored hull and a red-and-yellow sail, drawing inspiration from the famed Bayeux tapestry in France, which depicts the 11th century Norman conquest of England. The Normans were descendants of Viking settlers in northwestern France.

The ship proved remarkably stable during trials off Roskilde on May 5. Powered by up to 30 pairs of oars, the Sea Stallion, or Havhingsten in Danish, sliced through the waves without wobbling. Out in the fjord, the 120-square-meter (144-square-yard) sail was pulled down like a curtain, catching the salty breeze with a loud thump.

Captain Poul Nygaard, a Dane, dispatched instructions, relayed to the crew by the shouts of a midshipman.

It will be no pleasure cruise.

"They will suffer from blisters on their hands and sore bums," Nygaard said.

The voyage across the North Sea, north of Scotland and down the famously ill-tempered Irish Sea, will test both the crew and their ship.

The goal is to sail nonstop to Dublin, but the plan could change depending on the weather.

The Sea Stallion will set sail around the northern tip of Jutland and across the North Sea to the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. From there, it is to veer south at Cape Wrath on Scotland's northern tip and down the Irish Sea to Dublin.

The crew — mostly volunteers from Scandinavia, Britain, Ireland the United States and Canada — will eat, sleep and work in extremely close quarters. When nature calls, the solution is a portable toilet near the mast or over the side of the ship.

"Privacy is a very big problem. We're 65 people living very close for a long time," said Erik Nielsen, a 64-year-old volunteer from Toronto. "You deal with it. It is manageable."

The 78 men and 22 women will take turns sailing the ship on the seven-week voyage. Many will remain onboard from start to finish, said Rather Soerensen, the project manager.

"They have to know something about square sails. And they have to be very socially competent," he said.

The Vikings entered history in the late eighth century, when Christian monks chronicled the first Norse raids on the coasts of northern Europe. While feared for their battle prowess, the Vikings were also skilled craftsmen and traders, establishing commercial networks as far away as Constantinople — today's Istanbul.

In Britain and Ireland, the raids gradually grew into full-fledged invasions led by Danish and Norwegian kings. The first Viking settlements in Ireland have been dated back to 840. Many historians believe Icelandic Viking Leif Erikson reached North America 500 years before Columbus.

The longship on which the Sea Stallion was modeled is believed to have been built in 1042 in Glendalough, south of the Irish capital. It was considered one of the most advanced vessels of its time.

Some historians believe it crossed the North Sea to carry the two adult sons of English King Harold Godwinson to Roskilde, where they sought to form an alliance with the Danish king against William the Conqueror.

The ship eventually was among five sunk in the Roskilde fjord around 1060, probably to block access to the port.

The five vessels were excavated and are now on display at the Roskilde Viking ship museum.

Christened by Denmark's Queen Margrethe in 2004, the Sea Stallion is expected to reach Dublin on Aug. 14, where it will be exhibited before returning to Denmark in August 2008.

Terje Boe, of Norway's Lofotr Viking Museum, who is not involved in the project, said the expedition could shed light on the maneuverability of large Viking vessels.

"It is so special because of the length of the ship. How will they do in high seas, how big waves can it take?" he said.


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