It is my pleasure to open #Norsevember with a post about what it's like to sail with this beautifully reconstructed Viking warship, called Havhingsten (the Sea Stallion).
You might think that a journey aboard a Viking warship begins with rowing out of harbour, but in truth, the journey begins before then.
It begins by walking through wet grass towards the harbour on a typical summer morning in Denmark. The ship lays low in the calm harbour water, the mast has been raised and there’s already activity around the port.
I join the volunteering crowd of fifteen sailors to carry the sail down to the ship. We trail along the harbour like a long snake, careful when we step down onto the ship with the heavy load. Behind us comes the wagon carrying the freshly tarred rigging, soon to be salted at sea.
Both sail and rigging were prepared over winter. The preparations were long. 4km of rope needed to be tarred. The ship was cleaned and deck planks tarred anew. The ship was treated and painted. The sail got a bit of a cleansing, and fresh colouring, and finally, back in Spring, the ship was put into the water again. Ship maintenance is a big part of being a sailor, and there is much to do on a reconstructed Viking warship, but now we’re finally about to depart on our journey.
Joining the rigging team on this day is a good way to practice my knots, although by the end of the day my beautiful new red coat is black with tar. That is the price of sailing on such a ship. Everything ends up with a flattering coat of tar. While I follow the diagrams and try to remember how the ship moves to figure out what knots need to go where and which way the ropes need to be secured, food is being packed into barrels and cases at the aft the ship. While the tents we sleep in whenever we’re in harbour are getting checked and packed at the fore of the ship.
It’s a full day of preparations, until finally… The sail has been tied to the yard. The yard has been tied to the ship. The rigging is secure. Tools have been packed. The barrels of food are ready for tomorrow. The sun is going down. The day passed quickly with everything we needed to prepare, and serious discussions are still ongoing at the commanders' stern. The weather is being assessed and plans are being made for an early departure tomorrow.
That is if the ship will be ready in time. The weather will be good tomorrow. We have to sail then, or we risk getting stuck on land for a while. First, we need sleep, for tomorrow will be busier yet.
A single day at harbour and already my body is remembering what it is like to be out with the ship. My feet are throbbing as I lie down in my sleeping bag under the half roof at the harbour.
In the morning we gather our bags outside the ship. Enter the packing masters. That’s usually me. I’ve got the hang of it now. During my first trip I volunteered to help with the packing task not knowing that this would end up being my job until the end of the journey, because packing a Viking ship is the most intricate game of Tetris you can imagine. All of the bags and tools will only fit one way and they can’t be forced into shape, or the deck planks will pop out. Thankfully, at this point, I’m a god at Viking Tetris.
The new recruits arrive with their bags, as instructed, and I force them to double check that their waterproof bags are closed properly. I’ve made that mistake before. I lifted my bag after a day of sailing and it rained with sea-water. Before I pack their bags under the deck, I advise them to keep their rain clothes in their above deck bag, and their sunscreen too, and while I remember I smear sunscreen on my lips. My lips will be chapped if I forget before we push out. It might be cloudy today, but that doesn’t matter. Trust me, it’s different out there—at sea.
The crew is slowly gathering around, getting ready as we pack the last gear. Finally it’s time. Life-vest on, I sit down on my rowing bench. Two rows aft of the mast, port side, and shove my over-deck bag under the oars which are stacked against the side of the ship, providing very comfortable seating. More comfortable than my rowing bench, for sure. Honestly, rowing “bench” is a bit of a stretch. It’s not wide enough to earn that name, but after a day or two even my bony ass will mould to fit.
While everyone else is getting ready, I ensure that my finger-less gloves are tight. One year I forgot them on my first day. For two weeks of sailing afterwards I had blisters atop blisters and my hands were bloody. I learned my lesson. As long as I remember my gloves when we row, the skin on my palms eventually becomes so rough that I can’t feel anything, which is most definitely preferable to blisters.
After the headcount of sailors is complete, I open the clasp which covers the oar-hole and remove one of the deck planks in front of me. On this ship, we row on every other oar, and we don’t row with our arms but with our backs. When I row, I lean back so far that my back sometimes hits the empty rowing seat behind me. I need to hook my foot under deck, so I can haul myself upright. As a girl with short legs, I need to stretch further than most to reach, but I can manage.
“Oars!” We undo the slim ropes that tie the oars and pass them along to one rower at a time, until thirty rowers are standing with thirty oars shooting up into the air and the order is given for us to assume our positions. Our oars cross over, paddles leaning against the side of the ship. I help my starboard-side oar mate slide his oar through the oar hole. But I’m port side, and we’re still in harbour so my oar can’t get through.
“Push off.” I push the tip of my oar through the oar hole, against the side of the port. Our ship drifts away from land. Starboard side is instructed to row. Port side continues to push until finally we’re clear and can sit down. Sometimes oars break during that manoeuvre, so we always bring a few extra, but today we’re clear.
We begin to row properly. Each oar-take feels grating and deep on this first day. Oars blades turn the wrong way and hit each other. Each rower as confused as the next, trying to remember how we did this in perfect harmony last year. I had forgotten how much strength it takes. How shallow the oar actually needs to go for it to feel just right, and help propel us forward.
Vikings needed to get in and out of ports quickly for raids and after about a week of practice when everyone on the crew knows exactly what to do (and granted that we’re positioned correctly at the edge of a harbour) we can set sail right at the port and be gone in seconds. For now, we’re going to have to warm ourselves with a decent row until we have room to slowly set sail and teach the new recruits how we go about it. A problem the Vikings too would likely have had to tackle at the beginning of each raiding season; training new crewmates to replace those who went to Valhalla during last year’s raids.
After a few minutes of rowing, we all fall into habit and into the same pace. After ten minutes, despite the clouds above and the cold wind, we begin to shed our sweaters. After twenty minutes, we’ve fallen quiet in our concentration, and then the order to stop and pack the oars away is given.
We can still clearly see the harbour to the aft, as we close the oar-clasps, but we are clear of any direct sailing paths, enough so that we have some time rocking on the waves to instruct the new recruits on how to set sail. I get put on the gallows, which basically means I have to stay out of everyone’s way and slowly lift the gallows in the same pace as the yard rises. Most importantly of all, I need make sure the sail doesn’t get stuck on the gallows, because if it does, everyone has to stall and the sixteen sailors at the aft are going to curse me out later because they have to hold the full weight of the sail and yard while I’m trying to do a very basic job. I’m just kidding. No one is going to get mad, at least not on anyone’s first day, because we’ve all been there, struggling to get into it again.
There’s a trick to the gallows. Because once the gallows are free, I’m going to be standing perplexed with that wooden T-totem (which is as tall as me) and be in everyone’s way, so while the sail is still being raised, I need to get the gallows under the rowing seats and out of the way. The problem with that is that it’s like the Viking Tetris game of packing. The gallows only fit between two very specific rowing seats.
Thankfully I know which two and in a few moments the gallows are free, and stowed away, right as four sailors bounce past me at the starboard side, running to tip the yard and sail into the right position. The yard continues to rise and at the mid-ship ropes are slapping around as sailors release the square sail. In a few moments it’s done and we’re sailing steadily forward. For the first ten minutes, sailors adjust their ropes. We secure our heading and command of the ship and then, things quiet down.
With the sail up, and not currently on duty, I’m no longer tied to my rowing seat, so I crash atop the oars, forgetting, as I do every year, not to lean against the thick shrouds, those enormous tarred ropes which hold up the mast. My long braid gets stuck to the tar and I have to wrench it off. I’m pretty sure this is why Vikings braided their beards.
I can think of few things as painful as getting your beautiful beard stuck on a tarred rope in motion! At least the shrouds aren’t going anywhere, but my braid sure is easier to wrench off the tarred ropes than a thousand individual hair-strands would have been.
I settle for a stance, starboard side of the mast, from which I can see almost everything that happens on the ship. There isn’t room for everyone to sit anyway. We’re 65 people on a ship no larger than a bus. And since I’m not on duty I’m living ballast, so I need to move around so that the ship is always balanced and lays just right in the water. Usually that means staying as close to the mast as possible, although not directly at the fore of it, because then you’re likely to be hit in the head with the wooden brick which dangles from the centre sheet.
A good friend makes room for me atop the oars next to him—far enough away from the shrouds for me not to worry about my hair getting stuck again. I accept the offer, and we all settle into our new positions, chatting and enjoying being out at sea again.
Even those on duty don’t have much to do during these times. When we sail, we sail pretty well. A constant sense of vigilance is required both to adjust our seating positions as living ballast, and to adjust the different ropes, but outside of that, it can be hours of sitting around chatting and snacking on biscuits and tea before the order is given for something more to happen.
A few turns are announced to adjust our course and we all spring into action. For half an hour, we act as one, each at our positions, acting together to make the swiftest turns we can, and then the ship quiets down again as we settle onto our course anew.
The toilet “tent” is being set up at the aft, although they seem to have some trouble finding the shit bucket. I hope we didn’t forget it in harbour. The aft is where the ship is steered from. I don’t mean with the steering oar, but with the huge ropes from all four corners of the sail which come down to the aft. With a skilled crew of sailors the ship can be steered almost solely with those. We aren’t quite there—yet.
Meanwhile at the fore, water splashes over the side of the ship as we carve across waves. One needs a strong stomach to be outlook on a day like today, but there is a beautiful view out there. At the opposite end of the ship, the sailors at the aft are already putting on a second layer of wool underwear. The ship might only be 30 meters long, but there’s a big temperature difference between the fore and the aft. It’s like Niflheim and Muspelheim out there. You’ll see people huddled in three layers of wool at one end of the ship and shirt-less at the other end. The reason is likely our square sail. The sail is so thick and huge that it can take a lot of the wind and also block the sun for half of the crew. When you’re in the windy shade, you’ll be happy you put on wool underwear.
The sail is so large that we can’t hear each other either. The sail swallows our voices and the sound of the sea swallows the rest. That’s why we have the middle-shouter, who often stands feet on the railing, dangling over the side of the ship from the shrouds ready to yell every command given.
It’s good to be out at sea again. Ship repairers are at work already, because at the speed we’re sailing, water continues to rush through at the closed oar-clasps and between planks. Soon we’ll need to pump water out from below deck. It must have been quite the ordeal to pump water back in the Viking Age, with a bucket being passed along. You can’t prevent water getting in on a ship like this. It rushes through every crevice and splashes over the shallow side too. All you can do is scoop the water up and throw it back over the side of the ship. A most undesirable task to perform in high waves, because it’s a sure way to get sea-sick. Although, as I usually say: better sea-sick than sinking.
A Viking ship moves with the sea, so maybe it’s only natural that it invites the sea in too. Did you know that a Viking ship breathes? If you sit against the side at the middle of the ship and look across the way towards the foreship, you can actually see the ship expand and retract, like a living dragon. It’s a thing of beauty. A living beast underneath us.
Speaking of living beasts, that’s a raincloud out there. I best get dressed too. For when it rains, we get wet. When the sun melts so tar drips down over us, we take a swim in the sea. When the wind blows, we put on another layer of wool and huddle close together. When we’re seasick, we endure. And through it all we lean into new tasks with hungry curiosity and enjoy each other’s company. That is the Viking way.
I've sailed on and off with the Sea Stallion since 2015, and had the immense pleasure of trying pretty much every task aboard. Summers will never be the same when you've sailed with a Viking longship.
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