Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to Row a Viking Ship

 Writing about the "Vikings: Life and Legend" exhibition at the British Museum last week, and the dragonship at its center, I recalled one of my adventures while researching my book The Far Traveler: I got to row a Viking ship. A very little Viking ship. A Viking fishing boat, perhaps we should call it. Its name was Kraka Fyr.

I had made arrangements to interview Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, the former curator of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Checking my email the day before, I saw an urgent message from him: "Meet Anton Engler at the Dutch Bridge at 9:30 and you can go out in the ship."

At the Dutch Bridge at 9:30 the next morning, I learned that Engler was being interviewed by German TV for a series about Germans in other countries who had interesting jobs. What could be more interesting than being a builder of Viking ships? He was taking the TV crew out on the smallest of the museum's Viking ship replicas--and there was room for one more rower. I got a blue Vikingeskibenemuseet smock and a black life vest from the racks and climbed down the ladder onto the ship.

There were 10 of us in the boat: six rowers, including Engler, the TV show host, and me; a cameraman and a sound man; the captain at the steering oar; and one extra hand. Engler stationed me on the bench behind him and went over the technique and the terms: Ready, row, scull (row backwards), rest—or something like that. The rowing is in-sweep-out-pause, in-sweep-out-pause. “It’s not a circular motion,” he said. Could he tell I'd never rowed a boat before?

The TV personality was a small blonde. She rowed opposite Engler. I could understand enough German to hear that she wanted to know when the Viking age was and where the Vikings went in their boats.

It was difficult to keep in time (though we were only three oars to a side). I also seemed to bump into Engler's back quite often—maybe I was leaning too far forward, trying to put some force into my stroke. Rowing forward (we faced backwards) was fairly easy, but rowing backwards was much more difficult and I never really got the hang of it. Setting the oars in the water to hold the boat was also hard—you could feel the tide tugging the oar.

When I put my oar out the first time, I got the oar string twisted and it was hard for me to keep the oar in the right place—the oar locks are just like crooked fingers, with a twist of twine to hold the oar in the crook. If the string is loose, it’s harder to row. After Anton reknotted it tighter, it was much easier going, until the knot loosened itself again. I noticed his knot was loose too, but his oar never left its slot. He could row and be interviewed and never miss a beat.

Engler and the others put up the sail and took it down again several times so the TV crew could get a good shot. Sometimes the ropes got tangled, and they had to force the yard vertical and push it behind the stays. Once when the sail was going up, the rope broke (or someone let go of it). Yard and sail came crashing down--right on top of me.

Anton thought I’d been hit on the head. He practically dove under the sail, “Are you okay!”

“Yes," I said, "can I come out?”

He laughed in relief. When the yard started down, I slipped backwards off my bench and onto the floor of the boat so it wouldn't whack me. Still, I was smothered in heavy sailcloth. It was hard to wriggle out from under it all.

Finally the sail was up: We went skimming along. We all lay back, when the boat threatened to dip low enough to take on water. I went up into the bow with Jorge, who had been sailing Kraka Fyr for three years. We agreed it was a splendid boat.

As we came into the harbor, Crumlin-Pedersen was on the end of the dock in a white fisherman’s hat. I thanked him profusely for the ride, and he seemed very pleased. He had already introduced himself to my friend Kate--who took pictures from the dock while I was out in Kraka Fyr--and he took us to lunch in the fancy restaurant beside the Viking Ship Museum. We talked for about three hours.

Kraka Fyr, he told me, is a replica of Skuldelev 6, one of six Viking Age ships recovered from the sea floor at Skuldelev, Denmark. According to tree-ring analysis, it was made in Sognefjord, Norway in about 1030. A sturdy little ship, it was probably designed for fishing or for hunting seals and small whales; later, it was reworked into a small freight vessel and sailed here to Denmark, where it was purposely sunk to blockade the harbor at Skuldelev in the early Middle Ages.

It was so very small. With 10 of us on board, there wasn’t much room—hardly enough room to put up the sail. But the tree-rings don't lie. At least once this little Viking ship made it the 500 miles from Sognefjord to Skuldelev. I hope they didn't have to row the whole way.

Read more about Kraka Fyr on the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum's site.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. 

1 comment:

  1. I loved rowing as a child and spent a lot of summers doing it until I got out of college. I didn't realize at the time that it was probably a genetic predisposition. :)