Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Viking Ship Named Snorri

The Icelandic name Snorri, which I admit I cannot properly pronounce, seems to follow me about. I first went to Iceland in 1986 thinking of writing a novel about Snorri, the chieftain of Helgafell in Eyrbyggja Saga. Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, heroine of my 2007 nonfiction book The Far Traveler, had a son named Snorri, born while Gudrid and her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni explored North America just after the year 1000. My latest book, Song of the Vikings, is the biography of a third Snorri, the 13th-century poet and politician Snorri Sturluson, who gave us Norse mythology as we know it.

Now a fourth Snorri comes into my life. While on tour for Song of the Vikings last November, I gave a lecture at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. There to meet me was Rob Stevens, famous for building a Viking ship replica named, yes, Snorri. Granted the ship was named after Gudrid the Far-Traveler’s son, but still, another Snorri.

Rob was a bit of a Santa: big white beard, big round belly, round blue eyes with the requisite sparkle. He had two silver rings in his left ear, one in the right. A curly ponytail. His hands were strong and notably banged up, the hands of a woodworker.

I knew all about him from Hodding Carter’s 2000 book, A Viking Voyage, which has one of those subtitles that need no further explanation: In which an unlikely crew of adventurers attempts an epic journey to the New World. In spite of reading like a farce, Carter’s book supplied me with wonderful background material for Gudrid the Far-Traveler’s experiences sailing in a Viking ship across the North Atlantic eight times.

Rob, in the book, did not come across as a hero. Carter wrote of “Rob’s moodiness and tendency toward being a loose cannon,” while acknowledging that “even if half of what he spewed was bullshit, he still probably knew more about traditional boatbuilding than anyone alive.”

“What’s it like to be written about—especially in a funny book?” I asked him.

He shrugged. At first he had been annoyed. Then he’d compared notes with the others on the crew, and none of them had liked what Carter had written about themselves either. So it was probably all true.

Now Rob shared with me a new book: Paul T. Cunningham’s Building a Viking Ship in Maine (Just Write Books 2012), a photo essay that chronicles the building of Snorri out of oak, pine, locust, tamarack, willow, and iron. The ship was a copy of a knarr, or Viking merchant ship, found in the harbor at Roskilde, Denmark some years ago. It is 54 feet long, 16 feet wide, and 6 feet deep. Rather tubby compared to the long, sleek dragonships we’re used to thinking of as Viking ships.

It also seems a little small for an ocean-crossing knarr. On pages 110-111 of Cunningham’s book, Snorri is in the water, surrounded by rowboats and canoes; a phalanx of motorboats waits further offshore. The blacksmith who made the rivets, a husky guy in a plastic horned helmet, poses at an oar, two other  fake “oarsmen” (is one a woman? hard to tell) pose behind him, while the rest of the crew and their families look like the tourists they are, sitting on the gunwales, lounging hands-in-pockets amidships. It’s quite a crowd: Packed in, with little room to move are at least 41 people (a couple more children might be tucked in, invisible). In Eirik the Red’s Saga, Thorfinn Karlsefni is said to come to Greenland on a knarr, or merchant ship, with 40 men aboard; his partner, another Snorri, had a second ship with 40 men. Traveling to Vinland, Karlsefni is said to have taken three ships and a total of 160 people. Looking at this photo of Snorri, the saga account doesn’t seem possible, unless Snorri is an unusually small knarr.

But other than its carrying capacity, Snorri proved it was fully up to the task of discovering America in about the year 1000—with a little remodeling. Unlike other replica ships like Gaia, on which I took a pleasure cruise in Newport Harbor in 1991, Snorri  had no back-up diesel engine, no enclosed cabin, no chase boat. The crew were totally exposed to the elements—the way the Vikings were—and totally reliant on the ship’s sail and oars. Not being totally insane, however, Carter did allow modern communications technology aboard. Otherwise, there might have been no story to tell.

On their first attempt to cross the Davis Strait, Carter wrote, “Our huge rudder had loosened a supporting crossbeam, a thigh-thick piece of wooden framing, by constantly pulling forward on it, instantly creating four holes in the bottom of the boat. Water gushed in…” They radioed for help. The coast guard towed Snorri back to Greenland and Rob flew to Denmark to consult with the experts at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde on rudder design.

The Danes weren’t a lot of help. Recalling his trip to me last November, Rob shrugged. “There’s a series of books called Culture Shock. I wish I’d read the one about the Danes before I went there. I’m just a boatbuilder. I thought they’d say, ‘Boy, oh, boy, another Viking ship!’” They didn’t. In fact, Rob thought they were giving him the shove-off. “After I read the book, I realized that they were being really helpful. They’d say, ‘This is all we will do for you’ and I now I realize they meant, ‘This is all we can do for you.’ It’s a huge difference in English.”

From Building a Viking Ship in Maine
Essentially, no one really knows how to build a Viking ship—or how to fit one with the correct rudder. All the Viking ship replicas built are examples of experimental archaeology, a fancy term for trial and error.

“The hardest thing about building Snorri,” Rob told me, “was organizing people. The vast majority of it was done the same way we built boats a hundred years ago. The only difference is if you’re using electricity or not. And electricity makes us lousy woodworkers.” The Vikings, he believes, could build a ship much more quickly than we can now. “Take the laziest person in the world,” said Rob, meaning in the Viking world: “Their tools were sharp. They knew how to measure and then cut to the line. Now you cut and grind it down to the line and it takes forever.”

In one of Cunningham’s photos, Rob uses an adze to shape the stern. Reads the caption, "Sometimes in wooden boat building, the older tools are the right ones to use." Elsewhere, another craftsman uses a modern router to shape a floor timber. If the Viking’s had one, they would have used it. It was a common refrain, Cunningham noted. The builders of Snorri weren’t purists.

But they were brave. Reading about Rob’s experiences sailing Snorri from Greenland to Newfoundland convinced me I would never (as I had once threatened) talk my way onto a replica Viking voyage. Remembering that time the “water gushed in,” Carter wrote: “We were more than 130 miles from Greenland, adrift. All that bashing and groaning I had so cherished had taken its toll. Some of the crew were falling apart. Rob was retching wherever he stood. Others were nearly as sick.”

And again: “Walls of crashing water would tumble over you and then the wind finished you off. I stayed just warm enough in my wool clothes—just shy of hypothermia, really—but I was soaked to the bone. Dean took a hit that even Mike Tyson could not equal. He reeled around gasping for air. Rob became incapacitated and puked mightily…”

I would rather fall off a horse (and I have, repeatedly) than be seasick. When I asked about it last November, Rob laughed it off. “Great way to lose 40 or 50 pounds.” Then he added, “I want to convince the guys at Cape Cod to build another one and sail it back to Greenland.” Spoken like a true Viking. Let a little bit of discomfort get in the way of an adventure? Never.

The adventures of the ship Snorri are chronicled in three books. I recommend them all:

Hodding Carter’s A Viking Voyage (Ballantine 2000)
Carter’s An Illustrated Viking Voyage: Retracing Leif Eriksson’s Journey in an Authentic Viking Knarr, with photos by Russell Kaye (Simon & Schuster, 2000)
Paul Cunningham’s Building a Viking Ship in Maine (Just Write Books 2012).

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


  1. I would love an adventure like that, thirty or forty years ago. I finally broke down and am in the midst of "The Far Traveler". Thanks!

  2. Who are the "guy's on Cape Cod"?

  3. If you're ever near southern MD, you can check out and perhaps join a voyage of the Sae Hrafn, a much smaller vessel, but like the ships for long ago, powered only by sail and oars.

  4. I was sitting in my office in the old Government House in Nuuk when my door banged open and this feisty-looking kid burst thru - "They said at the reception you could help me!"
    "Oh, yea, what's the problem?"
    "I have a crew member with toothache!"
    [subsequent saga left untold]
    And all I got out of it was a fuking rivet!