Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Did Vikings Get Seasick?

I get seasick. Really seasick. So to write about sailing a Viking ship, as I've done extensively in my new book, The Real Valkyrie, as well as in my earlier books about Gudrid the Far-Traveler's exploration of North America around the year 1000, I didn't try to recreate a Viking voyage.

Sure, I got on Viking ships. I rowed the Viking fishing boat Kraka Fyr in Roskilde harbor. (You can read about that adventure here.)

And I tooled around the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island in Gaia, a replica of the Gokstad ship. (See "A Viking Ship at Midnight," here.)

But mostly, I visited Viking ships in museums and read books by and about other people who had tried to recreate voyages in replica Viking ships.

One of my favorite passages is from Hodding Carter's A Viking Voyage: In which an unlikely crew of adventurers attempts an epic journey to the New World. (Really, the subtitle tells you all you need to know.) This scene (greatly abbreviated here) takes place just before their replica knarr, called Snorri, had to be towed back to Greenland by the Coast Guard Canada.

Writes Carter: "Each swell that rocked Snorri, each wave that slapped her across the sheer plank and sprayed over the foredeck--I cherished them all. We were finally attempting something ancient. We had left the safety net of land and civilization. For the Vikings, this had been THE moment ... I felt unbound. 'This is THE MOMENT,' I kept telling myself. I suddenly fell in love not only with sailing but also with the ocean. I liked being at its mercy. ... The water shifted colors again and again. ... Sounds competed for attention. ... I could not sleep that night. ... I knew then why Leif and the others sailed west--not for wood or new land, but merely to feel so much at once. ... By seven the next evening 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. Snorri was faring even worse. 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..."

No need to read farther, I thought. I'm not going to cross an ocean on a Viking ship. Not me.

Several years later, between the publication of The Far Traveler (2007) and that of my YA novel based on that research, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (2015), I had the good fortune to meet the retching Rob of Carter's story. When I asked him about his seasickness, he laughed it off. “Great way to lose 40 or 50 pounds.” (You can read more about Rob Stevens, the boatbuilder who built the knarr replica for Carter, here.)

As I said then, I would rather fall off a horse (and I have, repeatedly; read about that here) than be seasick.

But from what archaeologists reexamining the Gokstad ship discovered recently, it seems the bigger hazard for a sailor on a Viking ship was getting bored.

Photo caption: Hanne Lovise Aannestad of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo points at the footprint on a board of the Gokstad ship. The footprint is enhanced by Science Nordic (photo by Hanne Jakobsen/Per Byhring)

According to a 2013 story in Science Nordic, carved into the original floorboards of this Viking ship buried in about 900 in the blue clay of southern Norway are two footprints. They were discovered in 2009, when museum workers were preparing to transfer the floorboards into a new exhibit space.

"My guess is that some time or another a person was bored and simply traced his foot with his knife. It's a kind of an 'I was here' message," researcher Hanne Lovise Aannestad of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo told Science Nordic.

The footprints are quite small--smaller than Aannestad's--perhaps a girl's? The more distinct of the two prints is a right foot, bare. It even includes toenails. A weaker outline of a left foot appears on another plank. Was it the same girl's? Since the loose floorboards were scattered when the ship was excavated, it's impossible to say. So there might have been two bored young people on the Gokstad ship.

Or maybe they were trying to take their minds off being seasick.

To learn how I used those footprints to tell the story of a warrior woman sailing to Birka in the 10th century, see Chapter 13 of my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women. To learn more about the book, see the previous posts on this blog (here) or my page at

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