For genius in boat design,
it's Norse, of course

by Eric Sorensen, Seattle Times science reporter,
as it appeared on the Seattle Times Web site, 5 June 2000

Author W. Hodding Carter, right, took a "Viking Voyage" to Newfoundland in 1998. ABOARD THE S/V SVALEN - It is a fine line that separates Eugene Gwost, 14, from the marauding Vikings of a millennium ago.

True, Vikings didn't wear ball caps backward, nor did their moms insist they take off the headphones and leave the Walkman at the beach.

But tacking across the slack tide off Guemes Island in Skagit County, Gwost's ship is nearly every inch a Viking boat, from upturned bow to upturned stern, from the broad, wood-planked hull to the square sail.

And nothing set the Vikings apart more than boats much like this one, which was meticulously constructed by an Anacortes boat builder smitten with Viking design. With such lithe, sturdy vessels, the Vikings plundered, traded and explored across much of the Northern Hemisphere, amassing power, wealth and knowledge over three centuries.

Vikings are getting their 15 minutes of fame and then some this spring and summer, the 1,000-year anniversary of Leif Ericson's arrival in North America. They have been the subject of cover stories in National Geographic and Time, and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., is displaying 200 Viking artifacts in the $3 million, 5,500-square-foot exhibit "Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga."

Ballard's Nordic Heritage Museum hosted a presentation on Vikings by the exhibit's Swedish curator last month and is planning to host Canada's Viking millennium exhibit in 2003.

Random House has just published "Viking Voyage," W. Hodding Carter's account of retracing Ericson's route in a re-created knarr, a Viking cargo ship, two years ago.

It is the ingenious design of the Viking craft that made it all possible.

"The key to the Viking Age is the development of the ship," said Terje Leiren, chair of the University of Washington Scandinavian Studies Department. "They had a technology that no one else had."

Viking might

The Viking Age started around 793, when sailing Norsemen started capitalizing on the poorly defended coasts of Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe with a raid on England's Lindisfarne monastery.

"Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race," said one cleric.

Over time, the Vikings toppled three of England's four kingdoms. It was almost three centuries later that William, Duke of Normandy, took full control of England in the Battle of Hastings.

In a way, it was a matter of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. William was a Viking descendant. He sailed in Viking ships.

"It was a Viking army," said Leiren. "They just spoke French."

But William's victory put an end to the days when Scandinavian raiders had their run of England. The Viking Era was over.

A second era of sorts, an era of Viking science, got under way around 1880 when a Norwegian farmer's plow was stopped short near Gokstad, south of Oslo. He had run into an entire Viking ship, buried in a funeral ritual. Hermetically sealed for 1,000 years by blue clay, it was in such good shape that conservators simply let the wood dry slowly and gave it several coats of linseed oil.

In 1904, a second ship was found a few miles away in a burial mound at Oseberg. Buried with it were two women, one believed to be a slave because of muscle tears on the skeleton, and the other about 25 and dressed in gold-threaded clothing. Researchers believe she was the Viking Queen Aasa; Oseberg means "Aasa's mounds."

Tree-ring analysis dated the Oseberg boat to around 815 and the Gokstad boat to shortly before 900.

In 1962, researchers began excavating five Viking ships sunk in the 11th century to block a channel leading to the Danish town of Roskilde. The boats were rebuilt in the nearby Viking Ship Museum. When the museum was being enlarged three years ago, workers found nine more boats.

Ship science

With so many ships to study, researchers saw the Viking craft evolve over time for special purposes, with major changes taking place just before and during the Viking Era. Long, slender warships could carry men and arms, while broader, deeper boats could carry as much as 20 tons of cargo for trading and exploration.

Some basic principles showed the genius behind all the boats.

Essentially, the Viking ship had two hulls, said Dick Wagner, founding director of the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle.

The bottom of the boat was narrow, like a catamaran, while the upper part of the hull was broad, letting it perform like an outrigger.

"One" - the lower hull - "was very unstable but very efficient going through the water," he said. "I call it a razor blade. Then it widened out, giving it ultimate stability and carrying capacity and buoyancy."

The hull was made of planks that overlapped each other. This eased construction and provided more surface area between boards to seal out water with the help of tar-soaked wool string. Also, the outer edge of each lap would deflect spray and help lift the boat at higher speeds.

Planking on the boat found in Oseberg was only one inch thick, remarkable for a 71-foot boat and making the hull light and flexible. The boat was probably meant for use close to shore, but other craft were so light that Vikings exploring eastern Europe and into Asia could make short portages by rolling a boat on logs. On the high seas, the hull could bend with the waves.

The boats also had a shallow draft, letting Vikings land on beaches and avoid fortified ports. If things went to plan, a warship could hit a beach, sack a monastery or village and be back on the water and speeding away before a retaliatory force could organize.

But the biggest innovation may well have been the sail, which had been around for centuries but used mostly for sailing downwind. The Viking sail could be used to head upwind, a revolutionary concept.

Now warriors, relieved from rowing chores, could arrive rested and ready to fight.

And the boats were fast. Sleek of hull and full of wind, a Viking boat could cruise at 10 knots, "unbelievable for relatively small boats," said Wagner.

Perhaps most important, sailors could both leave home and get back, even if it meant tacking relentlessly. Vikings took great stock in big deeds and now they could dare to sail off the edge of the earth, going where few had gone before.

Which they did.

Norsemen spread

Around 860, they went to the Faeroe Islands northwest of Scotland. A decade later, the first of some 12,000 Vikings landed in Iceland.

In 982, Eric the Red, a Norwegian farmer with a nasty habit of murdering people, sailed west and settled Greenland, which had been sighted years earlier by sailors blown off course.

Word of lands even farther west circulated after Bjarni Herjolfsson got lost on the way to Greenland and saw Newfoundland. He didn't land but spread word of what he saw when he eventually found Greenland.

Around 1,000, Leif Ericson, Eric the Red's son, bought Herjolfsson's boat and sailed with 35 men to Newfoundland, known in the Norse sagas as Vinland.

Thorfinn Karlsefni followed with his wife, Gudrid, and a party of 160 men and women in three ships, staying three years. Thorfinn and Gudrid's son, Snorri, is said to be the first European born in America.

Until the 1960s, the Viking arrival in the New World 500 years before Columbus was considered a quaint Norse fable. But then Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian explorer, and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, went to a place on the north coast of Newfoundland identified as "Promontorium Winlandiae" on an Icelandic map from the 1670s.

Helge Ingstad asked a local fisherman if there were any old ruins in the area.

"Yes, follow me," he said.

Ingstad was taken to depressions in the ground left by sod walls, which he immediately realized were not built by natives. Eight summers of excavation turned up the remains of a black-smith shop, a large flat stone for an anvil, a cloak pin, a bone needle, soapstone oil lamps, lumps of iron and the outlines of eight thick-walled Icelandic-style dwellings.

Indians had used bog iron, pounding its shape, but they had not smithed it. A soapstone spindle whorl, used to make thread, was uniquely Viking.

Radiocarbon dating put artifacts from the site at between 980 and 1020.

The colony, which may have housed 50 to 100 people at any one time, was abandoned after only a few years. One theory is that they grew homesick. Or it could be that, after slashing and bartering their way through much of Europe, they had met their match in the Iroquois Indians.

Leif's own brother, Thorvald, had died at their hands, shot with an arrow.

"We have won a fine and fruitful country," he said, "but will hardly be allowed to enjoy it."

Viking legacy

The Vikings left little trace in North America, but their influence has spread through much of the world.

They introduced the jury system to England, as well as the word "law." For that matter, much of our language comes from Norse - born, die, sister, window, plus the days Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, named for the gods Tyr, Odin, Thor and Frey. Starboard comes from styrbord, the rudder that hung from the right side of the Viking ship.

The Vikings built the Irish cities of Dublin, Limerick and Cork. They unified much of Europe through trade.

Iceland's general assembly, or Althing, is the first democratic parliament, dating to 930.

They gave us the sagas, rich sources of oral history and literature.

They gave Russia its name, the word rus being based on the Finnish term for Swedes.

Leiren, the UW Scandinavian professor, is fond of telling students how the Vikings' siege of Paris in 886 and 887 gave the city a mystique that it never before had.

"Paris is a much less significant city until it repels a Viking attack," he said. "I argue that if it weren't for the Vikings, Paris wouldn't be Paris."

And maybe, just maybe, Seattle wouldn't be Seattle, as the Norse woodworking tradition spawned a generation of craftsmen who helped rebuild Seattle after the 1889 fire. They made Ballard the largest Scandinavian settlement in the state. Their ships floated much of Puget Sound's fishing industry.

Today, their legacy is still evident in small and large craft off Norway and the Faeroe Islands, where Jay Smith, an Anacortes boat builder, first began learning the fine art of lapstrake planking and riveting in 1977. He built the S/V Svalen, Old Norse for "the swallow," along the lines of the Faeroe Island fishing boats that are direct descendants of the Viking craft. He later sold the boat to the Gwost family.

Which is how Eugene Gwost recently found himself in a small crew tacking out and back from Guemes Island, the cheeks of the Svalen's sail full, its broad hull riding rock steady.

"Did you see how fast we were going?" he said as the boat slipped on to the shore. "We were bombing it!"

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