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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Bigger isn’t necessarily better


Is Draken Harald Hårfagre a realistic transatlantic Viking vessel?

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas. This wreck was in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, not far from L'Anse aux Meadows.
Draken Harald Hårfagre, the enormous Viking ship that crossed the Atlantic in 2016, is stopping to visit Rockland on July 22-25. I’ll go look at it, of course, since I’m interested in the Vikings and their excursions to the New World. However, there’s never been any evidence that such a large ship ever crossed the North Atlantic. It’s the wrong type of boat.

Like modern mariners, the Vikings had different boats specialized for different tasks. The knarr was the cargo boat routinely used for long sea voyages. It was wider, deeper and shorter than a longship. Knarrs averaged about 50 feet in length with a beam of about 15 feet.

Knarrs are sturdier than longboats, and depended on sail-power, using oars for auxiliary power. They were capable of making 75 miles a day and worked the northern reaches of the North Atlantic carrying trade goods and livestock. For that reason, it was probably a knarr that brought settlers to L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070) depicts English and Norman ships in traditional Viking style.
Draken is not a replica of any real vessel. Her hull was built with materials and techniques similar to those used for medieval longships. Draken’s of a class of warship known as a skeid. She is 115 feet long, 26 feet on the beam, draws 8.5 feet, and has a crew of 32 people (chosen from a pool of a thousand applicants). She’s both bigger than the average skeid and carries fewer people.

Archaeologists discovered the remains of several ships in Roskilde, Denmark. The largest was built at Dublin around 1025 AD, near the end of the Viking Age. At 121 feet, it is the longest Viking ship ever discovered. Another was around 98 feet long and carried a crew of 70-80 people.

I’m reminded of this because I regularly drive by a sign in Waldoboro with the town’s motto: “Home of the five-masted schooner.” This is referring to the first such boat built, the Governor Ames. She was the world’s largest cargo vessel at the time she was built, in 1888. The first six-masted schooner, George W. Wells, was built in Camden, Maine in 1900. These boats generally moved lumber and coal. They were built as a cost-cutting measure at the end of the age of sail, but ultimately could not compete with steel ships and railroads.

Lumber Schooners at Evening on Penobscot Bay, 1863, Fitz Henry Lane. (Courtesy of National Gallery).
Of the eleven six-masted schooners built in the United States, nine came from Maine, and seven from the Percy & Small yard in Bath. The Wyoming, built by Percy and Small in 1909, was the largest wooden sailing craft to operate in commercial service, at 450 feet long.

These boats often had short careers. An exception was the lumber schooner Malahat, which enjoyed a good long interlude running rum to San Francisco during Prohibition.

“Schooner ‘Wyoming’ of New York, the largest schooner in the World at the L & H Docks, Pensacola. 93 days from Africa with mahogany. Will now load lumber and turpentine, etc. for France.”
Extremely large wooden boats had a tendency to flex in heavy seas, which caused their long planks to twist and buckle. This in turn let seawater into the hold. A number of them foundered just a few years after launching with the loss of all hands.

The Vikings—the greatest sailors ever—kept the size of the knarr down to what was seaworthy in the North Atlantic.

Draken Harald Hårfagre crossed the Atlantic with a support ship (to film the trip). But I spoke with a former hand after the trip. “Every day, I feared for my life,” she said. I’m not surprised.

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