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Viking Longship to set sail for Ireland

by Henrik Kastoft on 3 Jun 2007
Sea Stallion. Foto: Werner Karrasch, Vikingeskibsmuseet i Roskilde SW
When the Sea Stallion from Glendalough sets out to sea on the 1st of July and heads for Dublin, it will be the fifteenth time since the launch in 2004, the ship leaves harbour. The first fourteen with the purpose of making the crew and ship all ready for this next – and utterly extraordinary – voyage.

'For three years the crew has been working to get to know the ship, and now we believe it is prudent to imitate the Vikings. A ship like the Sea Stallion represents Viking Age high-tech. It demands insight and experience in the many functions and routines onboard to be able to travel safely, and seeing as no one has been sailing ships like these for 900 years, it has been necessary to undergo extensive testing of the ship and a thorough training of the crew prior to the endeavour. Considering both the safety of the crew and the quality of the scientific results we aim to obtain in the course of the efforts', says Tinna Damgård-Sørensen, director of the Viking Ship Museum.

The fourteen test trips begun in 2004 and climaxed last summer in the four week long roundtrip of Skagerrak. During those four weeks of July 2006 the Sea Stallion went approximately 830 nautical miles (1,540 kilometres), travelling as widely as Læsø, Bassholmen in Bohuslän in Sweden, Oslo, Tønsberg, Kristiansand, Thyborøn and Løgstør.

'We view the voyage of last summer in Skagerrak as an important test passed for ship, crew, and for the ability of the museum to handle issues of communication and safety. And even though that voyage was not actually part of the research plan concerning the Sea Stallion it still counts as a preview on how to collect data. Building on this information we are now adjusting the procedures of examination and documentation,' the museum director reveals.

After some reinforcement of the ship, the ship and crew are as good as ready. That leaves one of the most important things: an evacuation drill in Roskilde Fjord. The drill is carried out in close corporation with the Admiral Danish Fleet.

But before it came this far, with a base crew of a hundred men and women standing by to fine-tune safety onboard the Sea Stallion, much has happened.

The less eager dropped out long ago. Others withdrew because of their physical condition or because they realised that the project is too massive or challenging. And a few have been expelled. That leaves a crew of hundred, twenty-two of these are women. Age-wise the crew is equally divided on either of thirty.

Soon the Sea Stallion and the Viking Ship Museum together will make history as the first in almost a thousand years to sail one of the Viking’s famous and notorious war ships from Denmark to Ireland. And in this fashion help the scientists – and all of us – to better understand the Vikings and the significance of their longships in society back then.

Over the centuries, thousands of wrecks have accrued, many of which lie preserved in the mud or sand on the seabed until they may appear because of erosion or dredging. In fact, because of sanding up and because of the absence of shipworms in the Baltic Sea and in the Danish fiords, Denmark offers some of the most favourable conditions in Europe for preser-vation of the wrecks of ships grounded along the coasts or shipwrecked in the open sea. Therefore, we also have an obligation to preserve and to research into this cultural heritage, holding as it does both national and international perspectives. The Skuldelev ships clearly demonstrate these potentials.

This is where the longship’s upcoming journey to Ireland comes into the picture. Researchers from the National Museum and the Viking Ship Museum have joined forces in laying a puzzle that will give us important knowledge about the ship’s history. Using the most recent dating methods, we have been able to determine the felling time as well as the location of growth for the tree trunks used to build the ship: the wood comes from Dublin in Ireland, and the year of felling, 1042, can be deducted from one larger piece of timber that has been preserved right out to the edge of its bark.

Some may wonder how a Viking ship came to be built in Ireland, but it was Nordic settlers who founded the Irish cities during the Viking Age and whose de-scendants populated them for centuries as craftsmen, traders and warriors.

One may also wonder how an Irish/Nordic longship found its way to Denmark in the late 1060ies and ended up on the seabed in Roskilde Fiord a decennium later.

But here, too, there is a plausible explanation which takes into account the dramatic events following the invasion of England in 1066. William the Conqueror and his Norman troops on that occasion defeated the English King Harold Godwinson whose adult sons had to flee to Dublin. Two of those sons later appeared at the court of the Danish King Svend Estridsson. If the two princes were on board the Skuldelev 2 longship, then their mission might well have been precisely to co-ordinate the pincer movement attack against William’s troops that did in fact take place in 1069 – with a western thrust from Dublin and an eastern thrust from Denmark, the latter with a fleet of 240 ships sent by Svend Estridsson.

Frankly we do not know a whole lot about, what the fleet commanders of the Viking Age thought about safety and which precautions they took, before the navy vessels headed out to sea.

It is a given however that the losses of human lives in those days would make the hair stand up on the back of our necks. If we believe in the dramatic accounts of the sagas, gales and rainstorms at sea would at times decimate a fleet with a third or more.

Be that as it may, the Vikings – hardened sailors – must have done whatever they could to bring as many ships as possible safely to the destination… and they did so successfully. And if the Vikings had had access to modern safety and communications equipment, they would have used it.

At the Viking Ship Museum it is no secret that going in an open vessel all the way from Roskilde to Dublin is risky – not in the least when the voyage goes straight through the most dangerous waters in Europe – the sea north and west of Scotland.

As a consequence safety will always have priority over the archaeological experiment.

'You can view safety as the sum of a series of factors: the condition of the ship, the fitness and training of the crew, the equipment, and the support ship – to mention the most important. And then precautions like the mandatory life vest, the ban against alcohol onboard, and that every crew member has a safety suit,' says Skipper Carsten Hvid.

'The condition of the ship will be monitored by the two boat builders in the crew. They will assess and mend damages and advice the skipper on probable consequences on the continued voyage. The rig will be supervised by the skipper himself; he is also a rope maker at the museum. Additionally we bring along a spare rudder and supplies and tools to refit the ship and rig'.

The crew’s training included participation in altogether fourteen practice trips since 2004, participation in a sea-safety seminar under the guidance of a former navy instructor, a first-aid class with the project’s nurse, and in the evacuation drill of the next training weekend, held in corporation with the Admiral Danish Fleet. Furthermore twenty crewmembers completed a seminar on hard-weather sailing at Fosen Folk High School in Norway. And the crew has integrated a buddy system, organizing the crew in pairs obligated to keep an extra keen eye on each other.

'On the technological flank the ship has been equipped with modern navigational-, weather forecast-, communications-, and rescue instruments. The instruments automatically send information to other vessels about the identity, position, route, speed, and the amount of crew of the Sea Stallion. We also have a so called NavTex weather report system, which

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