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Last year I wrote about the world’s fastest human powered boat, the 170 oar Hellenic navy trireme Olympias, which is scheduled to visit New York’s harbor as part of the tall ship festival this summer (July, 2012). One of my friends has even been training to crew the classical warship while it is here, so we will be returning to that story soon! In the mean time, however I have been following the somewhat related story of the traditional construction of a Viking longboat in Norway.
Viking ships were up to three times as fast as the other ships of the time. They could be pulled entirely on the beach and they had flexible, clinker lined hulls which allowed them to conform to the waves in the manner of the serpents, dragons, and seabirds which were their emblems. Vikings used their superior ships to undertake prodigious feats of sailing. The Norse mariners sailed from North America in the west, to the far distant Sea of Azov beyond the Black Sea (and pretty much everywhere in between). Not only were the sea coasts of Europe, Central Asia, and North America accessible to Viking ships: because the vessels had such a shallow draft, they could operate on rivers which were regarded as non-navigable. From the 8th to the 11th centuries, Scandinavian sailors could appear almost anywhere to explore, trade, pillage, or hire out as mercenaries.
The ship being crafted today in Haugesund (Western Norway) is based on a large greatship (storskipene) of the Norwegian coastal fleet. The boat will be christened the Dragon Harald Fairhair in honor of King Harald Fairhair (c. 850 – c. 933) who welded the petty kingdoms of Norway together as a unified nation (that’s a metaphor—he used statecraft and war to assemble his kingdom rather than actual welding). In order to make the ship as realistic as possible, traditional boatwrights have pored over classical literary sources from medieval sagas, as well as analyzing drawings, carvings, and actual period boats from wrecks and burials. The project’s website describes the completed boat
At a hundred and fourteen feet of crafted oak, twenty-seven feet on the beam, displacing seventy tons, and with a thirty-two hundred square foot sail of pure silk, this magnificent ship will indeed be worthy of a king.
The Dragon Harald Fairhair will have 25 pairs of oars. It is necessary to have at least two people on each oar to row the ship efficiently. That will give a crew of at least 100 persons, yet the craft should be able to be sailed by only twelve.
When it is finished, the Dragon King Harald, will join a veritable fleet of reconstructed Viking boats (which can be seen here at vikingstoday.com). The craft should be seaworthy in summer of 2012, but its builders anticipate spending a season experimenting with rigging and sailing techniques (since there are no actual Viking sailors left to explain how to operate a working Viking longboat.