Raiders or Traders?

A replica Viking vessel sailing the North Sea has helped archaeologists figure out what the stalwart Norsemen were really up to

The Sea Stallion from Glendalough (Werner Karrasch / The Viking Ship Museum, Denmark)
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In the summer of 2006, the Sea Stallion sailed under sunny skies and gentle winds to Norway and back in four weeks—a virtual pleasure cruise. A test sail in May 2007 around the Roskilde Fjord enjoyed similar conditions. “We like to say we’ve been cursed with good weather,” said Carsten Hvid, the Sea Stallion’s skipper. But the six-week voyage that began in July 2007— from Roskilde north to Norway, west to Scotland and south to Dublin—proved a tougher test. Fully loaded, the ship weighed 24 tons—eight of ship, eight of rock for ballast and eight of crew and gear. In ideal conditions, the Sea Stallion could travel 160 nautical miles in a day; it could sprint at 13 knots, or almost 15 miles an hour. (A high-tech America’s Cup racer might hit 20 knots.) “It ranks as one of the fastest warships in history,” says Anton Englert, an archaeologist at the ship museum.

For the July 2007 voyage, the ship set sail under dark skies that presaged Northern Europe’s coldest and wettest summer in decades. Nighttime temperatures plunged into the 30s. Three days into the voyage, two crew members had to be treated for hypothermia, and, to stay on schedule, Hvid had to accept a 24-hour tow across part of the North Sea because of weak winds. “It kept on raining and raining and raining,” says crew member Henrik Kastoft, in his day job a spokesman for the United Nations Development Program. “There were so many nights I just sat there shivering for hours.” Each crew member had about eight square feet of space. “I really suffered from being so close to people for so long. I got edgy, cranky,” says Erik Nielsen. “Maybe the modern analogue would be a submarine.”

If the night the rudder broke was the low point of the voyage, sailing along the western coast of Scotland almost made up for it. For nearly two weeks, the crew had the dramatic scenery almost completely to themselves. As the ship neared Dublin, escorts appeared. When it cruised up the River Liffey into port on August 14, ships and cars blasted their horns, church bells pealed and throngs of people waved from the balconies and windows of riverfront buildings.

Days later, the ship was trucked to the center of Dublin and lifted by a crane over a four-story building into the courtyard of the National Museum of Ireland, where it would spend the winter. By then, archaeologists at the ship museum in Roskilde had begun analyzing data generated during the voyage. As the crew’s close call in the Irish Sea made clear, high speeds over long distances pushed the ship to its limits—and challenged assumptions about how the original had been put together. “The sails are very stable and can take a lot of wind, but the problems with the rudder come up again and again, and haven’t been solved yet,” Englert says.

Information from the crew proved as valuable as technical data. Exhausted sailors told researchers that the close quarters made sleeping nearly impossible. Between the rough water, constant rain and their nautical duties, it was all crew members could do to nap for an hour or two during their rest periods. “That indicates the ship must have had an amphibious behavior—they had to land often just to get some rest,” Englert says. Crossing the North Sea in a narrow ship like this one would have stretched a Viking crew almost to the breaking point, and crossing the Atlantic would have been inconceivable. A ship like this would have likely been used for coastal raiding only.

On June 29, 2008, the Sea Stallion sailed once again, down the Liffey and out of Dublin harbor. It was, crew member Louise Kaempe Henriksen would blog, “typical Sea Stallion weather—pouring rain.” The ship set course south and then east around England to the cliffs of Dover, north to Lowestoft, then across the North Sea, following its Viking predecessors northeast toward home.

At last, after 1,261 nautical miles, the Sea Stallion reached Denmark a little more than a month later, on August 9. “We turn to Roskilde,” wrote crew member Vibeke Bischoff as they neared port. “We are escorted the whole way in,” he reported of their festive homecoming, “by hundreds of boats.” History does not record whether the Vikings, more than a millennium ago, were similarly greeted by their own vessels, bearing tidings of welcome to seafarers who were at last nearing landfall.

About Andrew Curry
Andrew Curry

Andrew Curry is a Berlin-based journalist who writes about science and history for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, Nature, and Wired. He is a contributing editor at Archaeology and has visited archaeological excavations on five continents. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Porto)

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