Alva Mac Gowan recounts her recent voyage on the Sea Stallion of Glendalough, a reconstructed Viking longship
‘It is the still and silent sea that drowns a man‘- Hávamál
Last month I sailed with a crew of fifty-five in a 30m (100ft) long reconstructed Viking war ship called the Sea Stallion of Glendalough. We travelled north from Roskilde in Denmark, through the famous Sea of Kattegat and up along the western coast of Sweden, a journey which had been made many times before me by my Norse forefathers. You see, my destiny with the Sea Stallion began a millennia ago in my home town of Dublin.
The Sea Stallion is based on a Viking ship known as the Skuldelev 2, which was excavated in 1962 in waters north of Roskilde Harbour. The boat was intentionally sunk along with four other smaller Viking boats as part of a defensive barrier constructed to restrict access to Roskilde, the royal seat of Denmark at the time. However, it had been long suspected that the vessel was built outside of Denmark, due to the style of shipbuilding used. This suspicion was confirmed when, after dendrochronological testing (tree-ring dating), the keel of the ship was found to have been carved from an oak tree which was felled near Dublin in the summer of 1042. At this time Dublin was the largest Viking settlement outside of Scandinavia, so it is not a huge surprise that boats were being built there. However, finding one in a distant Danish port was still intriguing.
In 2004, after four years of work, a life-size reconstruction of the Skuldelev 2 boat was completed by the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum and given the name ‘Havhingsten fra Glendalough‘ or ‘The Sea Stallion from Glendalough’. After a number of trial voyages the Sea Stallion embarked on its most epic journey to date, back to Dublin. In 2007 a full crew of sixty five sailed the 7 week journey; from Roskilde to Norway, then crossing the North Sea to the Orkney Islands and then around the north-west of Scotland to Ireland. I was actually there on the boat’s arrival in Dublin in August 2007, along with 10,000 other people, who crowded the River Liffey’s quays to welcome the ship and its exhausted crew. Apparently it was the largest welcome they had ever received!
Like all sea vessels without an engine The Sea Stallion relies primarily on the wind. It can be rowed, but this is mainly used for harbour manoeuvres or to turn the boat, rarely to move it across long distances as the crew would be exhausted and in no fit shape for attack when they finally reached dry land. The Vikings would have waited for favourable winds before setting sail, they also would have had to stop off and camp along the route to wait for the winds to change, you can imagine them getting slightly bored, longing to get back to sea, as we did. And what did we do then? We helped repair the boat, cleaned it, went to the local market for supplies and then prepared supper. After all our chores were completed we had a few Danish beers!
One of the many reasons I chose to sail on the boat was to gain a greater understanding of the Vikings, not just from an archaeological perspective but also from a social or indeed human one. The sailing was indeed enlightening, once the sheet was raised we would sit back and enjoy the ride, we learned some knots, tacking, we even sang sea shanties, and folk songs whilst clinging to ropes and trimming the ship (moving from one side to the other to balance the boat). If we sailed at night we would huddle together for warmth and comfort. I didn’t sleep so well one night as I was soaked by a wave that washed over me as soon as I put my head down. So, instead I gazed up at the stars which peeped over the sail, bidding farewell to the sunset and waiting to catch the sunrise. This was proper Viking TV in wide screen!
Within a few days the ship had become our home, we were a family, taking care of each other; sometimes our lives depended on each other. I began to feel closer not only to the crew but the people that sailed in these vessels a long time ago. The smells and sounds penetrated my dreams and imagination- when I slept on land I dreamt I was at sea, when I slept on the boat I dreamt I was on land.
The sounds I remember most were of the waves lapping against the boat, the mast creaking as the sail billowed in the winds, hushed conversations in Danish, some snoring, along with the occasional command reverberating on the sail. Days ran into each other, time passed and I did not care, we just wanted to keep moving, “Where is the wind coming from today?”, or “Where are we sailing to next?”, were probably the questions Søren, the Skipper was asked most. All of these sensations combined brought the Nordic past alive for me and showed how happy we can be without all the comforts of home and trappings of modern consumerism. The conversation was flowing and the ‘hygge‘ (a Danish word for cosiness and conversation) was supplied in abundance.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all “plain sailing”, we had rough days where most of the crew were sea sick and rain and waves drenched us all. I have never been so bruised as when I arrived exhausted home to Dublin. My hands were weathered and nails engrained with black tar from the ropes, which took weeks to grow out. But I had rowing muscles, a Danish glow in my cheeks and just completed my most impressive adventure to date- and THAT says a lot!
The Sea Stallion is one of many reconstructed Scandinavian boats housed at the Viking Ship Museum, the latest project ‘The Gislinge Boat’, which is a replica of a Viking fishing boat, is due to set sail on her maiden voyage in the Autumn. All boats are built at the museum by skilled craftspeople and everything is faithfully researched and replicated from the nails to the sails. The museum is the largest visitor attraction outside of Copenhagen in Denmark.