They set sail in good weather. But once they were at sea, the fair winds died. They were tossed this way and that and made no headway all summer. Sickness set in. . . . Half their people died. The seas rose, and they were faced with danger on all sides.
—The Saga of Eirik the Red
The first time i saw a viking ship in the water, i was struck with the desire to stow away on it. Writers, even the normally sedate scholarly type, tend to wax effusive about Viking ships. They were “unrivaled,” “the best and swiftest ships of their time,” “the swift greyhounds of the oceans,” “the ultimate raiding machine,” “a masterpiece of beauty,” “the most exquisite examples of sophisticated craftsmanship,” “a poem carved in wood.” “What temples were to the Greeks,” wrote one expert, “ships were to the Vikings.” Said another, “Plato may have denied the existence of ideal forms in this world, but Plato never saw a Viking ship.”
The story of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, however, begins with a shipwreck. As The Saga of the Greenlanders tells it, Leif Eiriksson had just spent a year in Vinland as the first Norseman to set foot in the New World, and was heading home with a ship full of timber and wine grapes. He’d had fair winds all the way and had just sighted the great ice cap when one of his crewmen admonished the young captain.
“Going a bit close to the wind, aren’t you?”
“I’m watching my steering,” said Leif. “But I’m watching something else, too. Don’t you see it?”
It was a ship—or a skerry. He couldn’t tell which. The older man saw nothing until they came closer, then he, too, could see a wreck clinging to a bit of bare rock. Leif anchored close to the reef and sent his towboat over. He rescued fifteen people—to add to his crew of thirty-five—and as much of their baggage as he could fit into his already-laden ship. The wreck had been carrying house timber from Norway to the Greenland settlement; the men secured it as best they could on the rock, and the next spring Leif sent his boat out to fetch whatever could be salvaged. By then, most of the rescued fifteen had died. The only person known to have survived the journey is Gudrid.
If she had ever shared my delusions of peaceful, sunny, blue-sea sailing, surrounded by a crew of handsome men, she would have lost them abruptly on the first of her eight voyages. She knew the killing force of the sea, of weeks at the mercy of the winds, of fog that froze on the sails and rigging, when “hands blue with cold” was not a metaphor and no land, no shelter, was in sight. She knew how fragile a Viking ship was.
“You can easily sail her down if you are not doing it right,” Gunnar Marel Eggertsson, the captain of Gaia, told me. Gaia was a Viking-ship replica with the dual mission of spreading environmental awareness and arriving in America in 1991, one year before the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery.” From the west coast of Norway, where the boat was built and financed by the Norwegian owner of the Viking cruise-ship line, Gaia and her diesel-powered chase boat had followed the Viking route to the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Faroe Islands, to Iceland and Greenland, then over the ice-filled seas to Labrador and Newfoundland. In Nova Scotia, Gaia met up with two other Viking-ship replicas, Oseberg and Saga Siglar (which had been crated and shipped by common carrier across the Atlantic). The convoy then headed south, stopping for speechifying at Boston, Newport, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Sailing a ship down is one way to sink it. I had seen videotapes of Viking-ship replicas under full sail going down with all hands in the Oslo Fjord—and winched back up to try it again. (The crew bobbed to the surface in their bright survival suits and were gathered into Zodiacs.) But I had assumed the untrained crew had simply goofed. Off the coast of Spain in 1992, Gaia’s companion ships, Oseberg and Saga Siglar, sank on their way to the World Expo in Seville. The eleven crew members—all veteran Viking-ship sailors—were plucked out of the stormy sea by the crew of their modern chase boat. The replica ships were not recovered.
Gaia, Oseberg, Saga Siglar, and the later, American-made Snorri (named for Gudrid’s son) are examples of experimental archaeology, of learning by doing. They teach us how these poems, masterpieces, swift greyhounds, and temples actually worked, what this technology meant to people like Gudrid. Gaia is copied from a ship discovered on the farm of Gok-stad, beside the Oslo Fjord in southern Norway, in the 1880s. A chieftain had been buried in the ship in the year 900, a not-unusual way for a wealthy Viking to make his way to Valhalla. It’s the soil in this part of Norway that’s unusual. The burial pit was rich in blue clay, which preserved all the wood it covered. Whereas in many ship burials what’s left are lines of iron rivets in the sand, for Gokstad we have all but the ship’s high stem and stern. We have the rudder, the bailers, the gangplank, even the towboats—“rather crank” little vessels that would capsize easily if sailed, according to Arne Emil Christensen, who was curator of the Viking Ship Museum in Bygdoy, Norway, when I visited there in 1984.
Gokstad, on the other hand, “is a rather optimum compromise of speed, seaworthiness, and a fairly good capacity for men or cargo,” he told me. “You could easily put a hundred people in it for a short trip when you don’t have to sleep.”
At 761/2 feet long, Gokstad is only medium-sized, as Viking ships go. Even so, trees big enough for its keel—a single oak log almost 58 feet long—are rare in Norwegian forests today. When a replica was built in 1893, the oak for the keel had to be sent from Canada.
From the keel up to the gunwale are sixteen long oak strakes, each made up of several carefully joined boards. The strakes bow from stem to stern in an elegant curve; the boards come from trees with a slight bend, so the grain follows the curve of the boat. Although we don’t have a Viking yardstick, it seems the Vikings had the concept of the inch. Twelve of the strakes are exactly an inch thick. The waterline strake is 13/4 inches, while the strake that held the thirty-two oar holes (each with a swiveling cover to close when the ship was under sail) measures 11/4 inches. The two top strakes are very thin: 3/4 inch. The hefty gunwale is almost four by four.
This precision becomes more impressive when you realize that the Vikings had no saws. Those inch-thick strakes were split from tall oak logs with an axe. They were shaped and smoothed by axe, too—there’s a fine cartoon of it in the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered to celebrate the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The shipwright has his tunic hiked up and is straddling the plank, scraping it with a long, curved axe, while his fellows chop down m...