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The last miles at sea

Photo: Werner Karrasch
Photo: Werner Karrasch
Published 07th Aug 2008

We are sailing the last nautical miles with the Sea Stallion – for the time being.

But the project does not end here. An experimental archaeological project lasts right from the day it is decided to build the ship until the day it is “cut up and burnt”. 

The process can be divided as follows:

  1. Reconstruction via computer and models. Based on measurements from the original material.
  2. Full scale reconstruction. Based on studies of the original material, photos from the dig and the reconstructed shape.
  3. Sailing, adjustments to the ship and rig, training of crew.
  4. Repairs, wear and old age.


This way of working tells us something about the Viking Age in general and the original ship in particular.

From the beginning of the project, we wanted to be able to sail the ship to Dublin in 2007. We wouldn’t be able to say anything about Skuldelev 2’s sailing characteristics if the ship was only tested in Danish waters.

A crew of sailors with and without experience from other square-riggers, of people with good social skills, experience of outdoor life, and ready for challenges and adventure, was put together. This crew has now spent 3–6 weeks of their summer holiday for 4 years, 5–6 weekends and a lot of other time too, organising this voyage.

After the launch in 2004, we rowed a few trips in the ship on Roskilde Fjord, and there was just the one sailing trip that year. On that trip, we had no covers on the oar holes, so when the Sea Stallion leaned over in a gust of wind, 30 streams of water as thick as thighs poured into the ship. On that occasion, the crew was very quick to trim up to windward, even without training…

In 2005, we sailed a little further – first to the Isefjord, and then out into the Kattegat, anxious to see how the ship would cope with wind and swell. The Sea Stallion showed some of its potential and we excitedly looked forward to the next year.

In 2006, we sailed up along the Swedish west coast to Oslo, down the Norwegian east coast, and then a bit of the North Sea from Kristiansand to Thyborøn. On the first trips in strong winds in the Skagerrak, we experienced the Sea Stallion’s very flexible hull. That made us give the original ship a closer look. We reinterpreted the sparse original material and found an option for strengthening the ship. We mounted a fish (a thick broad plank level with the flooring on the centre line) along almost the whole length of the ship. We also stiffened the ship diagonally by fixing some of the flooring fast with spikes (as in the Oseberg ship).

Via foundations, sponsors and public funds, the Viking Ship Museum received the financial means allowing us to make the voyage to Dublin in 2007. Roskilde – Norway – the Orkneys – western Scotland – the Irish Sea.

The crew were well-prepared and the voyage started with a fast trip from Roskilde up to the Norwegian coast in rain and strong winds. If it hadn’t been for problems with the rudder tackle, made of hemp rope, we might have let the Sea Stallion go faster than the 10 knots we reached. Instead, we reefed in to reduce the pressure on the rudder. The strengthening the previous year had given the ship a more reasonable flexibility and we trusted the Sea Stallion more and more.

The sea trials also showed that the Sea Stallion could go faster and closer to the wind than any of the other Viking ships we had reconstructed. This has to be seen in the light of a general prejudice that perhaps Viking longships had considerable potential for speed, but poor tacking qualities – the ship has 60 oars, so many of us thought “they could row the ship against the wind quicker than they could tack under sail”. And it proved true in a few cases – when there was now swell. But even in a moderate swell, we can only row the Sea Stallion at 1–1½ knots, and if the swell increases, it is impossible to row the Sea Stallion. The water catches the oars and they get stuck in the oar holes, with split and ruined oar-hole boards as a result.

On the voyage to Dublin, we got to know the ship properly and safer and safer on board. Despite its narrow hull, the Sea Stallion could sail in winds up to 23 metres/sec and swells of 3–5 metres, without taking in more water than could be relatively easily pumped out again. The reefing of the 112-square-metre sail worked convincingly and effectively all the way down to one sixth size.

After wintering in Dublin, we sailed home to Roskilde again: south of England, across the Celtic Sea, up the English Channel, across the North Sea, through the Limfjord, the Kattegat and Roskilde Fjord.

The year’s biggest challenge without any doubt was the voyage from Ireland to England over the Celtic Sea. As I have written before, this voyage was a test for both ship and crew. That we had to bale out as never before, says more perhaps about how much (or little…) we have baled out in our lives, than it says about the limits for what the Sea Stallion can take. The ship coped fantastically, crawling over swell after swell, the whole hull twisting and shaking with every wave it met, but continuing undaunted.

Our biggest construction success this year was the new rudder tackle. We didn’t really believe in it ourselves as we tried with one tree after the other out in the forest. I admit that I thought: OK, so we tried it out – we can always use our emergency strap (of modern material), which we used a lot last year. But we have had no need for it this year – it was never even considered. The rudder tackle works irreproachably.

The first rudder tackle was fitted in Dublin, the day before we sailed. It was replaced in Portsmouth, 430 nautical miles and 6 sailing days old. We replaced it, because we had picked a tree with a poor root. The new tackle, which is still on the ship now, has held since Portsmouth, 695 nautical miles and 9 sailing days old. It has a good root, but the tackle itself is not as nice as the first. But it will certainly last the final 25 nautical miles home. Now we have experience we can use in the forest next spring about which trees to pick and which to leave.

The sail and rig also function well. We can sail with the current rig for about ten more years without problems, as long as it is tarred every year and checked regularly. The few bits of untarred rigging that went unnoticed did not hold. But the sheets, tack rope, and all the tarred rope will easily hold a few years yet. The sail is worn and the needlework is particularly stretched. The colouring with red and yellow ochre and salt water as the only binder is holding surprisingly well and can always be brightened up in a year or two.

We still have various experiments we would like to carry out. It would be interesting to try to get the Sea Stallion to row better. It requires focus and training of the crew, and perhaps that we take some of the ballast out of the ship. That will affect its sailing qualities, but how?

Remember that just because we have got the Sea Stallion to function well, that does not necessarily mean that our interpretation of the original find is “the truth” – but we can’t be far off.

Created by Søren Nielsen