The Sea Stallion’s voyage to Ireland - an adventure only?

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Published 07th Aug 2007

With the launching of the Sea Stallion from Glendalough in summer 2004 the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde could complete its fleet of reconstructions built after the five ships from the Skuldelev find. Now, the visitors of the museum can see how the more or less fragmentarily preserved Skuldelev ships might have looked like – at least according to our present state of knowledge – when they were still in service almost 1000 years ago. However, like the other four reconstructed ships, the Sea Stallion is not intended to be a mere exhibit.

Instead, for more than two years she has undergone numerous sea trials giving a crew of no fewer than 60 volunteers the opportunity to gain experience of the ship’s performance under both sail and oars. Unfortunately no preliminary trial results have been published so far and we still have to wait until we will get to know if, for example, the ship has actually reached the predicted top speed of 20 knots under sail or if, when tacking against the wind, she is able to go about without the crew using the oars. Furthermore, it will be interesting to hear, whether the Sea Stallion is a craft easy to be handled or whether she behaves like a real stallion, making the crew feel, at least in a gale, to have only a somewhat limited control over the ship from time to time …

On 1st July the Sea Stallion from Glendalough went on a similar voyage as her archaeological ancestor almost a millennium ago – though in the opposite direction, from Roskilde to Dublin. However, is it really necessary from a scientific point of view to go on a voyage across half of Europe and to take two sailing seasons just to investigate the sailing performance of a historical vessel like this? In the age of virtual reality, so the believers in technology among the nautical archaeologists might say, computer simulations are able to produce the same required results without any significant material expense and thus, as it seems, without the waste of (always short) research funds.

It was the discipline of experimental archaeology which proved to us that Viking ships had comparably light and flexible hulls which contribute to a high extent to their excellent sailing performance. On the other hand, this flexibility makes them almost incomputable in the word’s true meaning since their hull shapes change permanently due to their tendencies to yield and to bend in the waves. So a Viking ship’s hull does not appear as a constant factor in an arithmetical model as the comparably rigid hulls of modern ships do. This seems also to be true for light crafts of other ancient building traditions. For example, the recent trial runs of the reconstruction of the late Roman navis lusoria type, Regina, on the river Danube have that the virtual results of computer simulations can deviate significantly from the actual performance of the replica.

Under these circumstances trial voyages with authentic replicas can hardly be abandoned, including the Sea Stallion’s voyage to Ireland – the more since traditionally built ships and boats were custom-designed for the weather and the waters they had to sail in. Thus, the longship Skuldelev 2 must have been designed to stand the rough storms and seas of the Irish Sea, and it will be one of the most interesting questions of the voyage how the reconstruction of Skuldelev 2 behaved under these conditions.

Nevertheless, most of the public may regard the Sea Stallion’s expedition as a spectacular adventure. But here, it should born in mind that archaeology is maintained by public funding to a high extent and so, in turn, archaeologists should regard it as a part of their work to satisfy the general public in their scientific results. That there is a public interest, has been shown by the many thousands of spectators who witnessed the launching of the Sea Stallion in September 2004 and her departure bound for Dublin in July 2007 – and that is good news.

Volker Westphal

Created by Volker Westphal, amatør-skibsarkæolog, Ratekau, Tyskland