Waiting for a fair wind

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Published 24th Jul 2007

On this web site it has been possible to follow the Sea Stallion’s operations along the Norwegian coast from Lindenes to Egersund, while the crew was waiting for a fair wind, that is a serviceable sailing wind for the sea-crossing between Norway and Orkney. It has also been possible to follow some of the tactical considerations in connection with this and the attempt to place the ship in a favourable starting position (Egersund) in relation to the weather forecasts. In principle it is a case of the same classical procedure in connection with sea voyages as is known from both the Viking Age and throughout the period of sailing ships. A procedure which we might call “the discipline of waiting for a fair wind.” For that matter the procedure is also followed by modern sailing vessels. Even for such a one it would not be very effective to beat up against a fresh westerly wind all the way from for example Norway to Orkney. It would take a long time, since one cannot reckon on being able to sail as high to wind and sea as on a triangular racing course in home waters. All things considered it exacts too heavy a toll on both boat and crew. There are, however, several people who have asked why they didn’t just sail out and wait for the change.

The discipline of waiting for a fair wind is, however, at the very centre of our understanding of longships like Skuldelev 2 (and hence the Sea Stallion) and their handling and possibilities as a serviceable tool for transferring a large crew of warriors over great stretches of water. In a wider perspective the same applies to eleventh-century operations with larger and smaller fleets of longships in, for example, the North Sea. At that time the waters between the Jutland peninsula and England were incidentally referred to as “the Danes’ Sea.

Among more significant fleet operations can be mentioned, for example, Canute the Great’s surprise attack on Norway in 1028 and here we have an eyewitness account from Thorarin Skald. It is a large fleet that is leaving the Limfiord. Almost a theatrical drama. “I saw it and the sight is better than a legend”, he says, and then later “and coal-black vessels sailing hard whistled forth over Hådyret’s sea off Lista (Hådyret = the hart, is the name of a mountain 15 kilometres east of Egersund). “Within the harbour south in Eigersund the whole sea was full of ships”. We are thus standing near Egersund, exactly where the Sea Stallion was waiting for a favourable wind in the course of week 29. Later Thorarin Skald says that “Slender sea creatures swift in the wind carried long sides past Stem” (Stem is the name of a mountain near Hustavik between Romsdalen and Nordmøre). The fleet advances all the way to Nidelv at the present city of Trondheim. It has moved swiftly and those who were one board the Sea Stallion between Roskilde and Bragoya know what he is talking about.

Later we have Harald Hardrada’s large-scale attack on England in 1066 with 300 longships as well as supply ships, most of which were transferred from Norway via Shetland, Orkney and Scotland. As a direct rejoinder to William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings, Svend Estrith’s son led a Danish fleet with almost 400 longships against the York area and the Danelaw in an attempt to drive William out of England. 

In the following I shall present a brief survey of the most important problems facing those who have to wait for a fair wind and, in that connection the longship as a tool.

First let us go back to the contemporary world of Skuldelev 2 and voyages in the North Sea. Norwegian fleet movements would seem to have started from Central and South-West Norway, while Danish fleets would seem in particular to have set out from the Limfiord. 

The weather situation at that time has been much discussed by modern scholars. Today westerly winds, that means winds from SSW, SW, W, NW and NNW are dominant in the summer months, while the easterly winds are less prevalent. A rather common theory is that south-easterly and north-easterly winds were more frequent and more stable in the Viking Age. Other scholars think that in the eleventh century in particular there was an incipient worsening in the weather conditions. This has therefore resulted in long periods with unstable weather and an increasing occurrence of westerly winds. It is naturally impossible to find a solution to the problem. If the starting-point is taken in the theory of longer periods of stable weather with south-easterly and north-easterly winds, then fleets of longships from Norway or Denmark would without problem have been able to cross the waters between for example Norway and England and able to return later with a combination of these winds or westerly winds that naturally would have occurred at some periods.

If one studies the written sources from the medieval period that are considered to be reliable and not least the scaldic verses, there seems to be more light and shade in the picture. Ships sailed both across the North Sea and up and down it and on longer voyages than just from Norway to Orkney or from the Limfiord to the York region. It was natural to wait for a favourable wind before setting out and they did not set out intending to tack their way across. A quick crossing with a sufficiently strong wind from abaft the beam or from astern would naturally have had the priority and experience with patterns of weather and the waters concerned would seem to have been considerable. They knew precisely what the sea in front of them would have looked like in particular weather situations. There would never have been a full guarantee that changes in the weather and wind would not occur. It is clear that the longships were more than just ships that could sail with following winds. It was essential, if necessary, to be able to reach the goal by sailing close-hauled or by continued beating to windward.

It is recorded, for example, in a scaldic verse from the Late Viking Age that is considered to be a reliable source that "the Norwegian king Olav Haraldson on his return from England with his longships came to the middle of Norway by beating to windward" (beittuð miðjan Noreg). Olav Haraldson was, after his death in the Battle of Stiklastad in 1030, called Olaf the Holy or St Olav. 

Rowing over large stretches of water in calm weather or against the wind would never seem to have been a deliberate choice.

If we now move forward in time to the Sea Stallion’s voyage across the North Sea, the central question is now as then: What can the ship perform as the tool it is? In this respect we have nowhere near as much experience with the ship and the ship-type as had our predecessors. Especially not when it is a matter of beating to windward in a fresh to strong wind and having to take account of the leeway, the reefing of the sails etc. Such experience will naturally be built up in the course of the voyage to Dublin. Let me nevertheless as an introduction throw some light on the theoretical possibilities that are open to us on the basis of our experience so far.

The goal area on the other side of the sea can be reached on the basis of beating to windward (approx. 60 degrees to the wind plus leeway), if it is done in a stable and reliable wind direction and reasonably stable and sufficiently strong winds and there is calculated with sufficient space for leeway etc. If the goal cannot be reached, it will be necessary to turn and sail to a position from which the goal can be reached after yet another tack. There are many possibilities for variations here and a wind shift can mean that the ship has come far away from its goal area. With a good fresh sea-wind in the whole of the useful wind sector, that is with a wind from a little before the beam to a wind from astern, the possibilities for a good passage are even better, with the possibility that one will be able to go far before unforeseen changes in the direction or strength of the wind will lead to hard close-hauled sailing or direct beating to windward.

Theoretically the ship could with the right wind direction and with suitable wind forces be able to reach the goal within the whole spectre from a close-hauled course (allowing for sufficient leeway) to a wind from astern, that is as long as one can reckon with a steady breeze, starting from the assumption that tacking is not to be employed.

These are optimal conditions, which can also occur today and may have been more common in the eleventh century. Generally speaking, however, reality is more complicated. The weather pattern like that where the Sea Stallion has been waiting for a favourable wind is not unusual today in the summer months, from my own experience not even further north between Norway, the Faroese Islands and Iceland. In the case of the Sea Stallion the pattern with a strong westerly and south-westerly wind with the possibility of a north-westerly wind and finally an anticipated strong easterly and north-easterly wind, did not occur. Instead there came a calm. An unstable weather pattern that was surely not quite unknown in the eleventh century. Then as today, it was essential to have the necessary time to wait. Today we have weather forecasts to help us. In the Viking Age one had to rely on great experience with the ship, the waters in questions and the weather patterns. Which mariners were best placed is an interesting question that it would be interesting to able to answer.

Erik Andersen

Created by Erik Andersen, skibsrekonstruktør, rekonstruktør af Havhingstens rig