Tuesday 4 October 2011

Sailing with the Vikings - by Katherine Langrish

Sailing out from Roskilde town
In about 1030 AD, the people of Roskilde Fjord in Denmark deliberately sank five old ships to block two of the three navigable channels leading into the fjord. This meant the only remaining entrance could easily be controlled, and any ship wishing to come down the fjord to Roskilde town would be spotted, challenged, and perhaps charged a toll for use of the harbour and the chance to trade.  Handy for the townsfolk then – and handy now: for those five scuttled ships have been rediscovered, raised and preserved, and are now a major tourist attraction as well as offering invaluable insights into Viking ship construction.  As an amazing bonus, while digging the foundations for the new museum they discovered not one, but nine more Viking ships buried in the silt.  One of them is the very longest longship ever found – over 36 metres!

Replicas of those first five ships - the Skuldelev ships - have now been built, and it was on some of these that I was about to sail.

Arriving at Roskilde one hot June evening in 2005, we walked down through the town, past the great cathedral where no less than 28 of the Kings of Denmark lie buried, across the slanting cobbled square, and downhill under cool trees to the broad fjord.

A little Viking fishing boat rowing home

The sun was low, descending with stately reluctance – it wouldn’t set properly till eleven o’clock or later.  The western sky was full of colours, reflected in the fjord: stripes of tangerine, purple and blue.  And there they were, outlined against the sky: the tall masts and upcurved prows and sterns of four Viking ships, tethered to the jetty.  We walked past staring at them greedily: the two longships, Helge Ask and Sea Stallion of Glendalough; the fishing vessel, Kraka Fyr, the cargo ship, Roar Ege.  And then we saw a square sail, black against the sunset.  Another Viking vessel sailing towards Roskilde harbour, just as it would have done over a thousand years ago…and two swans swam across its path, like little Viking ships themselves, proud prows uplifted.

I was there because I was in the middle of writing the third and final book of a series of historical fantasies about the Viking era  - 'West of the Moon' - and in this volume, ‘Troll Blood’, I wanted to take my characters across the Atlantic to the shores of ‘Vinland’ – the far-distant northeast coast of America – just as Leif the Lucky, the son of Eirik the Red, had done over a thousand years ago. 

And, no matter how much research you do in libraries, no matter how many books you read, there’s nothing to beat hands-on personal experience.  With huge excitement I’d found out that the Viking Ship Museum here at Roskilde ran a week-long sailing course in which I could learn a great deal about how to handle those great square-rigged sails, and all sorts of general things about how it really felt to be on the sea in a Viking age ship. 
Well, I learned a lot.  Here are some of my hastily scribbled notes:

The sail towers over the boat – how big it is! – seems to cut off the sky and a large part of the horizon. 

The chuckle and truckle of water running along the sides and under the bottom boards.  Jellyfish pass by the end of my oar – ghostly circles in the dark water, frilled, pulsating.

I feel the wind coming towards us even while we’re still moving forwards, sailing close to the wind.

Soren helps me steer between the shoals

It’s really hard work on the sheets when we change the tack, wrestling in these yards of struggling, flapping sail – the ropes are harsh and soft at the same time, dark horsehair, softish but prickly to the hand.  We yank and yank again, and the rope comes in through the hole in the gunwale, soaking wet, scattering spray like a dog shaking its coat.  

Hauling away

The boat heels, but nothing like so far as a modern yacht.  To change tack, the opposite lower leading corner of the sail changes and is fastened close to the bow to the ‘tack stick’.

Søren tells how his grandfather thought nothing of sailing thirty miles up and down the fjord to market, or of wheeling a barrow of live fish to Copenhagen and returning in a day

I learned how the mast could be taken down (unstepped) in a couple of minutes by flipping up the ‘shroud nails’; how a longship on a raid might cross the sea in three days rowing continuously: if one bench at a time rested, little speed was lost, so the resting period would ‘roll’ down the ship in a relay so the rowers could relax, drink, and answer calls of nature in turn.  And I learned that the round shields (so often depicted in overlapping rows along the ships’ sides) would only be hung out in an actual battle, ‘to cower behind’, said our skipper Søren, with a laugh.  ‘You can’t sail or row,’ he added, ‘with the shields in the way.’

Of course, most of the technical stuff never made it into the book; but I came away with confidence to write more truly, more realistically, about my characters’ voyage – even though they were headed out into the wild Atlantic, and I’d been sailing and rowing only in the fjord (although when the wind got up, we fairly flew over the choppy water!).  Who says research is dull?  We were there over midsummer.  On St John’s Eve, we camped in a hayfield with the boats on the shore below, ate barbecued fresh salmon, and watched the bonfires being lit along the fjord, and later the fireworks competing with a full, yellow moon. 

One of the things I liked best about being on our ship was the feeling of camaraderie amongst the crew, and the way, when things got lazy and the wind was blowing, those of us not needed to handle sails could lie back, relax, and tell stories, jokes and tall tales.  Those Viking sailors must have done just the same thing.  

You can come and see me at the Cheltenham Literary Festival on Sunday October 16th, where Kevin Crossley-Holland and I will be talking about our Viking books. And do visit my own blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, where, in keeping with this post, I'm running a series on Mystical Voyages in fact and fiction.


Pat Walsh said...

This is so interesting, Katherine. It sounds like you had a wonderful time, and you're quite right - no amount of research can match actually getting out there and doing things like this for real. As it happens, the book I'm writing at the moment is set in the 10th century and involves a voyage between Iceland and England on a viking knarr - and the number of times I've wished I could just be on board one of these ships for a day or so, just to see how they were sailed, and what it felt like. I'd also like to see how the sails were rigged, as so little is known for sure about this.
Thanks for such an enjoyable post.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks, Pat - and yes, this was exactly my own feeling. Maybe you should head for Roskilde! You'd love it, I'm sure. ('Roar Ege' is a knarr...) Anyway, good luck with the new book.

Linda B-A said...

You're right, Katherine, no matter how much research you do in libraries you can't beat being there and doing it. How envious I am! Sitting here in the suburbs the thought of a Viking longboat sailing into the setting sun is wonderful... Good luck at Cheltenham.

Leslie Wilson said...

Lovely post, Kath, and beautifully written. I remember seeing some people sailing a Viking ship near Oslo when we went to see the ancient ships in the museum there. The thing about DOING it is then that you get your own experience of it, rather than other people's.. I am impressed by the hands-on way you do your research.

Yosustah said...

Kath, how did you EVER exist on Brown Road? I love the group of writers. the History Girls! How wonderful to be involved with like minded creative women. Do they live all over the world? Do you ever meet face to face?
I must get the library to get your complete collection and someday when if and ever you visit Corning, we will have a 'meet the writer' with the famous and successful Kath Gahan.I am so proud of you!

Mary Lu