In the summer of 2015, I spent five months working as an Experimental Archaeologist at the Lofotr Viking Museum, high above the Arctic Circle, in Northern Norway…
The Lofotr Viking museum has the world’s largest reconstructed longhouse. It was in the back of this longhouse, in a room known as the ‘Living Quarter’, that I built my own medieval workshop, kitted out with replica Viking Age tools and quality staves of many kinds of wood. For two summers I worked in this room; hand-crafting Viking bows and arrows, demonstrating archery and teaching hundreds of visitors a week about Experimental Archaeology.
I got to work with authentic woods, with replica tools and experienced carrying out my craft within a network of activity that was created by the many other historic crafters who also worked there, including blacksmiths, wood carvers, leather workers, textile weavers and more.
But worth more to me, I think, than any bow I ever made there, was that during my time I learned to sail. Not just any ship either! It was on the museum’s 9th century replica Viking longship ‘Lofotr’, that I literally ‘learned the ropes’.
In the last week of June, we entered Lofotr in the Vestfjord Sailing Regatta. The three day trip would be my second time taking part in this regatta and the last time I would walk the deck of Lofotr, before returning to Ireland to start my PhD at UCD School of Archaeology.
Many photos were taken, and when a signal could be found on my phone, I posted updates of our trip on Twitter and Facebook; of the ship, the crew, how we made it to the starting line at Nordscot; of the race and how we made it back towards Kabelvag; to the finish line.
Here are the photographs I took and the stories I posted along the way.
On the 26th of June, 2015, we set off from the harbour of Ballstad, one of the oldest and largest fishing villages in the Lofoten Islands. The fishermen’s cabins and red and white cafes that stood irregularly along the edge of the harbour, appeared to get smaller and smaller as we rolled slowly away from land. The spray of the water suited the salty sound of the capstan shanty that rang through the harbour; our song driven by the banging of wooden boxes, the clapping of wet ropes against the deck and the excitement.
The excitement that now, after several months cooped up inside a dark longhouse, we would soon be on open waters and beginning the five hour journey that would bring us to our first destination: the starting line at Nordskott.
“… worth more to me, I think, than any bow I ever made there, was that during my time there I learned to sail…”
“The spray of the water suited the salty sound of the capstan shanty that rang through the harbour…”
The trip to Nordscott was long but busy. Beneath the deck, tucked away with the ballast stones and the bilge water were our bags of personal possessions, waterproof gear, life jackets, sleeping bags, crates of food, bottles of water and beer. A crisis developed within the first hour, when the cook noticed a problem with the gas stove. Before it was eventually fixed, I had to suffer the anxiety of potentially facing a three day trip onboard a tiny vessel, full of Norwegian sailors WITHOUT coffee.
But with some persistent tinkering, water was soon boiling and a renewed sense of relaxation spread about the crew.
After a day of fairly good winds, we began at length to slowly approach Nordskot. The twilight hue of a partially setting sun filled the ship and coated the sail in a vibrant orange as we slowly crept into the harbour. With a handsome greeting, a landing shanty was called for and so we stepped off Lofotr and into the arms of a warm party to the tune of ‘Leave her Johnny’. But reading the energy of the crew, and watching the pace and haste with which some of the younger sailors finished their chores, the Skipper promptly gave the order to “party lightly”, as we would be up early the next morning to race our ship in both the ‘Single Sail’ and ‘Traditional Ship’ categories.
“The twilight hue of a partially setting sun filled the ship and coated the sail in a vibrant orange…”
“… we propped an oar between the deck and our striped mass of wool, turning our sail into a tent…”.
“The smell of barbecued whale meat and live music filled the harbour… “
The smell of barbecued whale meat and live music filled the harbour, while many of the sailors who would race against us the next morning rowed around us curiously, examining every inch of the ship and shouting their greetings in Norwegian.
As I caught one of the ropes and tied Lofotr to the pier, there was something about the orange tinted green and grey rocks looming over the harbour, the sand, the music and the sense of party; that made me think, I felt more like a Caribbean Pirate than a Norse Viking. My imagination was all the more reinforced when one of my shipmates reached into his bag and took from it a bottle of rum, but he was ‘advised’ by the boss to save it for the following night.
“Something to raise our glasses with, after we win!” he said, confidently.
After a bite to eat, we propped an oar between the deck and our square and striped mass of wool, turning our sail into a tent. We threw our sleeping bags across the deck and laying down amid a symphony of snores and coughs, with a t-shirt wrapped around a sheepskin, so that it felt (and smelt) more like a pillow, I turned on one side, focussed on the ‘gluck, gluck, gluck’, of the waves that slapped rhythmically against the belly of the ship and eventually, fell asleep.
We were standing at 5:30 the next morning. The North Norwegian sun was as bright as it was when I fell asleep; as though it had stayed up all night with the rest of the party, as it had done all summer; unable to sleep and refusing to dip below the horizon. I rose and before we could even smell the coffee, our sleeping bags needed to be rolled up and the sail back in place. Those with more sensitive heads that morning had no choice but to move as quickly as the others, for the wooden planks that formed our beds were now being pulled out to stow away the fenders. While the sheepskins that made our pillows were now being used to cover the sleeping bags being tucked away neatly behind the mast.
As we approached the starting point I could see, dotted around us, the shapes of many Nurdland boats, Collin Archers and many other traditional boats I had never seen before. As we waited in relative silence, Terje pointed out each ship and told me their names individually in Norwegian and then in English.
Suddenly, a fog horn marked the beginning of the race, and just as the many white, bobbing dots scattered around us did, we took out our oars and began to row. Last year, we also began by rowing, but the persistent lack of wind left us with no choice but to forfeit and turn around. Lofotr is a very heavy ship and takes a lot of power to row. But with the right winds it can also be an exceptionally fast ship, reaching up to 17 knots in good conditions.
With rowing spirits lifted only by the smell of brewing coffee, I began to hear murmurs of ‘winds’ circulating among the crew. The more experienced ones looked back and forth between the sail and the surface of the water, scanning for any signs of a lift in the breeze. Then, after forty minutes or so of rowing in turns, a gust of wind suddenly came around us and filled the sail, carrying Lofotr with it.
With a safe pace our captain gave the order for a few shanties. I whipped out the guitar and we helped ourselves to a Norwegian lunch of liver pasted crackers and caviar, dried cod fish, some local brown cheese and of course a warm serving of wild boar that had been prepared in the Chieftain’s Longhouse back home in Lofoten.
After eight hours, Kabbelvag was in site, we rushed to grab the fenders and though we must have looked to locals and tourists like a band of Vikings, with nothing but plunder on our minds, I can confirm without a margin of error that the single thought on everyone’s mind was the inside of the bar in Kabbelvag square and the taste of the local beer.
As we sailed into Kabelwag at quite a fast pace, there were so many other ships from so many different categories there already, that there was no way of knowing in what place Lofotr had come. But it didn’t seem to bother any of the crew. We each stepped off the ship and made our way to the bar, where we were met by a young man who refused us entry at the door unless we were willing to part with what seemed like quite an unreasonable entry fee. In the spirit of the Viking clothes we were wearing and having arrived in a Norse vessel that absolutely dominated the harbour, we unanimously decided that the image would be best preserved if we were to instead, borrow a smaller rowing boat, and enter through the back, where the bar opens out onto the water.
On our way back from the bar we could smell the other ships preparing food. We stepped onboard again and saw Terje, chatting with the other sailors who had tied their boats to our’s.
“What’s for dinner?” I heard him ask,
“Whale!”, the cook shouted back, noticing me take a guitar out of a carrier bag.
“Ohhh, are you going to sing some songs?!” he asked.
“Maybe”, I said in return, “if my friends here can sample some of your cooking?”, I said in return.
“Stephen is a shanty man who has come all the way from Ireland”, Terje added, with confidence in ‘sealing the deal’.
“Some meat for some Irish music?”, the cook said,
“Sounds like a fair deal!”.
Terje dished out the samples as I sang a few songs. By now, the crew knew the words to my usual repertoire, and sang along with me.
An announcement was then made that a representative of each ship was to go and hear the results. On his return, it was with great pride that Terje removed the lid of the rum we had saved the night before, and on handing out glass after glass until the bottle was empty, he raised his own and announced that our longship had come first in both our categories.
Terje was always happiest when telling stories of old successes or delivering news of new ones. A look comes over his face every time he sees a win; the head tips forward, the chin down in a cheeky grin.
It’s the same look he had when he first invited me to sail with Lofotr, and a look I hope see when I return to sail here again.
“Come on Mr. Fox,”, he said, raising his glass once more, “I think it’s time for another song!”.
And so, we sang.
Thank you for reading this article and taking the time to look at my photographs!
For more information on the ship read some of my previous articles HERE
For more on my work at the Lofotr Viking Museum be sure to read how I built my bow makers workshop in:
To Learn more about Experimental Archaeology where I am currently doing a PhD at UCD School of Archaeology,
read more HERE!
Thanks again and watch out for more updates from ArchaeoFox!
Enjoy this bonus video!
Fletching an arrow and shooting it from ‘Lotor’, our Viking Longship