This past week I was in Tromsø, Norway, 70°N. It’s the land of the midnight sun, as well as midnight clouds and midnight rain. Although I didn’t see the sun late at night, I did get to witness the lack of darkness. The level of light through the clouds never really changed throughout the night.
Fortunately I didn’t travel that far just to see the midnight sun. I went to Tromsø to study with and get to know boatbuilders in a traditional boatbuilding workshop. The Trondheim-based sculptor, Erlend Leirdal connected me with his friend Arne-Terje Sæther, and he was kind enough to let me join their crew for the week and even stay in his sailboat at a nearby harbor.
The owner of the boatshop lent me a bicycle and I was able to ride to the workshop every morning and to “Norway’s best grocery store” (according to Erlend and others) in the evening for dinner.
The master boatbuilder and owner of the business, Gunnar Eldjarn, is both a researcher and professional boatbuilder. He researched and co-wrote the four-part definitive book on northern coastal Norwegian boats, Nordlandsbåten og Åfjordsbåten, with his friend Jon B. Godal. He’s had his boatshop in Tromsø since 1985, and Arne-Terje and Ola Fjelltun joined in the mid and late 1990s.
Although this was not the focus on my visit, it’s hard to start this story without highlighting their involvement in "the project of a lifetime." The three of them were all key builders in the making of the largest Viking Ship in modern times, the Draken Harald Harfagre. It was a two-year long quixotic endeavor from 2010 - 12, and was commissioned by a private individual. The 115-foot ship cost millions of dollars, with up to 16 people working on it at various points.
The story of this project is documented in Arne-Terje’s book, Dragon Harald Fairhair.
I read the book at night while I was staying on his sailboat. Not only the scale of the building process struck me, but also by the challenge of material acquisition. In order to get oak that was long enough and clear of knots, they had to go to a German forest that had been managed for 400+ years. There they were able to select and fell oak trees whose trunks were straight and clear of branches for over 60 feet. Milling the boards and shipping it to Norway was a whole other ordeal.
Meanwhile they also undertook a thorough research and design process. They made three smaller boats with different hull shapes in order to test out their functionality. They were also in conversation with archaeologists from the Viking Ship Museum in Denmark who built a replica. However since there is no documentation of original Viking ship designs or intact originals, any building project relies heavily on conjecture.
When the two famous ships in the Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, the Oseberg and Gogstad, were excavated they were completely flattened from being buried in the ground. The iconic Oseberg ship was so flat the keel (the lengthwise timber on the bottom of the ship) was higher than the rest of the structure. Although the ships are now beautifully reconstructed in the museum, to their highly trained boatbuilding eyes, the shape of the hull raises some questions of how accurate it is to the original design.
It’s not possible to make a truly authentic Viking ship, but this boatbuilding team certainly came close. They created a ship that retraced the Vikings' transatlantic voyage from Norway to the Atlantic Canadian and U.S. coast. Unfortunately for the midwestern wooden boat enthusiasts and Viking fans, the ship was kept from traveling all the way through the Great Lakes due to prohibitively expensive regulations.
While I was visiting, they were working on a unique commission that I enthusiastically called a Viking Ship. However upon asking the seemingly philosophical question, “what is a Viking Ship?” they answered, “a ship built by a Viking, with a rudder on the side, and tall stems.” “So is this a Viking Ship?” I asked, and received the response, “we are not Vikings, and this is not a ship. It’s a boat.” So I got to participate in the building of a Viking-style boat.
Gunnar graciously led me through the process of fitting one of the oak frames that helps to secure the side planks or strakes. It took me four days to complete what he can do in one, which is a testament to his patience and generosity.
They readily switched from modern to traditional tools – Makita power planers to wooden handmade planes, chainsaws to axes, bandsaws to carving knives – quickly securing what did the job best.
Once I finally finished my precious frame on day four, Gunnar said, now make 2,000 more and you’ll get it.
We installed the frame an hour before my time was up, using pine trunnels ("treenails") and wedges. The trunnels are from the heartwood of the tree, and the wedges from the sapwood. The orientation of the grain direction was also intentional, and is a debated topic within this niche community. It was amazing to learn just this one step in the boat – because it reveals how much complex knowledge is behind every single step.
I learned much more from these builders over the course of the week but it’s more than I could sum up in a few blog posts. We talked about the financial realities of making a living as a boatbuilder in Norway, the rich traditions of wooden boats on Norway’s coast and their central role in the cod fishing industry, the limits of historic reconstruction projects, the stories of historic artifacts that decorate the workshop, future hopes of developing a boatbuilding program at the local university, and much more.
Their story is so rich – here are some places to learn more:
- See the boat in progress at their facebook page: link
- Learn about other projects they’ve done at their website: www.nordlandsbaat.com
- The story of the Dragon Harald Fairhair: link
- See a snapshot of life in Tromsø & the greater arctic from Arne-Terje's partner, Mariann Jacobsen Mathisen's instagram page: link