No Shortage of Ships in Stockholm

I arrived in Stockholm after a seven-hour train ride from Oslo, Norway, that took me across parched and flat farmlands. At Stockholm central, I sprinted to the closest kardemummabullar seller (cardamom roll) that I could find. Once satiated with this sweet and spice-filled delight, I navigated the mass transit system to the island of Skeppsholmen, my home for the night. I stayed in a repurposed wooden ship in a room with five roommates and two tiny portholes.

The dreamy kardemummabullar.

The dreamy kardemummabullar.

That afternoon I visited the Swedish crafts store, Slöjd Detaljer, and admired their selection of high quality goods. Knives, leather, gold leaf, Japanese saws, yarn, and the latest tool sharpening system made by the Swedish company Tormek.

High quality selection of tools at the arts and crafts store.

High quality selection of tools at the arts and crafts store.

Funky gold leaf project on display at Slöjd Detaljer.

Funky gold leaf project on display at Slöjd Detaljer.

I hadn’t treated myself to a restaurant in a month of travels, so decided to put my highly advanced Swedish language skills to use and find me some köttbullar (meatballs). I read reviews on Yelp of the best meatballs, (probably according to American visitors) and found a place close to my hostel.

When I walked in, the historic wooden interior, stained glass ceiling and wine glass-holding clientele suggested that my sweatpant culottes and bulging day backpack were a little out of place. The waitress came to my table and said in English, “Let me guess, you want the meatballs?” to which I proudly and slowly replied, “No. Jag vill skulle köttbullar och potatismos.” (No. I would like meatballs and mashed potatoes.”) Fortunately she smiled and complimented my pronunciation of “köttbullar” which is surprisingly “shet-boolar” (Tack to my language teacher, Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux.)

While devouring the classic Norwegian novel, Hunger, by Knut Hamsun (1890), I ate the salty gravy-covered meatballs, mashed potatis and tart lingonberry jam.

#potatis #köttbullar

#potatis #köttbullar

I watched a dramatic sunset through the porthole that night and slept well on the lightly rocking ship.

The next morning I put my tourist game face on, woke up early, and hopped on a ferry to Scandinavia’s most popular museum, the Vasa Museum, which is home to a monumental 17th century warship.

I decided to release my pent up energy by dancing to the museum, in the style of early ipod advertisements – white earbuds and a tiny screen in my hands.

What I looked like dancing in Stockholm.

What I looked like dancing in Stockholm.

Because it was so early, few folks were around so I let loose and imagined I was my dance hero Anne Marsen from the amazing Girl Talk music video “All Aboard.”

My dancepiration & doppleganger, Anne Marsen.

My dancepiration & doppleganger, Anne Marsen.

Once I got in to the museum, I was in instant awe of the ship’s jaw-dropping scale.

The bow of Vasa. It felt impossible to take a single photo of the entire ship.

The bow of Vasa. It felt impossible to take a single photo of the entire ship.

I consider it the ultimate bestest museum of hubris. It is home to a 226’ long wooden warship that was sunk by a sudden breeze, 25 minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628. The design was top heavy due to its two decks holding 64 cannons and a narrow beam (width) at 38’. But like so many things in life, something that initially was, “oh no, that’s bad...” became, “oh no, that’s good!”

Because it sank so quickly, it was in relatively shallow water and was able to be excavated and restored starting in the 1960s. It’s the largest intact shipwreck in the world and the most visited museum in Scandinavia. It’s also a really inspiring and didactic museum model with thorough displays, conservationists you can talk to and an amazing building design with artificial masts on the top of the roof.

Onsite conversational conservationists.

Onsite conversational conservationists.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the ornate figure carvings, with Roman emperors, the king’s son, an enormous lion and much more. 

The ornate stern of the ship. Description from the exhibit: "The national coat of arms, Sweden's symbol. The lions have featured since the 13th century. The three crowns symbolize the Three Holy Kings. The central shield bears the arms of the Vasa family, a sheaf of corn, ("vase" in old Swedish). The crown emphasizes the royal status of the dynasty."

The ornate stern of the ship. Description from the exhibit: "The national coat of arms, Sweden's symbol. The lions have featured since the 13th century. The three crowns symbolize the Three Holy Kings. The central shield bears the arms of the Vasa family, a sheaf of corn, ("vase" in old Swedish). The crown emphasizes the royal status of the dynasty."

Description from the exhibit: "Two griffins - Charles IX's heraldic animals - hold the royal crown above the young Gustavus Adolphus' head. As a boy he was already his father's chosen successor."

Description from the exhibit: "Two griffins - Charles IX's heraldic animals - hold the royal crown above the young Gustavus Adolphus' head. As a boy he was already his father's chosen successor."

An approximation of what some of the ship's carvings would have looked like with their original colors.

An approximation of what some of the ship's carvings would have looked like with their original colors.

An exterior room connected to the captain's quarters.

An exterior room connected to the captain's quarters.

Close up of carved figures from the roof of the exterior room.

Close up of carved figures from the roof of the exterior room.

Lion at the bow of the ship.

Lion at the bow of the ship.

After viewing the ship, I hopped on a ship, and went back to my ship.

Boatbuilding at 70°N

My attempt to see the midnight sun in Tromsø, Norway. I was encouraged to bike to this harbor because it was the only nearby place where you can see the open ocean to the north. 

My attempt to see the midnight sun in Tromsø, Norway. I was encouraged to bike to this harbor because it was the only nearby place where you can see the open ocean to the north. 

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. 

Location of Tromsø, Norway. 

Location of Tromsø, Norway. 

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.

View from the harbor. 

View from the 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.

Cover of Arne-Terje's bilingual book on the topic.

Cover of Arne-Terje's bilingual book on the topic.

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.

A view from outside of the workshop. Steambox in the foreground.

A view from outside of the workshop. Steambox in the foreground.

Arne-Terje, Ola and Gunnar discussing the frame that will support the side rudder.

Arne-Terje, Ola and Gunnar discussing the frame that will support the side rudder.

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.

Gunnar explaining how to install the frame. Photo by Arne-Terje Sæther.

Gunnar explaining how to install the frame. Photo by Arne-Terje Sæther.

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.

Using a slöyd knife to carve out a hole for the mast rigging (a large rope which supports the mast). Photo by Gunnar Eldjarn

Using a slöyd knife to carve out a hole for the mast rigging (a large rope which supports the mast). Photo by Gunnar Eldjarn

Gunnar and Arne-Terje checking the fit of the line on the frame I carved.

Gunnar and Arne-Terje checking the fit of the line on the frame I carved.

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.     

Close up of one of the pine trunnels and discussing grain orientation. 

Close up of one of the pine trunnels and discussing grain orientation. 

Painting pine tar onto the boat and frame before installation. The pine tar is made in Norway using traditional methods.  

Painting pine tar onto the boat and frame before installation. The pine tar is made in Norway using traditional methods.  

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.

From L to R: Me, Ola, Arne-Terje, Gunnar and a tree knee. 

From L to R: Me, Ola, Arne-Terje, Gunnar and a tree knee. 

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
The view from the plane as I flew out of Tromsø on June 22. 

The view from the plane as I flew out of Tromsø on June 22. 

Dodging Swallows

It’s been five days so far in the boat shop, and although I haven’t personally done any serious woodworking, I’ve gotten good at sweeping the dirt floor, deciphering the boatbuilders thick Iwate accent, observing, and dodging the barn swallows that dive in and out of the workshop throughout the day.

I came to this project with few expectations regarding how much I would actually get to touch the boat. After all, I am the deshi no deshi (the apprentice’s apprentice). I mostly take notes and photos, and help translate when topics diverge from the technicalities of boatbuilding.

Murakami-san working on the boat, with me observing. Photo credit: Douglas Brooks.

Murakami-san working on the boat, with me observing. Photo credit: Douglas Brooks.

It’s been incredible getting to spend time in the builder’s workshop and neighborhood. Two sides of the shop look out onto rice paddies, so I get to watch spring arrive one row of rice at a time. Today red tractors crawled through the deep mud, dropping bright green blades of grass into the soil. The little rice plants finally arrived at their destination, after being zipped around the windy roads of Tohoku with the wind in their hair, like wide-eyed children on the back of a pickup.

Rice field in spring.

Rice field in spring.

During break time, his wife always serves us green tea and snacks. We have been served mochi balls seasoned with the leaves of a wild plant (yomogi), snails caught in the nearby harbor, and today conbu  (kelp), which had washed up on the shore. I can imagine all of the American localvores drooling at the site of their lifestyle. But for them, it’s not a political movement or a conscious effort to push back against modern consumerism, it’s just how they’ve always lived. 



Murakami Toshiko cleaning konbu. Photo credit: Douglas Brooks.

Murakami Toshiko cleaning konbu. Photo credit: Douglas Brooks.

Two barn swallows share a nest in the workshop, and there are three former nests built on the sides of ceiling timbers. They fly in and out throughout the day, surprising visitors, but not the boatbuilder, Murakami-san. He said he doesn’t do fire-bending (yakimage) in his workshop because he doesn’t want to smoke out the swallows. Although a sweet gesture, they still have to put up with the regular scream of the circular saw. They don't seem to mind though, and Murakami didn't get fussy today when he found swallow droppings on his sumitsubo (inkpot for making straight lines). Their liveliness and dramatic exits and entrances are enough to make them a welcome presence in the shop.

End of the day with Murakami-san chatting with a friend outside the workshop.

End of the day with Murakami-san chatting with a friend outside the workshop.