Draken Harald Hårfagre: A Beginner’s Guide to the World’s Largest Viking Ship

I was a crew member on Draken Harald Hårfagre as the ship made a historic crossing of the North Atlantic ocean, from Norway to Canada, in the late spring and early summer of this year. This is the first in a series of several posts with my thoughts and observations from the voyage.

Draken leaving the Greenland coast for the Labrador Sea. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com

I’m going to start off by thinking about the end of that journey (or more specifically, the end of my part of the ship’s journey), and how the crew has gone through something of a transition over the last month. From being explorers in the more remote reaches of the North Atlantic, seeing only each other for days on end, we turned into storytellers and presenters, meeting hundreds, if not thousands, of people a day at events in various ports in Canada and the US.

If you do visit the ship, (or already have) I hope you’ll forgive us. It’s not an easy task to distill the experiences we had during the expedition into short soundbites that fit into a whistle-stop tour of the ship. Nor the years of construction work, project management and planning that led up to the voyage. At best all we can do is give you some of the most interesting facts and figures, and just the briefest hint of what life on board an open ship was like.

hvalsey kirk 1
Draken moored by Hvalsey Kirk, which dates from the Norse settlement of Greenland.

So, to start my expedition journal, here are a few things that you really need to know about Draken Harald Hårfagre, the world’s largest viking ship built in modern times

The Name.

I always try to introduce Draken by her full name, Draken Harald Hårfagre, with my best attempt at the Norwegian pronounciation. It’s that Scandinavian letter å, sounding a bit like –owh-, that doesn’t exist in English, that makes it a bit of a mouthful for many of the crew. Not Arild though, this is how it should sound.

The translation is much easier; Draken means dragon, referring to the dragon’s head mounted on the bow, showing the world that this ship that would have belonged to a powerful and important chieftain or king. Having looked at the figurehead mainly from the back for months, it’s crossed my mind that our dragon might look a little giraffe-like (it’s the ears, I think). I don’t think I’m the only one in the crew that’s had that thought.

And the second part of the name, Harald Hårfagre (who is referred to as Harald fair-hair or fine-hair in English, depending on the translation), is to honour of the first king of a united Norway, who hailed from the area around Haugesund – Draken’s home port.

draken figure head
The dragon figurehead breathing smoke into the clouds.

Not a Replica.

Describing Draken is tricky. The ship has often been called a “replica” in the media, but this has a very precise meaning in maritime archaeology, referring to vessels built from scratch as an exact copy of another known vessel. Within that definition there are several different categories: true replicas, hull replicas, operational replicas; none of which really describe our ship. Calling it a “reconstruction” can also be a bit problematic; this term is used to describe historic ships that have been repaired or rebuilt with new material to return to a known earlier condition.

Draken was built in Haugesund between 2010 and 2012 from entirely new materials, drawing inspiration from a number of sources, to create a representation of what an ocean-going ship from around 1000CE may have looked like. Accounts from the Norse sagas, archaeological findings, and the living tradition of wooden boat building in Norway informed the design and construction process. Many of the lines reference the Gokstad ship, one of the best-preserved examples of Viking-age shipbuilding, on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. A best-fit way of describing Draken is as an “operational hypothesis”, but that loses a bit of the romance and sense of adventure around her.

Did you row?

Probably the most asked question when we meet people. And I’m sorry to spoil the perception, but the answer is very little. And then only for showing off whilst lots of people are watching. It’s really hard work to shift a ship weighing around 90 tonnes, y’know?

Draken was built to be rowed with 25 pairs of oars, with two oarsmen on each oar. That’s 100 people! We just haven’t got the space for them all while we sail, or for the 50 oars they would need. We’re only able to carry between 12 and 14 oars with all the changes that were needed for sailing, and have one oarsman on each, so it would be a much harder, slower job than it was before.  And it can be dangerous in anything more than flat water: “catching a crab” could pin you to the deck and cause an injury. 

Sailing is far faster and a more efficient way of travelling long distances, and well, I’m sure if you asked most of the crew, we’d say it was much more fun too. We’ve got a great big, beautiful, silk sail, and it’s a shame not to use it as much as we can.

red sail sunset
Catching the sunset in the silk sail.

The Crew.

A full crew on Draken is 33 people, give or take, although we were a smaller crew heading up the St. Lawrence, and will probably be again at the end of the summer. During the ocean crossing, 13 of us were women, and the proportions have evened out even more during the last few weeks in the Great Lakes. If you’ve been on board, you can probably imagine the amount of space each person has to themselves.

Not everyone in the crew is Norwegian, or even Scandinavian. I’m from Scotland, and there has been at least 14 different nationalities making up the crew at various points in the journey. Countries as different as Russia and the US, Spain and Sweden, and even Switzerland have been represented. Add to that a wide range of ages, from the youngest at 18 to somewhere in the mid-60s. We’re a bit of a mixed bunch really.

How do you sleep/ eat/ wash/ do other things on board?

The simple answer is that you just do it. The things that you need to do, you find a way to get on and do them. Or you decide that they can’t be done on the ship, and wait until you get ashore. There’s a lot of challenges when it comes to the business of living on an open ship: being so tired, but finding it difficult to sleep with the noise, stuffiness and movement; feeling terribly seasick but knowing that you need to eat and drink; looking after personal hygiene with no washing facilities; finding an escape from the rest of your watch for five minutes. There’s no quick way I can sum up all my thoughts about all that, so I’ll try to cover it in other posts.

What was the voyage like?

The hardest question of all. How do you sum up two months of an expedition into areas little travelled by others; challenging weather conditions and nerve-racking sea states; close encounters with icebergs, into a short conversation with someone you’ve just met? How do you explain to people that haven’t been part of a sailing crew about living in each other’s pockets; how day-to-day things happens in expedition conditions; silly in-jokes; about blowing off steam when you get into port? That now you’re back in civilisation, with a comfortable bed, good coffee, and a reliable internet connection, you really miss it all?

I usually say the words “cold” and “wet”, which at least are true. And now, as I’m able to make more sense of everything that happened, I can also add “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done”.

Leaving the Faroe Islands at dusk. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com