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
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23 thoughts on “Draken Harald Hårfagre: A Beginner’s Guide to the World’s Largest Viking Ship

  1. finngarianmama July 27, 2016 / 15:56

    Wow, I am so glad I saw a link to this blog on Facebook. I was so excited to board the Draken in Bay City, MI during the Tall Ships Celebration there. I would have loved to have spent hours on the ship talking to the crew but of course there were hundreds of people ahead of us and behind us on the tour and that would have been impossible. In any case I am thankful you are writing about your experiences here. I am interested in Viking history and being Finnish/American, my roots are Scandinavian as well.

    • vickyinglis July 28, 2016 / 11:18

      Thanks for your words. We’d love to spend longer talking to people on tours, but there are just so many people that want to experience Draken for themselves that we can’t give the time.

  2. Dee Grimsrud July 28, 2016 / 18:19

    So…you’re no longer on the ship’s crew? Although the Atlantic crossing must have been amazing to accomplish, the conditions sound horrendous, and I give you a lot of credit for surviving that. Thanks for pointing out the huge difference between the relatively solitary crewing and being chatty tour guides. I’ll bet the latter is a lot harder for some than the physically tougher sailing!
    I’m bringing a busload of Sons of Norway members from Madison WI to Green Bay on August 6th, and will suggest that they read your blog before then, in order to have a better understanding and appreciation of what it’s like being a crew member. Thank you so much, Vicky, for your insights!

    • vickyinglis July 30, 2016 / 09:16

      I’m not with the ship any longer. I was a volunteer crew member from Norway, across the Atlantic and up the St Lawrence, til Toronto. Plus I spent a few weeks in the ship yard in Haugesund before we departed, so was away for around 3 months in total. I had to come back to the UK and earn a living !
      I hope you enjoy your visit to Draken. And thank you so much for the fundraising that’s allowing my friends to continue the expedition. Takk så mye!

  3. Kim Trygve Johnson July 28, 2016 / 21:56

    I loved seeing Draken in Bay City. My grandfather, Harald Hårfagre Johansen was born in Trondheim, Norway in 1895, so this ship is very special to me. I loved seeing the carvings and detail on board.

      • patricia lundy August 2, 2016 / 00:13

        I love the picture you posted of the dragon figurehead. Saw the ship in bay city beautiful!

  4. Cat July 28, 2016 / 21:59

    Thank you for going into detail. When I met one of your crew members, you all looked so tired and I didn’t want to impose. Looking forward to hearing more of your journey.

  5. erikalindgren July 28, 2016 / 23:00

    Looking forward to seeing the ship this weekend in Chicago.

      • Mary Clark August 2, 2016 / 02:57

        Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and insights on the Draken, which I was privileged to tour on both Saturday and Sunday in Chicago. It is indeed a stunning ship and the crew were always friendly and willing to answer questions. (Some who were available even autographed my Draken souvenir book!)
        Safe travels to you! 🙂

  6. Gayle Gunderson Boyce July 28, 2016 / 23:37

    Thanks for adding this blog and posts. All questions I have wondered about. I am in awe of the expedition.

    • vickyinglis July 30, 2016 / 09:20

      I hope to have more posts up over the next few weeks. It’s taken me ages to look at all my photos from the trip!

  7. Lisa --who loves her Norwegian heritage! July 29, 2016 / 04:00

    My husband and I were honored to board the Draken and spend a tiny bit of time with you all in Fairport Harbor, OH. We felt the crew was amazing! You all freely shared your hearts after being “inland” for just a short span of time, really. Just to be able to first hand see the workmanship details, talk with you all, smell the pine tar, was a once in a lifetime event. Some of my grandmother’s side of the family resides (and grew up) in Haugasund, so knowing the Draken was built there is also special. Being able to keep up with your journey via blogs, video posts, and pictures makes the “tour” last longer! Be proud of the amazing journey you have taken and of the hospitality you have given all of us who have the opportunity to board the Draken. Praying for the remaining journey to be safe and enjoyable…and as the crew heads towards “home”, wherever that may be, may you have safe passage.

    • vickyinglis July 30, 2016 / 09:22

      Thank you! Takk så mye! I’m glad that you enjoyed meeting my friends and looking around the ship. The smell of tar is quite special, one of the things I miss the most (although its nice to have clothes that aren’t covered in it?).

  8. Linda Denis July 29, 2016 / 11:11

    Thank you for your written words. I saw your ship in Montreal and Brockville. It was incredible to see the actual ship you and the crew crossed the Atlantic in. We know it functioned with perfection but the artistic cravings,smell of tar and wood, silk sail could only be appreciated when I visited dockside.Safe journey and many thanks for your generosity.

    • vickyinglis August 1, 2016 / 09:42

      Thank you. It really is a beautiful ship.

  9. Debbie Seltman August 6, 2016 / 18:17

    Thank you for sharing your adventure. My grandparents were from Norway. Both of them were born there. I guess you could say I have some Viking blood. I am happy you have made it home safetly. Time for some rest which is well deserved. I am looking forward to seeing the ship in New York. Blessing to you🌹

  10. Colin Frickey August 7, 2016 / 17:06

    I would love to have done this,pity i didnt find out about it till too late !

  11. Stephanie Schmidt September 4, 2016 / 00:43

    I am grateful for your sharing of these incredible experiences. I am in awe and can only say thank you.

  12. Tim September 7, 2016 / 01:02

    I am a living archeology Viking reenactor at Sladivik Village at the N.Y. Ren. Faire. Everyone in the village was excited to see it and following it closely. Hopefully some will be able to see it in N.Y. to get a closer look at this beautiful ship, with a king’s ransom of silk for a sail.

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