Life on Board Draken Harald Hårfagre

Every ship has a rhythm, or several, that shape the way we live on board. The basic beat of any ship, Draken included, is simple: eat, sleep, work, repeat. It drives the crew, marks the passing of time. Times of day are different for parts of the crew, as we’re divided into three watches to work round the clock, but the beat is the same. It weaves into other patterns of activity to shape the rhythm of life on board.

draken figure head 2As a member of port watch, I’m on duty from noon until 4pm, when we hand over to midship watch, and again from midnight until 4am, after relieving starboard watch. We take turns on the helm, pushing and pulling the tiller to keep the ship on course, and on the lookout. We’ll trim the sail; change the tack; add or take off the bonnet on the foot of the sail. And there’s always little jobs to be done: stitching, whipping, splicing, knotting.

There’s always a lot of activity as we leave port. Mooring lines are coiled, fenders deflated and stowed, stores and personal belongings arranged and rearranged. Preparations for setting sail.  Then the arduous, cooperative effort of raising the yard, kaiing the aft end under the shrouds, dropping the sail, bracing the yard, setting the tack, tightening the sheet. All reversed as we stow the sail. The longwave rhythm marking the ends of a voyage.

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Rocking and rolling in the North Atlantic swell. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com

The most important pattern on the ship comes out of the galley, the tiny space at the end of the sleeping tent. Here the cook and his assistant prepare three hot meals a day for the 33 members of the crew, plus fika (coffee and cake) in the morning and afternoon. And there’s always a night watch box filled with snacks. We eat well, although the calories are needed to keep warm on north Atlantic nights.

For some, myself included, there’s a different rhythm that marks time on board; the swells and rollers that rock the ship and the sea sickness they bring. I find the first waves of nausea start to roll in 3 or 4 hours after leaving port. The only way of escaping the feeling is to lie flat, preferably face down, with my eyes tightly closed. (But that’s never really an option; it usually coincides with the beginning of the noon to 4pm watch).

Seasickness seems to have different stages. Once the feeling takes root, it’s a battle to keep awake. My eyes are so heavy, I sleep where I am: curled on deck against a knee; propped against the windlass; standing upright in the galley one night, waiting for a kettle to boil. I can’t track the passing of time. Did I sleep for the last hour? Or was I absent for a minute or two?

Suddenly, the sleepiness passes. There’s only one place I have to be now; downwind. Pulling scarves and storm hoods away from my face, I gulp the fresh air, but its not enough. Afterwards, it feels like all the warmth is drained from my body. I shiver, despite layers of wool clothes, until its time to go to bed.

Iceberg1My favourite thing is to be lookout, standing up in the bow watching out over the ocean. I scribble myself notes sometimes: numbers of fulmars, shearwaters and skuas; shapes of clouds bubbling up on the horizon; colour changes in the water. Other times, sea spray and squalls sting your eyes, making it hard to see, or it’s so cold the only way for the watch to keep warm is to “shake it off” with Taylor Swift for fifteen minutes.

The times I love most are the dark, still nights, when I stand by myself at the bow. I forget about the rest of the crew behind me for a few moments and look out at the sea and stars; I am alone on a wide, wild ocean.

And the thoughts running through my head? If a large enough wave breaks into the ship, that’s it. If the lookout doesn’t spot a growler, or a submerged shipping container, we’re done for. That this is for real. And that is a thrilling way to live, on the very edge of danger. Any rational person dwelling on the “what ifs” for too long would pack their kit bag and get off in the next port. So you get on, and pack those thoughts down into the bilges of your mind. You calmly accept this state of affairs.

PelayoRather, we occupy ourselves with the little details. Mundane, inconsequential things: where we sleep in the tent (and which is the best place); the type of chocolate available at fika; planning best times to visit the heads, especially if we’re wearing survival suits. Habits are founded, some even becoming rituals of great significance. It would be impossible to think about starting a night watch without a freshly-frothed vegan-friendly latte, or to end at 4am it without sharing a tin or two of “plane crash” with the rest of Mackerel Club.

What’s hard to explain to people hoping for tales of derring-do on the high seas, is that this ship is our home (albeit with less of the usual home comforts) and the rest of the crew is as close as our family (with all the usual quirks and oddities of every other family). And that means that life at sea is just as grand and electrifying, as silly and strange, and as normal and boring, as life everywhere else.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

5 Books Set in Cold Places to Curl Up With This Winter

IMG_3884Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.  And what makes a cold winter evening even better is a good book to curl up with (and perhaps also a glass or two of amaretto and ice). When the wind is howling and sleet lashing the window, snuggle into your favourite tartan jammies, and read all about the ice and snow from the warmth and comfort of your armchair.  With the radio playing softly in the background, lights sparkling on the Christmas tree, and someone bringing warm mince pies occasionally, I can’t think of a more perfect way to enjoy the books below.

 

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

In the introduction to this book, Cherry-Garrard notes: Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised. As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south.

Buy it here.

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

Long fascinated by the icy landscapes and exotic culture, Ehrlich travels extensively in Greenland, meeting people walking the line between a traditional way of life and modern development. She draws heavily on the journals of Danish-Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen from the 1920s and 30s, retracing expeditions by kayak and dogsled. The book combines travel diary with biography, ethnographic study and geography. 

Buy it here.

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A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

Finnish author Jansson is best known for the Moomin stories, and although this collection of short pieces is for adults, it captures the same feeling of childlike wonder her famous creations have for nature, landscape and life. The beautifully observed stories have a lightness of touch and at the same time a deep truth, making them a joy to read. For a bonus recommendation, seek out her short novel The True Deceiver as a follow up. 

Buy it here.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

This book is difficult to summarise in just a short paragraph. It details Lopez’s travels in the High Arctic, meditating on the landscapes and wildlife, how we explain and interact with them, drawing on historical, cultural, philosophical and scientific significances. This is not an easy book to digest, but the sparklingly beautiful prose and interesting, informative subjects make you want to take your time, and enjoy the brilliance. Best dipped into over a series of winter afternoons. 

Buy it here.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver 

A bone-chilling ghost story set in an abandoned whaling camp in the Spitzbergen archipelago, high in the Arctic, in the late 1930s. With thoughts of impending war not far from the collective consciousness, a British scientific expedition establish themselves in a remote corner, against the advice of the Norwegian administration. As the dazzling brightness of 24-hour daylight gives way to the creeping polar night, a growing unease builds in the team, but is the horror a presence in the darkness or the madness of isolation in a challenging environment?  Buy it here.

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Have you got any icy and snowy suggestions for a wintry reading list?

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.