Dispatches, August 1997
It was like the crack you hear as a tree falls, only the sound came from below the water, which is probably why the men in the front of the boat didn't even hear the rudder snap. No matter; in an instant all were scrambling to drop the 35-foot sail, lest the calm winds gently push the motorless and suddenly unsteerable 54-foot vessel and its long, tarred planks of oak and yellow pine in the wrong direction along the Maine coastline.
"The rudder design we got from Denmark seemed to be a little off," said W. Hodding Carter last May, explaining why his crew was sea-testing a 25-ton boat guided by a temporary rudder, the one that ended up breaking. "Eventually it wouldn't turn at all."
With his long, curling hair, gentle enthusiasm, and faint drawl, the 34-year-old adventurer and writer seems to take setbacks like this one in stride. Which likely will help equip him for the task at hand: leading a 12-man effort not only to retrace Leif Eriksson's journey to the New World, but to do it in the same type of boat the Norse explorer used. This month, Carter's crew of sailors and occasional sailors will be tacking and jibing along a winding, 1,900-mile route, sailing up the west coast of Greenland to just below the Arctic Circle, crossing the 150-mile Davis Strait to Baffin Island, and then heading south along Labrador to L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, site of North America's only confirmed Viking settlement. They expect the voyage to take six to eight weeks.
Others have retraced Eriksson's route, but no one has done it so obsessively true to historical form. Carter's open-deck boat, the Snorri, is held together by 3,000 hand-forged iron rivets and propelled simply by six oars and one big, square sail that handles just fine, as long as it's headed downwind.
"My interest really comes in the history," says Carter, a thoughtful Mississippi native who moved to West Virginia three years ago to become a small-town postmaster, teach whitewater rafting, and raise goats (and whose father, former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III, is a noted political commentator). He refers to the earliest European settlers in North America as "this weird blip" in the annals of history. "The Vikings were such an anomaly; they came out of nowhere. Yet what they did was so courageous. It will be interesting to see what they went through."
This won't be the first time Carter has involved himself in hands-on historical reenactment. He has retraced the paths of Lewis and Clark (recounted in his 1994 book Westward Whoa), John Wilkes Booth, and Thoreau's travels in northern Maine. But recreating the Viking tales he heard as a kid required additional legwork. He first had to find a corporate sponsor (Lands' End), then a master boatbuilder to replicate a Viking ship (Maine resident Robert Stevens), then a seasoned captain (Outward Bound sailing instructor Terry Moore), and finally a company to publish the tale (Ballantine). And all that will surely prove to have been the easy part.
"As seaworthy as it is, this boat does not go upwind very well," said Moore, 35, with his hand on the tiller shortly before the rudder gave. While run-of-the-mill sailboats can tack as sharply as 45 degrees into the wind, Carter's ship is lucky to zigzag upwind at 70-degree angles, an exercise Moore calls "a lot of sailing for every inch of water." With a shallow-bottomed hull weighed down with 13 tons of fieldstone for ballast and nary a keel or centerboard to speak of, there aren't many options when the wind blows the wrong way.
"We could start on our way to Newfoundland and get blown back, get blown south, get blown anywhere," says crew member Trevor Harris, about what all concede will entail lots of time spent waiting for the right wind. "I think the Vikings were just lucky — they were on the coast of Greenland and got blown all the way to Newfoundland."