Outside magazine, July 1998
The fearless Vikings take to sea-roving: and the sea looks to smite them, if it sees an opening.
Midnight, and only now does the sun slip into the ocean in what is probably a blaze of color, somewhere. I don't care. Storm clouds block my view, and all I'm really thinking about is how pleasurable it would be to lop off my freezing hands. My night watch is over, so I scuttle under a tarp, settling in between two of my dozing watchmates. Thus the epic has begun: our first overnight sail along the southwestern coast of Greenland, step one in our quest to sail an authentic Viking ship across to Canada and down to Newfoundland. Already I hate this open-decked boat. All 12 of us modern-day Leifs are huddled on deck with no protection from the icy rain, the biting wind, the idiotic ambition. No wonder nobody does this anymore. I fall asleep sniveling.
Within minutes, the watchman's screams jolt me awake.
"Big berg ahead!" John yells back to Trevor, the helmsman. This sounds interesting, but I elect to stay under the tarp. I hear John run from midship to foredeck; he's leashed like an organ grinder's monkey to a tether that keeps him from plunging into the 35-degree water. I hear him trip against a crossbeam. "It's close!"
"Which way should I go?" No panic in Trevor's voice it seems, but then nuance is tough to gauge from where I lie. Splashing along at eight knots, we are on the brink of succumbing to the same fate as the Titanic, but with fewer special effects. My traitorous feet have gone numb.
"You could go left! You could go right!" John answers. "I don't know!"
Then: "You're not gonna make it!"
Our thinly planked vessel is about to smash into shards of expensive driftwood. An eleventh-century square-rigged knarr (you pronounce the k) was not designed to sail through ice. Less sea ice confronted the Vikings, thanks to a three-century warming spell. Maybe a sudden blast of tropical greenhouse effect will come to our rescue now, melting the obstacle out of harm's way just in time. Yeah, maybe.
My four watchmates and I spring from beneath the tarp and perform heroically — pulling in a brace, releasing a sheet, loosening bowlines, barking out instructions to the helmsman. Immune to the arctic chill, we curse at this iceberg and all others like it, and stare down nature's mad whimsy.
Actually, we do none of that. We remain under the tarp and lift our heads slightly.
Somehow, we miss the iceberg.
For the next hour, I squirm under the useless tarp, drenched, and fantasize about life's sweetest pleasure: giving up. As soon as we make it up the coast to Nuuk, I will quit. Nuuk or bust. There is good reason why no one has sailed one of these cabinless boats along Leif Eriksson's route in the last half-millennium: It's nasty up here! The thought of quitting is so comforting that for a few minutes I think I can actually feel my toes.
The miserable truth, however, is that I can't quit. This whole thing was my idea. And in my subconscious my father drills me with a nearly religious oath, something about a Marine never quitting. I'm not even sure he was a Marine, but it never fails to egg me on. Crawling out, I blunder toward the stern, anxious for a hopeful sign. And there's Rob Stevens, master boatbuilder, who surehandedly led us in the painstaking recreation of this vintage craft. He's leaning out over relatively calm waters, puking.
In Which Hodding the Dubious Hatches a Scheme and Searches the Land for Filthy Lucre
At first, I only wanted to write a book — certainly not sail a 54-foot wooden boat powered only by a canvas sail and eight oars 1,900 miles through the North Atlantic to trace Leif's route. My grandfather wrote 17 books and never had to pull such a stupid stunt for any of them. For about a year, I had run the post office in Thurmond, West Virginia, population 18, and my rustic life oozed with wonderful backwoods anecdotes. I performed nonurban chores like peeing on my compost pile, and the older folks who ambled in for coffee each morning told riveting stories, like the one about the local mortician pouring tubfuls of blood into the New River. Publishers failed to recognize the charm in this.
Though I kept my postmaster job until a dispute over my dogs sleeping in the post office ended my tenure, I knew that my future lay in adventuring. But what adventure? I searched the books of my childhood for a worthy topic: cowboys, Indians, firemen. Then I hit upon The Vikings, by Elizabeth Janeway. It glowingly chronicled Leif's violent childhood — his dad, Erik, veered toward killing people — and triumphant voyage to Vinland in an open boat.
Lots of guys fantasize about playing Viking (though most of them get over it by their thirties). All that blow-by-blow from Erik the Red's Saga sounds so heroic: "Thorgest gave chase, and they came to blows a short way from the house at Drangar. Two of Thorgest's sons fell there as well as certain other men...." Personally, I felt drawn to the idea of ditching Christianity and not bathing.
I would follow in Leif's wake, which stretched from Greenland across to Baffin Island and down along the Labrador coast. Historians and archaeologists disagree as to where he wintered after that. He called the place Vinland, claiming wild grapes grew there. Some suggest he made it to Virginia; others say Cape Cod, Maine, or Hudson Bay; the wacko fringe even cites "proof" of Vikings in Oklahoma and New Mexico. But in the 1960s a pair of Scandinavian archaeologists found convincing evidence of Norse settlement at a place called L'Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland. That's where I decided to go. I would hitch boat rides up the Greenland coast to Sisimiut, rent or buy some old junker to motor across to Baffin Island, and drift south. Good fodder for a fairly painless travel book, I thought, until my wife stepped in.
"Why not try doing it the right way?" she casually suggested. "Build a real Viking ship."
"Um...OK. But that might be a little harder."
I truthfully could not even sail a Sunfish. (The last time I tried, I crashed into a moored barge on the Mississippi, flipping over and sinking the sail and mast.) And a Viking cargo ship was the Middle Ages' paragon of movable construction, like an oversize, open-decked canoe with a finely crafted side-rudder and a precociously designed hull that allowed it to skim the ocean's surface. It probably took a lifetime to learn to sail one without swamping it. To imagine I could navigate one through icebergs, pack ice, and poorly charted waters seemed pure folly. To top it all off, I detest cold. I'm from Mississippi. My toes get frostbitten at 40 degrees.
Ultimately, though, I had to do it. The sheer, semipointless adventure of it all was irresistible, in a Huck Finn sort of way. Also, I had already built up a track record of bonehead-quixotic historical reenactments. A few years back, a friend and I retraced Lewis and Clark's route in an inflatable boat without bothering to find out how much damage the Corps of Engineers had wreaked upon the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. We bickered the whole way and ran out of water in the Dakotas.
For 18 months, I read any book on Vikings I came across. I contacted the Viking Ship Museum in Denmark and researched some ships raised from the bottom of a fjord in the 1960s. The curators there had become experts on Viking ships, and from their materials I learned I needed a knarr, not a longship, for authenticity's sake. And I wanted the real thing: light interior framing to keep the boat flexible (according to the lore), iron rivets to fasten the planks, no head, no plywood. A friend and I started calling people in Maine, the hotbed of wooden boatbuilding schools. In the process, we learned the boat would likely cost, not the 50 or 60 thousand I'd imagined, but more like $300,000.
I asked my dad for names of his college classmates who were rich or heads of corporations. Those who bothered to write back said, in essence, "No, thanks. But say hi to your dad for me!" I sent out fund-raising brochures, offering three different levels of sponsorship: the "Odin," with lead-sponsorship bragging rights and a seat on the voyage, if desired, for $350,000; "Thor" sponsorship for $25,000; or the "Frey" package for a mere five grand.
And amazingly enough, I hooked a big one. Before long, a certain midwestern mail-order clothing company, known for its fiercely chipper catalog copy, up and decided to sponsor both the building of the knarr and the voyage, committing about half a million for exclusive sponsorship. (It may have helped that the company's founder is a former Olympic sailor and arctic traveler.) In return, I would write articles for their catalog and schmooze with the press. They "media trained" me so I wouldn't mumble during interviews; I learned how to be evasive while sounding forthcoming.
A few months later, in the spring of '96, I found Rob Stevens, a graduate of the Apprenticeshop in Rockland with his own boatyard on Hermit Island, Maine, outside Bath. Eventually Rob and I would travel together to Europe to meet a family of Norwegians who were the only living people who'd actually built a knarr. But it was his initial response when I first approached him about the voyage that won me over: "Oh boy oh boy oh boy!"
In Which the Mighty Champions Gather and Pledge a Blood Oath of Unbreakable Loyalty, or Something Like That
Since I had never met a yachtsman I liked, I wanted to assemble a crew of nonsailors who could learn quickly. John Abbott, a longhaired wilderness instructor at the University of Vermont and a friend, became a crew member the first week. Jan Calamita, a New York lawyer who makes a mean risotto, signed on as cook. Rob Stevens resembles a graying pirate gone soft and gets seasick paddling on calm ponds, but his willingness to actually board the ship he was building seemed reassuring. Given this nucleus, I decided to recruit a few bona fide sailors after all: Homer Williams (who was only 19 and looked perpetually stoned), Andy Marshall (who charmed me by forgetting his phone number when he called), and Doug Cabot (so enthusiastic I couldn't say no, though his intensity sometimes frightened me). Homer indeed turned out to be a good sailor; Andy and Doug didn't. I found a Greenlander named Elias Larsen on the docks at Sisimiut on a scouting trip; he'd worked as a fisherman, and so I figured he knew the coastline well. (I was wrong, but he's a sweet guy.) John Gardner, one of Rob's assistants, asked to join us, and I thought he'd come in handy when Rob got seasick, not knowing he gets seasick almost as easily. Dean Plager, at 55, became our oldest crewman; he'd heard about us on CBS and kept showing up at Rob's boatyard, offering to help out. The fact that he'd sailed solo across the Atlantic didn't hurt. Altogether, it was like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest taking a shot at Nanook of the North.
Picking a captain was the trickiest part. No level-headed sailor I spoke with would consider it, until I found Terry Moore, an instructor from the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine; the school holds its classes on motorless, open-decked boats, and Terry had once crossed the Atlantic navigating only by sun and stars. He was the ringer we badly needed, and it was a chance he couldn't pass up. After Terry realized what he had to work with, he chose an affable fellow instructor named Trevor Harris as first mate. With the crew in place, my wife, Lisa, who was four months pregnant, our twin baby girls, our two dogs, and I moved up to Maine in April 1997 to oversee construction and then conduct sea trials in May.
A few weeks after we settled in, and slightly behind schedule, Rob launched the knarr into the harbor just a hundred yards from his boatyard, inching the ship down to the water on steel rollers. Without its mast, it bobbed around like a gigantic wooden tub, a colossal baby toy that would surely swamp in the first storm it came across. Slathered in pine tar, linseed oil, and turpentine, though, it heralded its own arrival. A single whiff made knees buckle with longing — to go to sea, sing a chantey, lop off someone's noggin with a broadsword, curl up with a loved one.
Although the boat leaked, as lapstrake boats do until the planks swell into place, it did not sink — in no way a given. After all, the plans for our boat came from Skuldelev Wreck I, a Viking ship that was intentionally sunk nearly 1,000 years ago to block a harbor in Denmark. ("Why would anyone intentionally sink a boat that worked well?" Rob repeatedly asked me. I pretended not to hear.) With 1,500 well-wishers urging her on — word of mouth had spread — my wife crashed a bottle of champagne across the bow, christening the boat Snorri, after the first Viking child born in the New World. Rob preferred to call her The Kevorkian.
We set sail for Boston, about 110 nautical miles away, on a balmy, sunny Memorial Day with a stiff following breeze. In a week's time, in Boston, the Snorri/Kevorkian would be loaded onto a container ship that would schlepp it to our voyage's starting point in Greenland, via Iceland; but first came our shakedown cruise. We were sailing through the night to take advantage of the wind, and a few hours out, as darkness settled in, I lay down on the planks beneath the thousand-square-foot sail, feeling pleased and intoxicated with this whole absurd scheme for the first time in months. My eyes watered as I stared up at the silhouetted hemp rigging and the billowing canvas. We lacked most modern conveniences, using the side of the boat or a bucket as a lavatory and cooking meals on a two-burner portable kerosene stove, but we did bring a VHF radio, a compass and charts and handheld GPS unit, safety beacons, a life raft, and even a laptop. Other than those few tiny concessions — all right, that huge list of concessions; sue me — and our clothing, we were purely Viking: no cabin, no motor, and no radar. We cruised down the eastern seaboard like a ghostly dream and made it to Boston in less than a day.
Hodding the Dubious and His Brave Cohorts Take Arms Against a Fjord:And the Fjord Gives Them a Whuppin'
In mid-July, in the town of Qassiarsuk, just yards from the remains of Brattahlid — Erik the Red's farm, where many of the stones he'd painstakingly moved and shaped a thousand years earlier were still marking time — Erik himself delivered a heartwarming speech for us. (Not the original Erik, but the closest we could get: Erik "the Red" Frederiksen, a Greenlandic sheep farmer and community elder.) "Today, you are following Leif the Lucky's footsteps," he concluded, "and by doing that, you paint a fading picture clearer, which we find very pleasant." This was the same spiel he had wanted, but never got the chance, to give another group of re-creationists five years earlier, Erik's daughter confided to me afterward. They had set out in 1992 in an attempt to funnel attention away from Columbus's anniversary, sailing a souped-up knarr with a motor and a cabin, but pack ice had spoiled their party and they'd never even reached Brattahlid.
The next afternoon we set sail, bound for glory and the mouth of the fjord, 80 miles away.
Two hours later, the mouth of the fjord was still 80 miles away. The wind had died on us.
"We're actually going backward," Terry despaired, as the wind shifted and filled our sail from the bow before soon dying again. We could see it blowing hard only 200 to 300 yards ahead — just out of reach — but by the time we rowed to that point, it was another 200 yards ahead, taunting us. We rowed for five hours, six men at a time. The oars, made of ash, were 18 feet long and ungainly, but we had plenty of time to practice. Some of the guys would "lily dip," as Terry put it, but usually we pulled to exhaustion for 20-minute shifts. New blisters appeared by day's end, and as I rowed I hated most of the other guys. During breaks, I liked them again. Trevor started singing during one of his shifts. I believe that, to a man, we wanted him dead.
We expected to reach the mouth of the fjord in two to three days, five at worst, but instead we spent two weeks trying to cover those 80 miles. Constant winds that blew up the fjord made for slow rowing and agonizing sailing. All the modern-day writings on Viking ships had led us to believe we could sail upwind. Ha! One day we tacked 60 times and made only six miles toward our goal.
But the slow pace had an upside. One of our anchorages was called Cape Desolation, and from a distance the name fit. Steep, jagged mountains rose a thousand feet at shoreline, looking rough, gray, and lifeless. Up close, though, when we rowed ashore in our dinghy, a barren hollow would transform into a lush and colorful garden: moss and lichens, but also whole forests of flowers and grass. John Abbott and I would lounge on the moss, munching handfuls of mountain sorrel, angelica, and roseroot. I would let John eat something first and then wait a few minutes, and when he showed no signs of dropping dead I would cheerfully join in.
After we reached the ocean, on July 29, the pace of our voyage miraculously quickened. We sailed more than 250 miles over the next six days. We now had to deal with real worries — fast-approaching icebergs, unexpected squalls, all-night shifts, uncharted shoals, and wind-driven cold that bit into us like the enraged walruses Elias kept warning us about. (We didn't spot any.) But we persevered and muddled through, and by the evening of August 4, hardships conquered, we were tossing back beers in true Viking style at the Tulles Rock Cafe in downtown Nuuk, Greenland's capital. I forswore my vow to quit. In fact, as a group we'd ratcheted up our level of Vikingness, and at one point stole out to case our vanquished town, looking for plundering opportunities or at least a fair-haired maiden to goose. Alas, we seemed to attract only old, toothless, drunken women.
Nuuk had been our intended halfway mark up the Greenland coast, but with shipping delays and our slow pace, it would now serve as the departure point for our 300-mile, open-ocean crossing of the Davis Strait. Having learned a little over the last few weeks, we saw that if we left from Nuuk, the soonest we could reach L'Anse aux Meadows was mid-September. Any later, and the fall weather around Newfoundland would get too grumpy to handle. As we headed out five days later, we were about to become the first Viking ship to sail from Greenland to Baffin Island in more than 600 years.
The Intrepid Vikings and Their Mighty Tub Seek to Battle the Lofty Swells of the Ocean: And the Ocean Thumbs Its Nose at Them
Before we raised sail, a few of us made offerings to the waters to see us safely across — the idea was to give up something precious. Jan tossed in a hoarded Italian sausage; John Gardner poured in some rum; Homer and I dumped in loose tobacco. Doug submitted a small golden elephant a waitress at the Thai restaurant in Nuuk had given him, which immediately sank. This seemed an unwise choice: Sinking was not an option we wanted the gods to consider. By nine o'clock that night, we had erased 30 miles of the crossing — a tenth of the way in no time at all. We could make it to Baffin in three days!
In my mind, we had finally crossed the line. There was no chase boat, no land in sight. Each swell that rocked the boat, each wave that smacked the gunwales and splashed across the foredeck, each groan of our wooden mast against the strain of the full sail — I cherished them all. We had made a leap of faith, in our boat and in ourselves. I felt akin to the explorers of a thousand years before.
Twenty-two hours later we were adrift in six-foot swells, 150 miles from land in either direction. A little earlier, the rudder had sucked the treenails anchoring the frame out of place, creating four holes in the bottom of the boat where water spurted in as if from four spigots. The rudder was no longer secure. While Rob retched over the side from the rocking, Trevor and John Gardner patched the holes with the tops of aluminum cans. We jammed a two-by-four between the sheer planks next to the tiller to keep the boat from flexing inward and help keep the stern intact, since the floor frame had been pulled out of place. In hopes of sailing downwind and putting less pressure on our fragile rudder system, we altered our course from Baffin Island farther south to Labrador — which would mean an extra 300 miles before reaching land.
At almost midnight, after four hours of the rudder creaking and banging against the side, the withy — the line that secures the rudder to the boat — snapped. Seconds later, a swell raised the rudder over the sheer plank, and the tiller splintered like a toothpick. We now had no way of turning the rudder, even if we could get it under control. Rob said he could fix everything but guarantee nothing. When our troubles had first started earlier in the evening, we had notified the Canadian Coast Guard of our predicament, using the laptop/satellite rig our sponsor had sent with us so we could provide daily trip updates on their Web site (though this particular update probably wasn't what they'd had in mind). Although we had told them we had things under control, they had responded that an ice-breaker, from 200 or so miles to the north, was headed our way.
Maybe we can refuse assistance, I told myself as I snuggled into my sleeping bag. Things weren't so bad. I stared up at one of our first clear skies in a month. Green curtains of undulating northern lights surrounded us. The moon was bright enough to read by, and the skies cascaded with falling stars.
Terry approached me about an hour later. His manner was gentle.
"I don't feel confident we can fix this rudder well enough to finish the crossing," he said. "I think we should tell the Coast Guard." And like that, it was over.
By four the next afternoon, the Pierre Radisson was towing us back to Nuuk. Upon boarding the icebreaker, still bleary from disappointment, I immediately tried to convince the captain to tow us to Baffin Island so we could continue our voyage, but he only smiled and said no. Terry, Trevor, John Abbott, and Homer stayed aboard Snorri to make sure she didn't sustain further damage and that nothing happened to the tow line. I'm not sure who was more miserable — them bouncing in the rough seas, or us, thrust back into the late twentieth century with nowhere to hide from our obvious failure. Officers kept approaching me, not to console, but to scold us for not having more backups in place.
When we returned to Nuuk, I learned that my wife had not had our baby yet, and so I flew home for the birth. Three days later, I flew back to Greenland, feeling ashamed both for deserting my fledgling family and for giving up on our voyage. The repairs would take too long for us to finish before autumn. I toyed with the idea of writing a book entitled Quitters, but my crew would have none of it.
And so we're going to try again this summer, starting from Nuuk. We have two new rudders to try out, both a little smaller, which should reduce drag and make Snorri sail faster. We've beefed up the rudder framing, as well. Part of me, I'll admit, thinks I should probably go back and settle for a book about my rustic life as an Appalachian postmaster (peeing on compost isn't such a well-known trick, after all), but I'm not. I carry iron rivets in my book bag and practice knot-tying at any idle moment. Come hell or cold water, I'm going to be a Viking.
W. Hodding Carter's book, tentatively called I, Viking, will be published by Ballantine in early 2000, assuming he finishes his voyage by then.
Map by Michael Bartalos