Sailing the Gokstad Ship! #TheGreatVikingHoliday Part I


This first post is long over-due, partly because I've been so busy, but also because I'm my own worst critic and it's been such I long time since I've had to write anything other people might read!

I've been involved in re-enactment for many years now, and my one regret was that I'd never been on a longship. I'm no stranger to rowing small boats with Cluaran, but where larger craft have been involved in an event, it had normally been part of a re-enactment battle displays and I usually ended up on the "home team" rather than the Viking side.

Earlier this year my luck changed when I was invited to sail on a replica of one of the most iconic Viking Age Finds - The Gokstad Ship!


The ship was discovered in 1880 when the mound (still visible above my right shoulder!) was excavated. It may have been plundered previously because very little in the way of metalwork was discovered. Retrieving ancient swords from burial mounds and caves is a theme of both Icelandic and Old English Literature (e.g. Grettir's Saga, Floamanna Saga and the epic Beowulf) however, when this happened, and even if it happened is unknown!

Never-the-less, a wealth of artefacts were discovered including a ship, 64 shields, 3 smaller boats, a sledge, a tent, 6 beds, a gaming board, kitchen utensils, harness fittings and a number of skeletons, including 12 horses, 8 dogs, 2 goshawks and 2 peacocks, not to mention the man himself!


The burial dates to about 900 AD, and recently evidence of a rich market place was discovered nearby, which at the time was much closer to the shore. The modern harbour, however, is about a mile away, and that was the next stop!

When Gaia first came into view, a line from the epic poem Beowulf came to mind: "The ship rode in the harbour". Owing to her sleek design, she seemed to float on the water, and it was almost like she was straining on her moorings, eager to get onto the open sea!


Like the original, Gaia is around 24m long and 5m at her widest, with 16 oar hole on each side. The full crew would consist of 32 oarsmen, someone on look out at the prow (the front) and a helmsmen steering the boat from the back. Doubtless, the ship could house more, but we would have more space, numbering only 11!

The body of the ship consists of a keel,like the spine of the ship and made from one piece of oak, and beams like ribs over which over-lapping planks are bent and rivetted using a technique known as clinker-building. Notice how the strakes in picture above don't just bend around the ship, but upwards towards the prow! It's worth taking a moment to imagine how the original shipwrights did this!



The decking planks sat on top of the frame, covering the bilge (the belly of the ship), the ones in the middle (amidships) being filled with rocks to act as ballasts to help keep the ship steady whilst at sea! The ones to the front and rear were used to store ropes other useful things, as well as our bagage and supplies.

Rowing can be hard work, especially with only 11 of us, and Sandefjord is a busy modern harbour with speedboats and ferries coming and going, so for everybody's safety we were going to use the ship's modern diesel engine to clear the harbour.


Once clear of the fjord's mouth, we found a likely looking island and moored up for the night. A canvas was pulled over the the front of the boat, from prow to mast, covering just under half the deck. We were pretty comfortable and had a lot of room, much more than the orginal crew who might have numbered anywhere between 40-80!



The next day we had breakfast and a few of us (not me!) braved the fjord for a swim, and I'm told it was quite pleasant!

When people think of Norway they often think of a land of ice & snow, but it's worth noting that Sandefjord is only marginally further north than John O'Groats and the climate isn't dramatically different from much of Northern Britain.


Setting out, the first task was to raise the sail on the mast, using a system of ropes and pulleys, and when unfurled the sail was "tacked" by securing ropes on the cleats on either side of the ship.

The 'tacking' could be adjusted for wind as required by slackening one side whilst tightening the other, but until then all we needed to do was sit back and enjoy the sea!

One thing that really struck me at this point was how many work-hours must have gone into the sail. When you look at it you notice it's not just a square or rectangle, it's been deliberately shaped - almost as if, like Viking Age clothing, it was tailored to the ship!


Weaving was likely the territory of women, and making a shaped sailcloth like this would taken serious resources and I can't help but think that women's role in the Viking Age is often understated.

During the excavation of the Gokstad mound, woollen cloth was discovered - white, with red strips - which may have been part of the sail. Red cloth was usually achieved by dying with madder, ideally in an area with soft water, and may have been imported (along with the peacocks!), another reminder that the people who owned crafts like this were of considerable means!


Soon it was my turn to go on Look-out duty, and I took a seat on a buoy up on the prow. The

Steersman has normally got a pretty good view of the distance, so the Look-out's main job is to look out for hazards close to the ship: rocks, swimmers, etc.

Once out on the open sea, the risks were somewhat reduced, so I had plenty of time to take in the scenery. We sailed east for a while, then turned about and headed west, back past Sandefjord and onward.

Looking down from the prow you could see the keel cutting through the water like a ploughshare through a field and I was reminded of another line from Beowulf: "He ordered a boat that would ply the waves". I'd always known what the poet meant, but from that moment I really understood it!

Another thing that became apparent was how different the ship felt under sail. When we were using the engine the ship seemed to hug the water, not dissimilar to rowing, but with the wind behind the sail she seemed to glide over the waves and the prow seemed to sit higher. I can really appreciate why long ships were given names like Sea-Stallion and Long Serpent!


We sailed along the coastline past sites like Kaupang, a famous Viking Age Market town known for it's wealth of archaeology - including metalwork imported from Irish Sea Zone. I still can't get over how awesome it was skirt along the same coastline as identical vessels did over 1000 years ago!

As if that wasn't cool enough, I was asked if I fancied taking the Steer-board, so in the interests of research I gave it a go. Interestingly, the ship under-steered to Starboard and over-steered to Port, which mad going in a straight line interesting,

If you've always wondered what Port and Starboard is all about, Starboard is the side of the ship the Steer-board is on, Port is the side you tend to bring into the jetty so you don't crush your Steer-board :)

Thankfully I was relieved of the Steer-board as we approached Stavern, where we'd moor up for the night. I'd clearly got my sea-legs without noticing, because when I went ashore it was with less grace than Captain Jack Sparrow. I put it down to my body overcompensating for the constant motion at sea, but it could just be me being clumsy!


The following day we took in the sights then were back on-board for another day's sailing. The wind dropped by midday so we had to use the engine for sections of the journey back to Sandefjord.

Whilst we travelled safely along coast, the ships captain reminisced, telling me of past voyages around the British Isles, to France an even across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, reminding me that this was an ocean going vessel - a testament to both the ship-building expertise and sailing prowess of the Viking Age mariners.

When we arrived back at Sandefjord, we had to wait for a ferry to clear the mouth of the fjord and then had only two and half minutes before the next ferry came in. It was a little unnerving, given the size of them, but our captain took it in his stride, finally performing the maritime equivalent of a handbrake turn to bring us into the jetty in one fluid movement- a pretty impressive feat given the ship's tendency to under-steer to starboard!


Once we'd put our gear ashore, we insisted on making Gaia ship-shape, swabbing the decks with sea water to keep them in good condition and tidying the ropes. It's pretty menial work, but being given the opportunity to sail a replica Long-ship up and down the same coasts as our Viking predecessors was such a privilege it was the least we could do. And it was kinda fun!

Months later I still can't believe how lucky I was to have this amazing opportunity, but as I was told at the time, all I had to do was be nice to people and say 'yes' - the result was that I fulfilled a dream I've had since I first learned about the Vikings at Primary School 30 years ago, and #thegreatvikingholiday had only just begun!

This post has taken a long time to write, so thanks for your patience - I promise future posts will be a bit sharper, and hopefully shorter!

#thegreatvikingholiday #GokstadShip

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