Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Viking Ship at Midnight

I first saw the Viking ship replica Gaia on September 18, 1991, at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, as I wrote in my previous post. I was researching my book The Far Traveler and wanting to know everything I could about Viking ships, so I caught up with it a second time the next day at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island.

We drove in past a rounded hill covered with kite flyers. It was hot and sunny. My three-year-old was asleep in his carseat, so I scurried alone toward the harbor to find the ship, leaving my husband to babysit. Behind a squat brick building that said “Vinland Revisited,” I passed a tall, blond, sunglassed man with large ears. I know those ears, I thought. “Ulfur?” I called. Ulfur had some position in the Icelandic government. I had met him recently at a party at an Icelandic friend’s house. I could not remember his last name.

He turned and, recognizing me, grabbed me by the elbows and began shouting in Icelandic. Registering my blank stare, he repeated in English, “Run! Run to Gaia. Ask for the captain, Gunnar. Tell him you can go on the ship in my place. Run! For an hour’s cruise.” I ran.

Down the hill, cutting across the beach, all out of breath, I pushed through the crowd. The boat was full of people. “Gunnar!” I called in Icelandic, “I just met Ulfur and he says I can go instead of him!”

“Hah?” I had his attention, but he didn’t comprehend my babbling.

I persevered, shouting out my fractured grammar.

He smiled, “Okay! Come on board!”

One of the crew straddled from the cabin to a two-inch outrigger of the mast and grabbed my arm firmly. I swung aboard.

Standing on the raised steering deck, grasping the carved tiller of the side rudder, Gunnar was distant, majesterial. I stood at his feet. He bent his head to listen to my questions, but kept his eyes on the water ahead.

“Aren’t we going under sail?”

“No. The wind is wrong.”

After a few minutes, “Are we just going to motor?”

“No, no. We will sail.”

Getting out of dock, even under diesel power, was tricky. The boat veered too  close to the breakwater—three crewmembers pushed it away with their feet, balancing on Gaia’s gunwale. The stern grated against the concrete. Gunnar’s head snapped around and he left the tiller hastily, shoving at the wall until she was clear.

Then we were out in the bay, a slew of smaller boats jockeying around us. The Norwegian consul and his family were ferried out in a rubber Zodiac: three darling blond-headed kids, the oldest a very sober nine-year-old in a coat and tie. The consul’s wife wore pumps. Looking around, I suddenly realized that my jeans and sneakers were breaking the dresscode; of the 30 people on the boat, all were formal but the crew.

There was Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the president of Iceland, in high heels and a lacy shirt, sporting a wide-brimmed hat with a ribbon. And Knut Kloster, the Viking Cruise tycoon who had bankrolled the ship, in a blue business suit. An old gent in a blazer and his wife, dolled up in ruffles and beads, came aft. He carried a video camera. He shoved me out of the way and began filming Gunnar—“our captain on the Gaia, Gunnar Sigurdsson—no, Eggertsson, a good man.”

I, in turn, backed into President Vigdis. There was nowhere else to go. With 30 people on board, the ship had the feel of a crowded cocktail party where someone’s elbow is always threatening your wineglass.

“Excuse me,” I said to President Vigdis, in Icelandic.

“Are you Icelandic?” she asked.

“No,” I answered, “I am a friend of Ulfur’s brother’s son’s wife.”

She laughed. It was a typical way a person would be introduced in the sagas. “And you are learning Icelandic,” she said, with obvious approval.

She drifted away, and I found myself facing one of the crew, Eggert Sigurdsson, who also wanted to know if I was Icelandic. All the Icelanders who crewed any of the four ships, he explained, were on Gaia today to honor President Vigdis. They had heard me speaking Icelandic and wanted to know why. We settled in for a nice talk about the sagas. Eggert had grown up near Borg, the farm established by the saga hero Skallagrim (literally, Bald Grim), son of Kveldulf (Evening Wolf). Eggert had run away from home when he was sixteen to join the Merchant Marines. He tried to teach me to pronounce his name correctly.

“You’re saying ekkert, not Eggert.”

Ekkert is the Icelandic for “nothing.” I couldn’t hear the difference.

“It’s a very small distinction from me to ‘nothing.’” He pouted.

Gunnar bellowed from the tiller. Eggert leaped on top of the cabin and began unfurling the sail. There would have been no enclosed cabin on a real Viking ship; like the diesel engine, it was a concession to modernity. But where the cabin was on Gaia, the Vikings would have put their cows and bull—both Vinland sagas are clear that they had livestock with them. Watching Eggert on the cabin, I couldn’t imagine him handling the sail from the back of a bull.

And how they did work around 50-plus passengers? Gaia’s best crew size, Gunnar had told me, was 10. Today, the dignitaries trying to help were just tangling the ropes. Those staying out of the way, like the cruise-line tycoon, found themselves in exactly the wrong place. Kloster was ensconced in the bow talking to the Norwegian consul. Two of the crew carefully pulled a rope out so they could shorten it without hitting him or asking him to move, but as they hauled it in, it dragged through the sea, and he ended up with that dripping rope rushing over his shoulder. He started up, surprised.

Up, the sail was enormous. It filled the sky, heaving, breathing. It cut the boat in half—the crew in the bow could hardly see Captain Gunnar and vice versa.

Now all was quiet but for the sibilant hiss and rush of water past the boat and the soft chatter of the passengers. Gunnar stood with one hand on the steering oar, one on a sail-rope, playing it like a kite-string to hold the breeze. The boat suddenly felt twice as large, its motion steady and sure. I leaned against the cabin and stared out at the wide-open sea.

Eggert came back and picked up the conversation where he had left off. “I let them call me ‘nothing’ for eight years in the Merchant Marines,” he said. He now worked with troubled adolescents in Reykjavik and was finishing a degree in psychology. He was married to a lawyer, and had a nine-year-old daughter.

“Will it be a step down coming home from your Viking expedition?” I asked.

“No. I love what I do at home. Coming home is always a step up for me no matter where I am.”

That was nice of him to say, but I didn’t believe him. I had asked the same question to Gunnar when I interviewed him at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Gunnar had no plans for his future once he left Gaia. “You have to go down a little bit, think the whole thing over,” he said. “I’m going to need two or three weeks just to get into ordinary life.” (Later I learned that he had immediately started building his own Viking ship and, to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of Leif Eiriksson’s discovery, had made the crossing from Iceland to America again in the year 2000. This boat, Islendingar, now has its own museum outside of Keflavik in Iceland. See http://www.vikingaheimar.is)

When he had first heard of Gaia, Gunnar had been laid up with a broken arm from an accident on a fishing trawler. The next day he wrote the organizers a letter stating his qualifications: on fishing boats since he was 14, skilled as a boatbuilder, experienced as a diver and ocean rescue-squad member. As he told me, “I can do a few things.” He was interviewed, then flown to Norway to join the team building the boat. When time came to choose a captain, the expedition leader appointed Gunnar.

“It was strange,” Gunnar had said. “In the beginning, when I first started to sail this ship, it was like I knew how to do it already. It was a kind of feeling, from the wind, how to do it right.”

Now another member of the crew joined me and Eggert in the quiet sunlight beneath the great white sail, a slim, young Norwegian named Odd Kvamme.

“Do you like sailing on days like this, or on rough days?” I asked Odd.

“A little rougher,” he said. “You feel the pulse of the ship.”

“Do you trust her?”

“Oh, yes. I didn’t at first, but I do now.”

And then Gunnar bellowed again. Odd and Eggert ran to their posts, Eggert on top of the cabin, beating the huge sail off himself as it came down—it enclosed him like the wings of a big bird, a beautiful, mythic image, embracing him again each time he hauled it off.

At the end of the trip, Odd helped me disembark with a strong arm on my elbow.

“Would you notice if I stayed on the ship?” I asked.

His face lit with a sideways gleam and a flirtatious, conspiratorial smile. “I think so,” he said.

I called out to Gunnar, “When are you sailing out tonight?”

“Between midnight and two a.m. Why?”

Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. That sounds like a great adventure! My father was very proud that Vigdis was his second cousin.