Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My First Viking Ship

 The first time I saw a Viking ship in the water, as I wrote in The Far Traveler, I was struck with the desire to stow away on it.

My first Viking ship was not under sail. It was motoring down the Cape Cod Canal under diesel power. Saddled with the silly name Gaia, it had the inexplicable mission of spreading environmental awareness by arriving in America in 1991, one year before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery.”

From the west coast of Norway, where the boat was built and financed by the Norwegian owner of the Viking cruiseship line, Gaia and her diesel-powered chase boat had followed the Viking route to the Orkneys, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands, to Iceland and Greenland, then over the ice-filled seas to Labrador and Newfoundland—or Markland and Vinland, as the Vikings had named them. In Nova Scotia, Gaia met up with two other Viking ship replicas, Oseberg and Saga Siglar (these had been crated and shipped by common carrier across the Atlantic). The convoy headed south, stopping for speechifying at Boston, Newport, New York, and Washington, D.C.

I caught up with the ships on September 18 at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where the crews would enjoy a much-needed hot shower and shore leave before the festivities in Newport. A dozen people watched from the quay as Gaia chugged gracelessly up to the dock; the other boats had arrived before her. There were no public events planned here. The Gaia crew tied up and, greeting the tourists politely but with an air of acute boredom, tried to slip past us into the building.

I had other plans in mind. I wanted to get onto a Viking ship, and I had a pretty good idea how to do so. There was only one Icelander on Gaia—the captain, Gunnar Marel Eggertsson—and I had learned everything I could about him.

I mingled with the crowd, listening. Ingolf, an elderly Norwegian I had spoken with while waiting for the ship, addressed one of the blond-headed sailors.

“Good day,” the young man replied, and held out his hand.

Ingolf’s wife clasped it in both of hers. “Will you give a message to our first cousin, Finn, in Oslo?”

She continued, giving great detail on Finn’s upbringing and qualities, until the young man interjected, “But, you see, I am from Iceland. I will tell one of the Norwegians.”

It was my cue. Casually, I said—in Icelandic: “Are you Gunnar? Gunnar á Viðivöllum?”

His head snapped toward me. His childhood nickname had not been published in any of the press releases. He moved aside so that the other crew members could pass by and let loose a stream of unintelligible Icelandic that ended, to my relief, with a simple question: “Are you Icelandic?”

“No,” I said. I had prepared this conversation ahead of time and knew my Icelandic was understandable, if not precisely correct, and, in its childish inflections, charming. “I have an Icelandic friend who grew up on Heimaey. She sends her greetings.”

My friend’s name meant nothing to Gunnar. Heimaey, which the press releases had reported as the captain’s home, is a small island south of mainland Iceland, small enough that every family knows every other. But my friend had warned me that she didn’t know Gunnar well. They had been in different grades in elementary school, and then she had gone to the mainland for high school. Her family had left the island permanently soon after that, when a volcanic eruption dumped several feet of ash on the only town. When I quizzed her about the Icelandic captain of the Gaia, all she could remember was his nickname.

“Her father ran the bakery?” I prompted.

“Oh, yes—”

A crewmate called to him, motioning urgently toward the building where lunch with the academy students was waiting. Gunnar answered him in a Scandinavian creole and turned to go.

“Bless, Gunnar!” I called, using the Icelandic form of goodbye. “It was nice to meet you.”

He spun around, remembering his manners, and, walking backwards, said, “When can I talk to you again?”

“I will be in Newport,” I said. “I can meet you there.”

But, seeing his answering smile, I decided Newport might be too far in the future. I waited until he was out of sight before rejoining my husband, who was minding our three-year-old son. I convinced them that a dock beside a diesel-powered Viking ship was an excellent place for a picnic. Well used to my fixation with all things Icelandic, my husband quietly agreed, asking only, “Didn’t you get an interview?”

“No,” I said, “but I will when he comes back from lunch.”

Lunch, however, was over quicker than I had thought. I had my son on my hip when I saw Gunnar hurrying back to the ship.

“Gun-nar!” I hollered, emphasizing the second syllable, Icelandic-style.

He pivoted, stared, then, recognizing me, waved. I handed my son off to my husband’s patient arms and quickly crossed to where Gunnar waited. “I am a writer,” I said. “I’m writing a book about the Icelandic sagas. May I ask you some questions?”

Gunnar sized me up. From a fellow Icelander—or at least the friend of a fellow Icelander—I had transformed into a journalist, dozens of whom he had already met. But perhaps an interesting journalist to pass an hour with, one who speaks his language—a little clumsily—and knows his country’s literature. And was giving him her undivided attention.

“Yes,” he said, “now.”

Before we could begin, he was called away by an academy student to check one of the ropes on Gaia’s bow. Running down the ship’s ladder, he pulled up a floorboard and tugged to get a new rope out. It was stuck. Beside him another crewman lifted another board, poked around to free the rope, then took it away, leaving Gunnar alone on the deck. He looked up to find me watching. “Do you want to come down?” he said.

“I can’t,” I answered. I pointed at the sign which said so quite clearly.

“Yes, come down,” he said.

As I stepped over the rail, trying to manage the ladder gracefully, the academy student scurried over to shoo me away, pointing, in his turn, at the sign.

“She is interviewing me,” Gunnar said, peremptorily, captain-like, in English. The student held the ladder for me.

I scrambled down and was suddenly breathless. I was on a Viking ship!

Although I knew it had been built only the year before, the ship felt old, well broken in. I ran my hand around an oarhole, fingered the shield rail. The wood was soft, smooth, and golden. Gunnar perched on the gunwale above me. I had to squint into the sun to see him, the light making his blond curls into a corona. Under his several days’ beard, he was very tanned, the blue eyes startling in the brown face. He was not tall, but stocky and solid, as if hard to push over. He wore a white Gaia T-shirt, jeans, and soft leather oxfords. Around his neck was a gold amulet showing a ship under sail, heeled over. Although we had a nice, hour-long talk about sailing a Viking ship, I knew it wasn’t enough.

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

1 comment:

  1. Maybe an obsession can pay off once in a while.