The word “viking” was not originally meant to convey enormous, antler-helmeted lunatics pillaging coastlines of northern Europe and Scandinavia, huge broadswords and horns full of mead in tow. Viking was a verb, not one that described violence or strength, but simply going on a voyage to unknown places. To “go viking” then is to strike out on a kind of epic adventure, unsure of what you’ll find.
In this case, it’s the root of Gone Viking a fun travel saga by Bill Arnott, who does, indeed trace the footsteps and the boat wakes of the legendary travelers we now call vikings. He discovers that vikings weren’t always the bloodthirsty conquerers we tend to associate with that name now, and that they visited far more of the planet than historians used to think.
In the excerpt below, Arnott is sailing on a cutter, tracing the oceanic path of King Olaf “Crowbone” Tryggvason, King of Norway from 995 to 1000, and an important figure in the conversion of the Norse to Catholicism. Arnott develops an affinity for Crowbone, mostly because that dude freaking traveled, from Norway to Russia, to the Baltics, all by ship, more than 1,000 years ago.
Unlike Crowbone’s overlapping clinker ships our cutter was carvel- built – planks flush, the sheer plank (top plank) even with the deck – no railing – just a low lip running the length of the boat. To work rigging in angry breakers at a heavy tack we needed life-lines – soft, belt-like nylon tethers, lashing us to the wave-washed deck. Emotions ranged from adrenaline-pumping highs to gut-wrenching anxiety, remembering knots in violent sea-wash, scrambling to the stern to grab sheets as rollers poured across the bow, dowsing the front half of our boat, a boat that shrank with each growing wave.
Bitter is the wind this night
Which tosses up the ocean’s hair so white Merciless men I need not fear
Who cross from Lothland on an ocean clear
Lothland is the land of the Vikings – Norway, more or less. And this poem, Tonight I Fear Not the Vikings, written by Irish monks around 850 AD, basically says the rougher the water, the safer you are from Northmen. That night aboard the cutter our weather, according to the poem, was the type to keep Vikings away. But our first morning at sea, still up from a full night of sailing, we finally faced an “ocean clear,” weirdly discomforting in its jarring calmness. We were a long way from home but so was Crowbone when he plied the same waters. No survival suits or lifelines on his ships. But for us, along with anxious moments came some of the most stunning views I’ve witnessed and still see in my mind. After sharing the helm on that draining all-nighter, I saw sun rise in crepuscular sky, a fireball emerging from the sea in our wake. Being a west coaster I rarely see sun rise from the ocean – different energy than sunset – manifestation versus gratitude. “Can you imagine what Matisse would’ve made of this if he’d seen it?” wrote Robert Hughes in The Liberation of Sydney. He could well have been describing that sunrise.
We carried on through Norse and Saxon waters, as much a part of the lethal, real-life chess match played out around England as the muddy battlefields of Reading. Gareth Williams, the British Museum’s leading Viking historian, says, “The Vikings raided Cornwall, but they also allied with the Cornish against West Saxon expansion and Cornwall was an important point on a sailing route from Scandinavia round Scotland to the Irish Sea and on to Brittany. To a great extent the history of the Vikings is the history of their ships and boats and there is nowhere better placed than the National Maritime Museum of Cornwall to tell this story.”
Which is where I was, Cornwall’s Maritime Museum in Falmouth, to start my turbulent sail around Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. I went to the museum’s demonstration pool – a raised indoor lake, complete with islands and buoys, rip currents and winds. On the lake are model sailboats, little sloops with working sails. Standing at the edge of the water with a fixed remote control, you sail your own small boat on the lake, utilizing wind and tides and working your model craft around obstacles. A great exhibit – educational and fun. I learned, quite honestly, as much about sailing as I did in a week-long course in a class and another two weeks on the water.
Richard Jefferies writes in The Breeze on Beachy Head, “There is an infinite possibility about the sea. It may do what it has not done before. It is not to be ordered, it may overlap the bounds human observation has fixed for it. It has a potency unfathomable. There is something in it not quite grasped or understood, something still to be discovered.” This is how I felt on the water, anticipating things undiscovered.
As our cutter bounced through blue-green like Sea Stallion, we watched seals hunt and a sunfish roll its prehistoric girth at the sur- face. All this while basking sharks lurked below, an eclectic maritime food chain. In the black of night we watched phytoplankton – dinner for the sharks – twinkling like waterborne stars mirroring night sky. As Steffan Hughes writes in Circle Line, “To see phosphorescence on that cold summer’s night on the Celtic Sea was to feel a benevolent life force slopping onto the boat.” Constellations (the real ones) peeked between cloud, shifting monochrome blackness and gray. The sharks, like the monster we watched at Cape Cornwall, move languid in tangy salt sea, unlike the Greenlandic ones we ate in Iceland, dredged from the earth in putrefied urine. On the water we washed down grub with good spirits while the shark soaked in piss we doused with Black Death. I wondered if it was all a cruel joke.
The above except is reproduced here by permission of Rocky Mountain Books.
Photo: Steiner Engeland/Unsplash