A 54-strong ‘Viking Navy’ led by a University of Nottingham scientist and Viking expert has carried out an unusual expedition to Norway, to row the largest replica Viking longship ever built.
Professor Stephen Harding and his crew of Viking enthusiasts from the Wirral and East Midlands were invited by the Norwegians to test the new 70 ton Dragon Harald Fairhair, a 114 foot hand-built oak longship named after the king who unified Norway in the late 9th century. The Dragon is based on the late-Viking Age ‘Leidang’ ships of the Norse Sagas, which continued to be used in Norway into the early Medieval period.
The new longship has taken two years to build in a warehouse at Haugesund on the western Fjords. Its 82 foot mast is hewn from a single German oak and the sail is made from 3,200 square feet of red silk. Although designed as a sailing vessel, up to one hundred rowers are needed to row it up rivers and into harbour.
Rowing the Dragon
Professor Stephen Harding is Director of the University’s National Centre for Macromolecular Hydrodynamics (NCMH
) and is also a member of the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age
. He was awarded the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit (Knight, 1st class) for his scientific and historical investigation of the Vikings in North West England — and in particular his work in public engagement — and has been closely involved in the dream of Norwegian businessman Sigurd Aase to build the Dragon longship.
Professor Harding said: “The opportunity to row the Dragon came about three years ago when, along with colleagues at Leicester University, we were DNA testing in Norway — and Sigurd Aase, who was helping us recruit volunteers for the DNA work — showed us the boat under construction. The resulting trip to row the finished Dragon longship was truly exhilarating. We were able to experience for ourselves the great excitement that young people in the Viking Age must have felt rowing one of these beautiful longships, excitement captured in the old sagas.
'Valuable test data'
“We also provided valuable test data for the team who are trying to optimise the efficiency of the rowing. Although the distance between the oars is based on recovered Viking ships like the Gokstad in Oslo, the rowers in the Dragon were bumping into each other. It seems surprising but we think people in the Viking Age were a little shorter and once we worked out to take ¾ strokes to compensate rather than full strokes, we were fine and the vessel seem to move very smoothly, even managing a speed of three knots.
“Our trip finished with a traditional ‘Saga Night’ reading by Viking novelist and East Midlands recruit Giles Kristian, from King Harald’s saga. It was very appropriate that my recruits came from Wirral and the East Midlands as both these areas are crammed full with place names of Scandinavian origin, in particular all the names ending in –by, -thorp or -toft. I live in a former Viking village (East Leake) and got married in one also (Thurnby), the football team I support has a Viking name (Tranmere), and my own name is the name of the national musical instrument of Norway — (Harding-fele — the Hardanger fiddle) — our Viking ancestry is widespread.
“On behalf of everyone I would like to thank Sigurd and all his team for giving us this once in a lifetime opportunity. I’d also like to thank Liverpool Victoria Rowing Club and Nottingham and Loughborough boat clubs for their great help in training the volunteers.
The Dragon Harald Fairhair is being sail tested on the coast and fjords of Norway throughout this summer and there are plans for a major international voyage next year, over the North Sea to the UK, the Mediterranean and possibly eventually over the Atlantic to New York. Professor Harding hopes his Viking Navy from the UK will be recruited again to help power the longship to safe harbour on its epic journey in 2014 and beyond.
Professor Steve Harding is author of Wirral and its Viking Heritage (English Place Names Society, 2000) with Dr Paul Cavill and Professor Judith Jesch, Viking DNA (Nottingham University Press, 2011) with Mark Jobling and Turi King and co-editor with David Griffiths of In Search of Vikings (Taylor & Francis, London) — to be published later this year.
A video on Professor Harding's longship rowing project is available here
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