25 Years Abaft the Mast

In Which Our Fearsome Mariner Reviews the Lessons Learned on the Sae Earn, Fyrdraca and Gyrfalcon; with Observations on Replicas and Epic Voyages in General

APA 1066
Bruce Edward Blackistone
Oakley Farm

Well, the truth is that, by blue water standards, we've spent much of our time puttering about the Chesapeake Bay and its various tributaries. Essentially, paddling around the puddle. Still, a lot of historic work was done in the fjords of Scandinavia, the creeks of England and the rivers of France and Russia. Twenty five years of basic messing about in longships and faering boats has provided at least some useful insights.

Swimming in Chainmail
Sailing in these vessels is, by the twentieth century standards of comfort and efficiency, somewhat like swimming in chainmail. It's an admirable feat, you dispel certain myths ("It will drag you right to the bottom!" "No it won't, you can swim for about three minutes. Then, if you can't flip head down, and let it slide off, it will drag you straight to the bottom!") and it gives you a whole new appreciation for early medieval naval warfare and merchant ventures. On the other hand, it takes a certain mindset to consider this a fun and educational activity, and you also run the risk of drowning. Still, it gives you insights that may not be otherwise obtained.

The great secret of Viking navigation is: they didn't have to be home on Monday morning! Their vacation time didn't run out in a week, or a month, or a year. To quote a tongue-in-cheek science-fiction movie: "No matter where you go, there you are."

The highest speed attainable is not what truly matters. What matters is the average cruising speed in varying conditions and circumstances. Inevitably replica vessels travel at a far slower average speed than predicted, and this plays hob with twentieth century scheduling. The alternative is to "power through" with some form of onboard engine. You can run a diesel 24 hours a day, day after day, without a complaint or pulled muscle, blistered palm or sore butt. You can't really do that with a crew. The down side is that most replicas (not to mention the originals) are (were) not designed to sustain powering into unfavorable sea conditions. It is one thing to run with the storm, quite another to bull your way through head seas. I can count at least four replica longships lost over the last 30 years. (Of course, in the old days, if a ship was lost, it was a tragedy. Now it is a scandal, and a feeding frenzy for certain predatory members of the legal profession.)

: You just cannot count on the wind and weather breaking your way. Pessimism is the best planning policy. The average speed of the Fyrdraca on the Chesapeake and its estuaries, under sail or oars, was one to two knots; the Sae Hrafn about 50% faster. I used to feel pretty bad about this until a history professor in Salt Lake City analyzed the Viking raids up the rivers of France, observing which monasteries and towns were raided when. Her conclusion was that the average speed was one or two knots! Of course we have rowed at over four knots, and sailed at over six knots, under good conditions; but good conditions always change. The direction and force of the wind seldom cooperate to provide us with our optimum speed, and several days into a voyage the crew seems to lose its edge for rowing (except the women, who lack the horsepower but have the long-term endurance). Maybe after a month or so, given good living conditions, the crew would harden up, but I suspect that even if we grabbed a boatload of Marines from Quantico, we would see a dip in performance after several days.

Crew Size
Crew size is critical on historic vessels, especially if they are oared. A Gokstad replica was lost with all hands in the early Fifties. Photographs show her with only crew enough to man one-third of her oars. Odin's Raven from Man was capsized while participating in an unscheduled filming. They had only mustered about one-third of the crew for a last minute shoot on a gusty day. The Norwegian Oseberg replica capsized during another filming under similar conditions. She only had six or eight people aboard and tried to make up for the others with ballast rock! A friend of mine and I went to a documentary at National Geographic on a replica of a 13th century Scottish longship. I counted the oarports. I counted the crew: one-third the number of oars. I whispered to my friend: "They are going to run into trouble." Sure enough, they did.

On Viking style vessels crews provide both power and adjustable, obedient ballast. But the power is fragile. Crews get cold, wet, sick. You discover that "Ivar the Strong" isn't worth a bucket of warm spit after the second day. Some of your officers hit the wall. You hit the wall! Even with a large crew, the loss, through injury or illness, of just one person can effect the efficiency and morale of that watch. Anytime you have anyone standing watch-on-watch, you are standing into danger. I once brought the Fyrdraca into port using just my 70-some year old father at the other oar and my 4-some year old son at the helm, but that was on a good day with a powered escort for most of the way. The scope of any voyage must be matched to the resources available.

I am convinced that the ideal crew is one and a half times the number of oarsmen. Eighteen hands on the Fyrdraca is a little crowded, but it provides full power when needed, and redundancy when something goes wrong or someone has problems. It provides more than enough people to row and run the ship and, under sail, provides about one ton of obedient ballast.

The standing watch system in the Longship Company is 40 minutes on and 20 minutes off while under oars. I don't know if the Vikings ever used a similar system (maybe they counted strokes) but it certainly works for us, plus it rotates each watch between the port and starboard oars, evening up the muscle strain. It also fits neatly into a 60-minute hour, which simplifies log keeping. We've been able to keep this up for days, and nights, at a time. This way everybody takes a turn at the rowing bench.

Death is "authentic," but not a particularly desirable outcome for an experimental voyage. Then, there is always the friction between safety and authenticity, modern conveniences and medieval living conditions. The best compromise to this dilemma is to keep the vessel for the reenactment as historically accurate as possible in terms of equipment, clothing and comestibles (short of required or basic safety and survival equipment, discretely stowed) and rig out a modern escort vessel with all the best navigation equipment, spare life and safety gear, backup provisions, etc. The escort would follow the historic vessel, measure performance, and only interfere if the vessels are standing into danger. If worse comes to worse, or modern schedules must be kept, the modern vessel can always provide a tow.

For display events an escort vessel is handy for stowing sleeping bags, heavy war gear, extra changes of clothing, and it can provide additional sleeping berths.

Everybody always tends to bring too much food, which adds weight and clutter. I think, within limits, that a central larder and planned meals would be wiser. Lack of cooking facilities has never been a problem, since dried fish, bread and cheese (not to mention gorp, sardines and pop-tarts) don't suffer from lack of cooking. In colder seasons lack of hot food is a nuisance, but there is no evidence that I've been able to find for some form of shipboard fireplace in this period. Cooking utencils have been found on burial ships, but these may have been more for shoreside use, or the afterlife.

Burial Ships
When considering an archeological find the context is everything. Why is the vessel there? Why are the objects aboard it there? Are those stones for ballast, or for sinking it? Are the tents and cooking utensils part of the ship's equipment or grave goods for the afterlife? Is the anchor all or part of the normal ground tackle or just the anchor that was handy at the time? If it's a grave site, did they chose the ship because it was beautiful, or because it was old, or because it happened to be at hand? As maritime archeologist Colin Martin once pointed out: you don't find very many sunken longships because the tend to float, even when holed or swamped, (ours certainly do) and they eventually fetch up on shore and get smashed and stripped down by the surf. What we mostly have are ships that were judged expendable, used for burials, blockades, fire ships, or just beached and left to rot. Any items present or missing must be looked at or extrapolated carefully to decide of they indeed were part of the ship's operating gear.

A Matter of Scale
Over the years a number of ship replicas have been built to varying scales based on full size historic examples. The two most recent are Odin's Raven from Man (a two-thirds scale replica of the Gokstad ship) and the Barney Barge on the Chesapeake (four-fifths scale). This is usually a bad idea for two reasons: First, finding two-thirds and four-fifths scale people is very difficult. The second problem is the law of mechanical similitude.

Funny things happen when you scale a vessel down. For instance a two-thirds (66%) replica of the Gokstad will have about 66% of the length, beam and draft; about 80% of the hull speed; about 44% of the wetted area; only 29% of the displacement; 44% of the sail area; 29% of the heeling moment in the same force breeze and only 19% of the stability! The result is a cramped and very tender vessel. To build a vessel of a certain size is one thing, but to build a scaled vessel is quite another, and probably a mistake. Fortunately the last forty years of archeological finds has revealed a rich variety of sizes and hull types, and more await discovery. We no longer have to press endless imperfect clones of the Oseberg and Gokstad ships into service for any occasion.

[For further reading on this fun-filled topic read Skene's Elements of Yacht Design ISBN 0-396-06582-1, LOC 72-3150]

Mast Dropping
Ships move six ways at once: roll, pitch, yaw, heave, surge and sway.
Masts are long, heavy, awkward objects.
The aerodynamic drag of mast and rigging, compared to the bulk of the vessel, is hardly significant in any wind force short of a gale.

These three factors mitigate against dropping the mast when under oars. Just because you can, doesn't mean you do it all the time. Not only does dropping the mast not enhance the performance, in a measurable and consistent way, while under oars, but it gives a stern-down trim and clutters the vessel with rigging, spars and spare oars and boathooks. It is useful to drop the mast when pulling the vessel out for the winter, or when passing under low bridges, but if you try to lower it in any sort of a seaway, when it may make some minor difference in performance, it will, more than likely, injure people and damage the vessel. All we really have here is that an historian stated it, an artist showed it, and other artists and historians slavishly copied them until everyone "knows" it to be true.

The modern illustrators, when depicting a mast dropping, show a short mast that is easily dropped, but contemporary depictions on coins stones and manuscripts, show much taller proportional masts. The only formula we have is that the mast height should equal the girth of the ship. The advantage of this formula is that increases in length, without increases in beam, result in an arithmetical increase in sail area as the yard is lengthened, as opposed to a geometrical increase. (See the law of mechanical similitude, above, for the consequences of the latter.) Later depictions of medieval ships, mostly of the post-Viking period, show variations of a crutch-like device that could have been used to cradle the lowered mast. But in all our years of sailing these vessels, with the exception of low bridges and haul outs, none of us has ever observed the need to lower the mast.

Odd Behavior
Sometimes, on certain points of sailing, the ship seems to want to go where it wants to go. This seems to be related to certain locations in our stomping grounds and may be the result of tidal eddies or turbulence in the wind from nearby land forms. It could be vortices about the steerboard or keel. Then again, it could be the dragon of the Chesapeake, Chessie, calling to our figurehead; or evil spirits, trolls, or the skipper's weather luck. Voyages are always an adventure! (And the Longship Company definition of an adventure is a disaster that you survive, and therefore may brag about!)

Leaner, lower and lighter is the way we need to go. I would like to see spruce oars. They may wear out sooner or snap more often than the ash oars, but at least the crew wouldn't wear out or snap as often. I'd like to see wool and linen sails for testing, hemp rigging, the modern radio and navigation equipment in a proper sea chest for both better safety and appearance.

The greatest improvement, of course, would lie in ourselves. I would love to spend a week, or more, on a well found ship with a full crew, willing to put the effort into more extensive voyages. We have the capability, but we've lacked either the will or the opportunity lately. Think of the places we could go, the things we could see, the lessons we could learn. And not at a modern pace, set by modern obligations and timetables, but at our own pace. We would once again learn how wide the world appeared to our ancestors, and the lessons it still holds for us, today.