Friday, August 22, 2008

‘Vikings’ building boat on Northern Peninsula

The article below was poached from the The Western Star (Corner Brook NL) - 22/08/08 - The original author is not listed.
Wade Hillier, left, and Mike Sexton, Viking actors at L’Anse aux Meadows, work on building a small Norse boat called a “faering” from scratch. — Submitted Photo

L’ANSE AUX MEADOWS — It’s been 1,000 years in the making, but Vikings are once again engaged in boat building and repair on the tip of the Northern Peninsula.

Thanks to a new interpretive program at the Norse site L’Anse aux Meadows called From the Tree to the Sea, visitors can watch and learn, and maybe even lend a hand, as costumed interpreters build a faering — a small Norse boat with overlapping planks and boat nails — from scratch.

Armed with an array of traditional, hand-forged tools, Chief Bjorn the Beautiful (portrayed by Mike Sexton) and his team of Viking men will be handcrafting the faering.

They will carve out the stem and hand-shape the planks, close to how archaeological evidence indicates the Norse did in repairing their smaller vessels’ iron ship nails.

Evidence of wood-cutting activities indicate that major Norse activities at the L’Anse aux Meadows site concentrated on small boat repair.

The project is expected to run for two seasons, at the completion of which Bjorn plans to launch the boat. Not to be left out, the Chief’s wife Thora (played by Bonnie Blake-Hynes) and her team of women will be weaving a sail for the faering, while Ragnar the blacksmith (Mark Pilgrim) forges boat nails in the related program From the Fire to the Faering.

From the Tree to the Sea was developed as part of Parks Canada’s Explorer Quotient (EQ) initiative. In partnership with the Canadian Tourism Commission, Gros Morne National Park, Port aux Choix and L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Sites are introducing visitors to EQ, a new tool which matches visitors with experiences tailored to their specific needs.

As part of the EQ process, staff at each site conducted an inventory of the programs currently offered, looked at new ways of reaching visitor types that haven’t been reached in the past and developed many new programs with the ‘explorer’ type of visitor in mind.

From the Tree to the Sea is an example of this process, providing visitors with a chance to actively participate in one of the site’s traditional activities.

To discover their EQ type, visitors can take a short quiz online at or drop by any of the Parks Canada visitor centres at the sites. With the completion of the quiz, a computer program calculates responses and identifies visitors as one of nine “Explorer Types.”

They then receive tailored advice from Parks Canada staff about programs, services and activities identified especially for them.

Visitors can participate in the From the Tree to the Sea program every fine day this summer, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

For more information, please contact L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic site at (709)623-2608.

" They will carve out the stem and hand-shape the planks, close to how archaeological evidence indicates the Norse did in repairing their smaller vessels’ iron ship nails.

Evidence of wood-cutting activities indicate that major Norse activities at the L’Anse aux Meadows site concentrated on small boat repair."

This quote perhaps does not clearly state the range of activities proven by the archaeology at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Fragments representing about 50 wrought iron rivets and their roves (rectangular washers) were found scattered outside a kind of open ended workshop attached to one of the Norse houses. This certainly is the remains of a fairly major repair event to one of the ships, with the normal spacing between rivets about 15 cm or so.

The primary working tool for the project is the axe. The there were seven different axes produced, each hand forged using historic methods. The other tools employed are also exact replicas of those employed in the Viking Age. These tools, along with the lapstrake construction method (overlapping planks riveted to each other rather than to a rigid frame) make the whole project more 'ancient' than 'traditional' to Newfoundland boat building methods.

The current project to build a replica faering is extremely ambitious, likely to consume 1500 to 2000 labour hours. That the interpretive staff is limiting itself to all Viking Age tools and methods is even more exceptional. This level of historical detailing has never been attempted before anywhere in North America, with the closest parallel being the work at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde Denmark.

Further information on the web:
Official Parks Canada / L'Anse aux Meadows
Unofficial on the 'Norse Encampment' program
Check earlier postings for commentary on the creation of the tools

For readers of Hammered Out Bits:
The photo is obviously a posed for promotion one - rather than a serious attempt to record the work in progress. Mike (in the foreground) is pretty much wailing away on a piece of garbage timber. The quality and nature of the wood is completely unsuitable for ship construction. (Its barely suitable for fire wood!) The axe he has in his hands is intended as a light trimming axe - to be used for fine finish shaping of a prepared timber. It should not be used to hack away for heavy roughing out.

One of my largest reservations about the entire LAM project centres on the timber. The long thin planking needs to be spit out of clear and straight grained logs - ideally oak. For a faering hull in the range of 14 - 16 feet, the starting logs required need to be in the range of 20 feet long and roughly 18 inches in diameter. Not at all easy to come by (not to mention very expensive). Individual cross braces should be shaped from timber sections carefully selected for the correct underlaying grain patterns.

The estimate on construction time given is based on what I was told by A.G. Smith, who has actually built one of these same boats. (DARC had been considering construction of a faering as a group project). His advice:
1) Purchase a good set of commercial plans. He suggested the Shearwater or Elf Faering
2) Expect to build two boats, the first in plywood as a test bed before considering a second using 'real wood'.
3) Rough cost for the project would run something like $1500 - $2000
4) Expect something like 1000 to 1500 hours - thats using modern power tools!

Another serious concern of mine is how the tools will be used. I'm afraid that the interpretive staff of the Encampment program have proved in the past extremely 'hard on the tools' (to put it mildly). The complete line of tools I have created for this project have been made to closely duplicate the original artifacts. This does mean that they must be handled in a fashion different than modern types. Key to correct use will be maintaining the sharp edges they were originally provided with. Axes as used in the Viking Age are intended for shearing cuts. Accuracy rather than brute force. Each of the seven axes provided are intended for a specific task, from splitting logs through to final flat surfacing of the planks.


Stephens said...

Still and all, look how far they've come from being a static site. I remember you hopping up and down about that all those years ago. And you should be proud that you've been a part of that evolution.

Anonymous said...

Best way to ruin a perfectly good tool is to let an amateur try to sharpen it. *shudder*

As for the length of time involved... well... what else would the actors be doing? ;)

Unknown said...

Wow, I'd love to watch a video of this. Happy boating


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