Viking Voyage

It's back to the 10th century for this merry band of Maryland sailors as they celebrate the ways and popularity of all things Norse

June 26, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

LEONARDTOWN - It is drizzly, chill and not very breezy, hardly ideal conditions for raiding Leonardtown, let alone St. Clements Island. Still, the 32-foot longship Fyrdraca inches its way under oar into the mouth of St. Clements Bay on the Potomac. Even if the weather doesn't bode well for a village pillage, the Viking crew of six can at least do a little reconnaissance for future rampages.

As crew members rhythmically row at the speed of one knot, Bruce Blackistone, aka Captain Atli, sings "Hey ho, plunder the home ..." to the tune of the old Christmas round, "Nobody's Home." Spindly and grizzled rather than bulky and bearded, Atli (Norse for Attila) completes his ad-libbed refrain: "Burn the house and carry off the women."

Despite its fierce dragon figurehead, the apparition of Fyrdraca and its crew draws laughter from those aboard passing yachts and fishing boats, not the fear and loathing Vikings should command. Unfazed, they call to their mockers: "You want us to bring you anything from Constantinople?" as if bound for a Black Sea conquest.

They've been entangled by a crab pot, saluted by military pilots, harassed by Jet Skiers. Although an imposingly archaic sight on the bay, their 21-year-old longship is a tad leaky and weathered even after a winter of patching and riveting.

But this band of light-hearted Vikings - sporting hand-stitched tunics, leather shoes and necklaces of beads, coins and jade - pirate on, munching Pop Tarts and merrily summarizing each sailing adventure as a "disaster that you survive."

For more than 20 years, the 60 members of the Longship Company have explored the estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay, raided occasional bars, rubbed hulls with tall ships and made appearances at living history demonstrations in two Viking-inspired boats: the Fyrdraca, a quasi-replica of a longship found buried in the Baltic Sea, and its diminutive companion, the four-oared Gyrfalcon.

For the crew, weekend berserking on the Fyrdraca (Old English for fire dragon) is a way to learn about square-sail vessels and spread awareness of Viking history. It is also a way to experience a harsh and thrilling period when murder, hardship and slavery were common and basic comforts rare.

Why vacation in Ocean City, Atli asks, paraphrasing a comrade, when you can vacation in the 10th century?

In Eriksson's footsteps

The final year of the 20th century is a considerably kinder and more welcoming time to be a Viking. Next month, Longship Company members will journey to L'Anse aux Meadows, the remote Newfoundland site where Leif Eriksson became the first European to set foot in North America 1,000 years ago. Towed to Canada by trailers, the Fyrdraca and the Gyrfalcon will join a flotilla of longships in a "Grand Fleet" commemoration of Eriksson's feat, in what will be the highlight of a summer-long festival called "Vikings! 1,000 Years."

Among the water-borne paraders in the Parks Canada-sponsored spectacle will be the Viking replica Islendingur, built and captained 2,600 miles from Iceland by Gunnar Eggertsson, an Eriksson descendent. The Islendingur, a heavy cargo ship called a knarr, will continue its sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia; Boston and New York City through summer and early autumn.

Also part of the Grand Fleet will be the Snorri. This ship, another knarr named after the first European child born in the New World, took author W. Hodding Carter on an exhilarating escapade, which he chronicled in a new book, "Viking Voyage: In Which an Unlikely Crew of Adventurers Attempts an Epic Journey to the New World"(Ballantine, $25).

Close to L'Anse aux Meadows is a Viking village called Norstead. Populated by re-enactors, it will bustle with weddings, battles, boat building, iron-working and other Viking-Age crafts through the summer celebration.

With lively accounts of Eriksson's pre-Columbus discovery, recent cover stories in National Geographic and Time magazines have helped spread Viking fever far beyond Newfoundland and Norse settlement sites in Europe.

And record crowds visiting the Smithsonian's "Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga" exhibit are making their own discovery: The Norse people were more than marauders. They were resourceful craftsmen, explorers and storytellers who established an early form of democracy, according to the artifact-rich display at the Museum of Natural History through Aug. 13.

Longship Company members are sharing their expertise in early medieval Scandinavian fiber arts, armor construction, food ways and other skills during weekend demonstrations at the Smithsonian exhibit.

They appreciate all the Viking hoopla but, if they ever took the trouble, they'd print a T-shirt that says: "We were Vikings before Vikings were cool."

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