ADVENTURE

Historic visions

Norse voyagers carry a cargo of messages

E. KAYE FULTON August 12 1991
ADVENTURE

Historic visions

Norse voyagers carry a cargo of messages

E. KAYE FULTON August 12 1991

Historic visions

ADVENTURE

Norse voyagers carry a cargo of messages

Perhaps only the silhouette of the elegant wooden craft, with its square sail and the arching symmetry of its tall prow and stern, would be familiar to the man that it was built to honor. Modelled in Norway on the type of Viking long ship that Leif Eiriksson sailed across the North Atlantic

1,000 years ago, the 78-foot-long reproduction, the Gaia, hides electronic navigation gear within its golden-colored pine and oaken hull. Twin diesel engines augment, or defy, the power of capricious ocean winds that once drove Leif off course—and onto New World shores that he named Vinland and which earned him the nickname Leif the Lucky. With the aid of 1990s technology, the Gaia’s Norwegian captain, Ragnar Thorseth, and his crew of nine modern Vikings were able to keep to a clockwork timetable on their commemorative voyage. But among the welcoming crowd on Newfoundland’s northern tip, as the Gaia glided out of the fog at L’Anse aux Meadows during the late afternoon of Aug. 2, it was possible to blank out the cheering and to imagine a silent day centuries ago when the Viking voyagers steered their long ship into the same bay, found a land unknown to Europe and built a settlement whose remnants survive. For Thorseth and the eight men and one

woman in his crew, it was often easy to imagine—and admire—Leif’s voyage of discovery. The Gaia’s voyage, named Vinland Revisited, was launched from the Norwegian port of Bergen on Norway’s national day, May 17, and visited the Orkney, Shetland and Faeroe islands, as well as Iceland and Greenland. On its way to Newfoundland, the long ship ran into strong winds, heavy seas and dangerous floating ice. Those conditions have not changed in

1,000 years, said Thorseth. “In the North Atlantic, it is difficult to tell what is ice and what are waves in the dark,” he recounted. Even with radar, the Gaia was damaged by ice, causing some leaks that Thorseth arranged to have repaired after the ship sailed down the Newfoundland coast to St. John’s. Said Thorseth: “Imagine what it would be like without radar on a dark and frozen sea. The Vikings had a lot of courage.”

It is the courage of the Vikings and their “discovery” of the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus in 1492 that the expedition by their Nordic descendants is designed to publicize. Financed by the governments of Norway and Iceland and by Norwegian cruiseship magnate Knut Kloster, the $4-million venture is carrying that message—and a crusade against the pollution of the environ-

ment—to St. John’s, to Halifax on Aug. 28 and then to U.S. Atlantic ports on the way to Washington by Oct. 9, Leif Eiriksson Day.

The crew of the Gaia unfurled its sponsors’ messages as it drew up to a floating dock at L’Anse aux Meadows. They dropped the long ship’s sail and raised a smaller blue sail that bore the words: “One thousand years ago, Europe and America were brought together by Vikings. Our knowledge of the world has grown faster than our sense to take care of it. Now we must set the right course ahead and open up a new era.”

That theme received emphasis from Icelandic President Vigdís Finnbogadottir who, along with Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells and federal Environment Minister Jean Charest, was among the crowd of about 1,000 dignitaries, local citizens, tourists and Canadian and foreign journalists who greeted the Gaia. At a banquet in St. John’s on the eve of the ship’s arrival, she recalled that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had proposed during a visit to Iceland last month that northern countries should form a council to safeguard the fragile environment of the Arctic. She expressed the hope that Mulroney will take the lead in helping to make the northern nations “an environmental model” for the world. “Sailing across the Atlantic in ice-cold fog and freezing seas is no easy task, even today and even if we are no longer heading into the unknown,” she said. “But the earth of

1,000 years ago and the earth of today are two vastly different places.”

The Gaia expedition’s other message—that the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach the New World; the archeological finds at L’Anse aux Meadows support that claim— made an impact on some tourists in the welcoming crowd. Dardana Hoyt, for one, an elementary school teacher from Milford, N.H., said that she and a companion first learned of the Gaia voyage on arrival in Newfoundland for a vacation and drove their camper the length of the island to watch the arrival and visit the remnants of 1,000-year-old dwellings, a forge and Viking artifacts unearthed in the 1960s by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad. Said Hoyt: “A good deal of this comes as a very pleasant surprise. I thought we were up to date on our history. Obviously, Americans have a lot to learn.”

For Helge Ingstad, 92, who is convinced that the L’Anse aux Meadows site is Leif’s Vinland, the view of a Viking long ship moving majestically out of the fog was thrilling, he said, but it came as no surprise: “It was just as I had imagined.”

E. KAYE FULTON in L’Anse aux Meadows