The Thor Viking, in the waters near the L’anse aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland, Canada, which is the only proven Norse settlement in North America and the site of a festival marking 1000 years since the settlement was founded by the Viking Leif Ericsson. Photo by Greg Locke © 2000.
Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1492 is accepted as fact around the world. But as next year’s 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage approaches, modern supporters of other long-ago adventurers, from European fishermen to Viking voyagers, are publicizing the feats of their heroes.
This month three replicas of Viking ships left Norway to retrace the voyage 1,000 years ago of Leif Eriksson to North America. The flagship Gaia, a replica of a Viking longship built in the ninth century, is currently sailing through the Orkney, Shetland and Faroes islands en route to Iceland and Greenland. From August to October, the ship will explore North America’s eastern seaboard, stopping in major cities and historic sites like l’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park in Newfoundland, the site of a Viking settlement.
The fierce-looking Viking flotilla, bristling with media television cameras instead of swords, is scheduled to arrive in Washington about Oct. 12, the day Columbus landed in what is now the Dominican Republic. It’s no coincidence that the ships will visit in time to steal some of Columbus’s thunder; expedition organizers have cheekily renamed the traditional American holiday, which celebrates Columbus’ arrival, Leif Eriksson Day.
Unsung heroes, referred to only fleetingly in historical texts, include generations of European fishermen, who some writers suggest fished annually off North America’s east coast even while the Vikings were making their voyages. Irish monks like St. Brendan regularly put to sea in the ninth century in pursuit of purity and could have arrived on North America’s shores.
The $3-million Viking expedition, called Vinland Revisited, is sponsored partly by the governments of Iceland and Norway and mostly by Norwegian ship owner Knut Utstein Kloster through his company, World City Discovery.
“They want to do this voyage in order to commemorate the Viking voyages to North America, especially the one of Leif Eriksson, which took place approximately 1,000 years ago – nobody really knows exactly which year,” said Ragnar Thorseth, expedition leader and captain of Gaia, in a telephone interview from the Orkney Islands, where the ships were sitting out a gale this week. “The voyage is only the beginning of a series of events to take place until the year 2000.”
Capt. Thorseth, a writer and adventurer known in Norway as a present- day Viking, sailed around the world in 1984 in one of the expedition ships, the Saga Siglar. “I want to learn more about the Vikings, to see how it was possible for the Vikings, over a period of 500 years, to sail across the Atlantic,” he said, adding that his personal motive for the voyages has nothing to do with the popularity of Columbus. “You might call it a coincidence that Columbus left more than 500 years later. We are not saying anything like the Vikings were the first to reach North America, because of course they were not. There were Inuit and Indian people.
But “it is likely they were the first Europeans. The point is they were there 1,000 years ago. And at that time, they were probably the best sailors, at least in northern and western Europe.”
At l’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland – or Vinland as the Vikings called it – federal park officials are already preparing for the visit of the Gaia on Aug. 2. Planned is a reception for top-level politicians and diplomats including the president of Iceland, says park superintendent Bruce Bradbury. “L’Anse aux Meadows is the only authenticated Norse or Viking site in North America and it’s certainly a landing site for Leif Eriksson. It is the first known contact in North America by Europeans.”
Mr. Bradbury says park officials have been surprised by the intense interest in the Viking voyage, noting that Capt. Thorseth’s visit to l’Anse aux Meadows in 1984 during his previous around-the-world trip was almost ignored. “With this one, all of a sudden we’re getting national coverage not only in Canada but in the United States. I’ve never seen so much interest in it. We’ve had people calling constantly wanting to know about the voyage of the Viking ships.”
Only the Gaia, a replica of the 24-metre, square-rigged longship Gokstad that was built in 850, will cross the stormy North Atlantic. The Gaia, owned by Mr. Kloster, will be skippered by Capt. Thorseth and accompanied by a modern ship to ensure that it and its crew don’t simply disappear below the waves. Historians believe that was the fate of untold numbers of real Viking ships including that of Eric the Red, Leif Eriksson’s father.
The other two Viking ship replicas, the Oseberg and Saga Siglar, are being shipped from Bergen, Norway, to Halifax. After the Gaia arrives in Halifax on Aug. 28, the three ships will tour major cities in the U.S. in visits that combine cultural, commercial and diplomatic purposes for Norway and Iceland, “to make Norway, Iceland and our culture better known in North America,” said Capt. Thorseth.
Touting Viking exploits is just one of the Gaia’s purposes. The ship is named for the mythical Greek earth goddess, and Mr. Kloster and Capt. Thorseth say its most important purpose is to raise awareness of the environment around the world.
After the Gaia leaves Washington in October, it will continue on a journey that will touch on all five continents. “We’ll hope for a better world” as a result of the voyage, said Capt. Thorseth.
A formal statement of the expedition’s purpose notes that Leif Eriksson’s voyage “marked the start of a millennium of great discoveries – from the early ocean crossings of the Vikings to the space voyages of modern times . . . As a new millennium approaches, the challenge to man’s commitment and resourcefulness is now to steer a course towards a sustainable common future . . . for reasons of sheer survival, there is a growing awareness of the needs of Mother Earth.”
In a statement, Mr. Kloster, the main financier of the project and former chairman of the Klosters Rederi A”S shipping company, tried to explain the expedition purposes. “Why go to all this endeavour and expense, just to ‘celebrate’ or ‘commemorate’ the fact that some people from Greenland (with their roots in Iceland and Norway) landed in America 1,000 years ago, and clashed with the local population? What’s so great about that?
“Nothing, really – and yet: it touches the spirit of exploration and discovery, and the basic sense of having to stake something in the pursuit of important goals. And that’s a spirit we need more than ever in the world today, with the tremendous environmental challenge we are faced with and the deepening gap between the rich and the poor in our common present,” said Mr. Kloster.
“After 1,000 years of discoveries, we have still not learned to live in harmony with the planet and each other. We have yet to discover our common future.”