Why Sleipnir?


Hello! I am a p

I am nearing the completion of my 33′ Viking Ship, a dream I’ve had for about 20 years.

I have been a sailor for most of my life, always messing about in boats, built some both small and big, raced and cruised in both my own and on charters. I have a passion for sailing, and water is truly my element.

My interest in Viking ships started in 2001 when I got involved with a group at the Scandinavian Community Center in Vancouver BC, who had decided to build a 42′ Viking ship. The whole idea was so fantastic I immediately volunteered to help with its construction. In the amazingly short time of 9 months, working weekends, Munin was built under the direction of Arne and Chris Frostad, two master shipwrights from Norway. They are so skilled that they can take a piece of wood, make a few marks on it, cut it and it fits! We had people helping with making oars, shields, riveting, and in no time at all she was ready! I was given the task of working on the rigging and sail, and eventually became her skipper during her first season.

Sailing Munin was a fantastic revelation for me: she was such a fine sailer, fast, responsive, able to sail close to the wind and generally behaved so well I was truly hooked! To think that the Norse sailed across the oceans in such ships was fantastic, in the true sense of the word, and here we were, sailing in a ship that was very much like the ones the Norse had built 1200 years before! From that first season I started dreaming about the possibility of building my own ship, and when I retired in 2018 I started working looking for a place to build it, which wasn’t easy! By a stroke of luck I thought to ask the Sons Of Norway in Vista if they would consider allowing me to build my ship on their property and when they immediately agreed I was finally able to begin making my dream a reality!

Building the ship: it finally becomes a reality!

I started work in the beginning of 2020, just before Covid struck and put a stop to my work, but I still managed to build the keel and the temporary frames.

The ship is built very much in the traditional fashion, “clinker” or lapstrake, with the planks put in starting at the keel and subsequent planks overlapping the previous ones, with rivets holding them together. She is built right-side-up, not upside-down as some smaller boats are.

I built the keel first. It is made of 1 3/4″ by 9″ white oak, with a 1 1/2″ by 3″ oak keelson overlaid on the inside, and reinforced by braces fitted above the keelson where the keel turns sharply upward to join the stems. The process of building the keel are as follows:

  • – I first drew a full-sized pattern of the keel onto cardboard, and laid out the pieces of oak onto the pattern so I could see how I needed to cut them
  • – on the main, straighter parts, I used scarf joints, where the pieces to be joined are cut at an angle across the thickness of the board, with the second piece having a matching cut which overlaps the first piece, to make a continuous length which is the same thickness
  • – I put caulking onto the pieces, clamped them together, and then riveted them with 8 thick copper rivets
  • – at the sharp turns between the keel and the stems, I cut triangular pieces and fastened the two joints with stainless steel bolts going at an angle through the keel, the triangle piece, the keelson and an extra strengthening piece I fitted on top of the keelson, overlapping the whole joint, making the entire structure quite strong

The planking starts as 12-foot long 2×6 boards of clear, virtually knot-free, Port Orford Cedar, which is similar to Alaska Yellow Cedar. It grows along the West Coast and is actually a cypress. It is an excellent boatbuilding wood, being light-weight, strong, easy to work, and resists rotting and marine borers. I was fortunate to find a good quantity locally at J&W Lumber in Escondido, and bought enough to build the entire ship. Anyone who has bought lumber during 2021 knows how high prices have gone, so I was extremely fortunate to not only find this excellent wood but also to get it at a very good price!

The ship will have 15 planks, a bit over 5/8″ in thickness. The first plank is called the garboard, and I found shaping it a real challenge: it has to fit into the keel and turn sharply up into the stem (the vertical part of the keel) as well as twist hard. It took me many hours of trial and error before I found a way to first make a pattern out of thin hardboard, and then copy that onto boards that I then steamed and finally clamped into position. I had built a steam box and got an electric steam generator, which proved to work very well. The boards needed about 45 minutes in the steam box to become sufficiently flexible to bend into position. However, one has only a few minutes to work before the board cools and stiffens! Having many clamps of various sizes was essential! “You can never have enough clamps” is a motto I have heard, and it is certainly true when building a Viking ship!

The next planks proved to be easier, although I had to be very careful to get the shape right, and to keep the 1″ overlap that not only provides strength and watertightness, but also enough material for the rivets to hold well and be 1/2″ away from the edge.

The planks are made from at least 3 separate lengths of board, joined together with scarf joints, in the same way as the keel pieces were. Once the boards are cut to fit, they are clamped in position and holes are drilled for the rivets. Planks below the waterline are caulked with PL Marine, a compound that comes in tubes that allow long beads of caulking to be squeezed out onto the boards. It’s important to get enough caulking onto the boards, especially at the scarf joints, and to hold them in position with clamps while the rivets are tapped through the holes.

It’s easier to watch my video on how the planking process works than for me to try and write an explanation! I tried, but it was totally boring and hard to follow…

We found that whereas the first few planks required only 3 lengths of board, later ones took more, shorter pieces because of the amount of bend at the ends: we have only 5 1/5″ in width to work with, and that doesn’t allow us to span the widths we need: to make the upper planks we would need boards 20″ wide to make the curves that are needed. Instead, we use shorter pieces and make them join at slight angles to each other. The upper planks required 7 pieces, some as short as 4 feet, others the full 12 feet. One thing about boats: there is nothing straight or square about them. Everything needs to be shaped and fitted, bent and twisted. I think of it as a three-dimensional puzzle.

The planking is the biggest job in building the ship. Once that is done, we need to fit the permanent frames, and then remove the temporary ones that we used to start with. The Vikings actually did not use temporary frames, but were able to magically build their ships to the right shape because they knew from experience what the shape should be! This is quite amazing, really: the Gokstad ship is 78 feet long, 18 feet wide, and was built using no forms, drawings, power tools, or anything other than hand tools! Every day that I go to work on my ship I marvel at their skill and ingenuity!

After the frames are installed, we put in the floors (decks), which are supported by beams that attach to the frames and add strength and rigidity to the ship. Installing the floorboards themselves is fairly simple, much as one would put wood floors into a house, except that the edges aren’t straight! On Sleipnir I’ve chosen to make the floors watertight, in order to add buoyancy to her in case she were to take on water (something we try to avoid of course!). There are drains through the floors with 3″ pipes to drain the water through the bottom of the hull. These drains are called scuppers. To access the bilge (the bottom of the ship) there are hatches that are screwed down to the framework, which we can remove to get to the area below, which we use for storage. There isn’t much room onboard to store stuff, except for the small areas under the decks at either end, and storage boxes where we keep life jackets, spare ropes, tools, etc..

Once the floors are finished, the ship itself is almost done, except for the small decks at either end, and putting in the bits and pieces we need to install the rigging and mast.

The mast is stepped onto a 4-foot long, solid slab of oak which sits on the keel, and has a recess cut into it where the mast stands, called the mast step. This structure transfers the downward pressure from the mast onto the keel, the strongest part of the ship.

Some statistics on Sleipnir:

  • length: 33′
  • beam (width) 7′ 4″
  • draft: 18″
  • displacement (weight): 2000-2500 pounds
  • mast: 27′
  • spar (boom) 16′ 6″
  • sail: 250 square feet, trapezoid, Dacron, vertical stripes tanbark and cream
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