VIKING VOYAGE: Dodging seagulls, stiff wind, Ralling leaves Viking camp for P.E.I.

Mary MacKay
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Kissing the cod and getting screeched in are two well known traditional introductions to Newfoundland. But nowhere does it mention anything about baptism by seagull fire, which can come from on high or even from below.

“Aw gross!” I said, lifting my poop-smeared hand from the wooden railing at the wharf at Cook’s Harbour, while scores of gulls swirled and screeched overhead, likely in glee in my misplaced hand misfortune.

On this first day of Charlottetown, P.E.I. sailor Geoff Ralling’s venture to revisit the course taken by Leif Erikson and his Viking crew from the northernmost tip of Newfoundland to the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence more than 1,000 years ago, we were battling a strong southwest wind, which made making headway a little difficult.

But it was nothing compared to what those Norsemen would have had to contend if presented with the same conditions in their open wooden vessel.

“They had these huge woolen sails and when they got wet the moisture must have added hundreds of pounds and one of the replica boats (which sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland in 2000) suggested it was 500 pounds to hoist the sail and the spar to the top of the mast,” says Ralling.

“My main sail would probably weigh 30 pounds so I can’t imagine what (theirs) would have weighed when they got wet.”

It’s hard to imagine a landlubber at the wheel of a modern-day 32-foot Aloha scoop but there I was, when Ralling was otherwise occupied inside.

It would have surely elicited a “Jaysus, take the wheel!” from all who know me but I can assure you the auto-captain function of the vessel was fully engaged.

What was truly engaging to learn about Viking explorers in the Vinland Sagas was how much female involvement there was following the initial exploratory venture, namely the sweet and saintly Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir and the spirited and somewhat wicked Freydis Eiríksdóttir.

According to the Icelandic sagas, Gudrid and her husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni, travelled to North America in the hopes of settling there.

“(The saga of Erik the Red) begins with her and the whole plot that is set up to explain to the family at home that she is really worthy of the husband she gets because that is the problem in the saga, because he is of a noble high-born family, whereas she comes from a lower social rank with her grandfather being brought over as an unfree man from Ireland or Scotland to Iceland,” says Gisli Sigurosson, research professor at the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland.

“So these two different social classes meet in Greenland, which is a neutral ground in that respect. That’s where they get together and decide to go on this voyage with settlement in mind to the New World...”

From this love story comes a son Snorri, the first European born in North America. When the settlement proved too dangerous, the family returned to Iceland. Gudrid later made a pilgrimage to Rome and was credited with setting up convents in Iceland.

Snorri became an important figure in the Christianization of Iceland.

Freydís, who was a daughter of Erik the Red, appears as a strong-willed woman who led a fourth major voyage to the New World.

“In the story we has also have this account of Freydis, who is the half sister of the Erikson brothers, scaring off the native Indians in a very spectacular scene where she slams her bare breasts with her sword, which scares the natives off,” Sigurosson says.

Back to modern times aboard the Be Faithful 2, Ralling admits this return run from L’Anse aux Meadows isn’t going to be the spectacularly easy breeze that the northerly sail was earlier this month.

“It’s going to be more challenging going back. The fun and easy nice warm downwind sailing is over. Now the work starts,” he said smiling.

“I’m guardedly optimistic (about a mid-August arrival). My mother always said, ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’”

Guardian reporter Mary MacKay is filing stories on Charlottetown mariner Geoff Ralling’s Viking adventure as he retraces the marine route taken 1,000 years ago by the Vikings from L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Organizations: Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies, University of Iceland

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Charlottetown, Greenland Iceland Southern Gulf North America Ireland Scotland Rome

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