Shipbuilders build a Viking ship at Stony Creek Shipyard

BRANFORD – In the heart of Stony Creek, three shipbuilders from Leetes Island Boatworks have wielded axes and worked over red embers, under the scorching summer sun, creating a unique seaworthy vessel that dates back to the 12th century.

Traveling Thimble Islands Road, nestled among Victorian homes, summer cottages and the vast Long Island Sound, Matthew Barnes, Tucker Yaro and Anthony Daniels build a traditional Viking ship at the Bradley & Waters Marine Railway.

Old Norse terms, such as “trerøring”, are often used to describe Stony Creek’s boat with three pairs of oars. Additionally, shipwrights apply centuries-old techniques using the tools of the trade dating back to the height of Viking shipbuilding.

“It’s in its own class in terms of history, cultural differences in building a Norse Viking Age boat,” Daniels said.

The tools include axes of different sizes and shapes, “to flatten the boards, to make the boards, to carve that,” Barnes said, standing next to the Viking ship.

Some of the dozen axes bear the marks of Gränsfors Bruk, a Danish company that has been making hand-forged axes for over 100 years.

“These are things you wouldn’t use if you weren’t building a Viking-era boat, basically,” Daniels said. “In traditional wooden boat building, you don’t often see these kinds of tools.”

In addition, the craftsmen created a “scraper” to create a specific aesthetic detail on the edge of the boards.

This particular detail highlights the handmade rivets and copper bits, which “bind the boards together”.

“We use a forge, heating it and hammering it into a nail shape, then hammering a head on it,” Daniels explained, talking about making the rivet.

Between each plank is a combination of oakum and tar, “which acts as a seal between two planks”.

“It will become watertight under its own expansion,” he added.

Oakum is a natural product made from jute.

Barnes explained that in the Viking Age they would have used “spun lanolin wool to sit in the seams”.

During an unusual torrential downpour recently, Daniels rushed to the other side of the boat where he was working to save the ship’s plans, which were exposed to the elements.

The blueprint for the boat originated at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, where Barnes worked for 16 weeks in 2016.

After graduating from Daniel Hand High School in 2002, Barnes attended the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, RI Daniels also attended this two-year commercial program which teaches classic yacht restoration.

Barnes, Yaro, and Daniels worked together on the restoration of the Mayflower II as shipbuilders at Mystic Seaport. Barnes was the lead shipbuilder on this project.

It was as a result of his work at Mystic Seaport that Barnes was awarded the Mallory Research Fellowship to work on the reconstruction of the Gislinge Ship, a 30ft Viking-era fishing vessel, at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde , in Denmark.

He also traveled to seven different countries in Scandinavia and Northern Europe “to research Viking Age ships and how it affected westward expansion and how it affected boat building. “.

The Stony Creek-made replica of a 12th-century Scandinavian ship was commissioned by a Virginia nonprofit group dedicated to veteran outreach work. As a group of Viking enthusiasts, they specifically requested the unique vessel.

Still, Barnes said, the client “didn’t ask us to do it that way. They wanted it to be well built, but they didn’t say “you have to split logs and use an axe”.

“But we were given an opportunity and it was really something we wanted to do because we love this kind of work and there’s really no one else doing it, unfortunately,” he said. -he adds.

The boat has a price tag of $70,000, but “we take some concessions to make it that way.”

“He’s got a really good price, but they’re not paying for the amount of work we’re doing,” Barnes said.

The ship, when completed, will be 5 ½ feet wide and 26 feet long and will represent 2,000 hours of work.

“We take it as an experience of being able to do something, personally,” he said. “It’s a personal exploration for us to do this and prove that it can be done and we might end up breaking even, but it’s kind of something we’re committed to.”

“Building it with machines would probably pay off,” he said. “If we were to do it again, in this form, it would be somewhere between $140 and $150 (thousand).

Barnes knows of Washington state Viking shipbuilder Jay Smith, but added that there are no other Viking shipbuilders on the East Coast.

Historically, a ship like this was used to transport light cargo. When complete, this modern vessel will seat three to five passengers with three places to row and cruise the Chesapeake River.

Addressing Barnes, he often uses Danish words when talking about the Viking ship.

“There are three ‘thorts’, seats that cross over,” Barnes said.

The Madison resident explained that it’s known as a ‘treroring’, ‘for three rowers and will also have a single mast and square-rigged mainsail’.

“They will use it to bring vets and sailing, events and fundraisers,” Barnes said, adding that the organization requested anonymity because many of its members are active duty military.

As Daniels worked, “fitting a sling” with a hand plane on the Inter Fiord ship, Barnes explained the process of building the boat with lap construction.

“A scarf is like a joint,” he said. “Each board is made up of two different parts. What this (a scarf) does is overlap the two and connect the two boards together. Usually it’s two boards per length.

Beside him, Yaro used a large ax to create a plank.

“I take my broad ax and slowly work my way up the lines, down to a 20 millimeter plank,” he said, standing among oak shavings.

The logs were acquired in December 2020, the keel was laid last summer and October is the expected completion date.

“We’re going to put it on one of the cribs and we’re going to launch it here,” Barnes said, pointing to the rail system on the property.

In addition to this project, the three artisans started making furniture in 2017 and recently opened a showroom, Handlavet, on Wall Street in Madison.

Barnes talked about the project, from buying 10 white oak logs to assembling the boat.

“What you do to make the board is you have this log and you do what’s called cleavage,” Barnes said.

“You drive a wedge down the length of that log and split,” he said. “You will get 16 on a log.”

The slots are reduced, with an ax, to boards of 20 millimeters or three-quarters of an inch.

In keeping with tradition, the planks are heated over glowing embers to make them flexible and malleable.

“We put the plank over the fire, sitting on this chain, and we’ll boil some water,” Barnes said. “Then you mop the boiling water on each side for about 20 minutes. Then you bring and bend that piece right over that boat, clamp it in place, and when it cools it will hold that shape.

The job is then finished with a combination of linseed oil and pine tar which acts as a putty.

This specific type of boat building is labor intensive, but three shipbuilders aren’t complaining about it. It’s a labor of love.

“Being used to the same result with more modern practice or modern techniques, we know how to shorten it, we know tools that can make it much faster,” Daniels said.

“But in the name of tradition and working with our client, we are stepping back and doing this in the most traditional way possible,” the 37-year-old said.

The men are in their element, working at Bradley & Waters Marine Railway.

Looking around Long Island Sound, with boats floating in the water, Barnes said, “It’s really the only place we want to be.”

The community embraced the work.

“All day people are walking by, stopping and talking,” Daniels said. “It’s like we’re performers in a museum, so to speak, which is what we’re used to doing as well.”

“The community is fantastic here,” Barnes said. “We have no complaints even though we will have a fire, there is smoke rising everywhere, making a lot of noise.”

“Swinging axes for nine hours,” Daniels chimes in, mimicking the sound.

The area devoted to the Viking ship is close to the road and covered by an awning. Work is progressing all the time.

Daniels spoke of the personal satisfaction of working on the Viking ship.

“These people are no longer living,” he said. “It’s a generation that comes and goes and it’s techniques and traditions that they have passed on and we try to apply them.”

“There’s something really special to be said for that,” he said. “And, we’re just happy. It’s funny! It’s really interesting, it’s historical. You do a lot of research and you don’t even know it.

Yaro said the satisfaction comes from seeing the boat take shape.

“It’s very rewarding,” said the Guilford resident. “It’s just kind of an intrinsic reward to do that kind of manual labor and create such a beautiful object.”

“You can work hard in a lot of physical jobs and you can’t see the final draft that everyone can enjoy,” the 39-year-old said. “It’s a very satisfying part of this job.”

Barnes echoed that.

“It’s really important for us to continue this kind of stuff,” he said. “Working at the museum, I apprenticed with master carpenters who had been there for 40 years. I was kind of instilled in me that this stuff needs to be maintained and needs to continue.

“Most of these guys are retired now, so I personally feel compelled to teach others and keep this stuff going.”