News > Viking ships and Ethnic designs

Viking ships and Ethnic designs

By James Wharram

SOMETIMES IN LIFE a series of "happenings" occur which make one sit back and reflect on who one is, one's life pattern and where one is going. This has been happening to me.

Recently, I received a phone call that "Audrey Whillen" had died. Audrey Whillen was the wife of Don Whillen, who died a few years ago. Don Whillen along with Joe Brown were two notable British mountain climbers in the Himalayas during the 1950's to '70's. In my early life I nearly became a mountaineer.

In the Post War 1940's, there was a "young bunch" of us, which went from Manchester and Sheffield (England) each weekend and holidays to roam the bleak upper bog lands of the Pennine Hill chain of Northern England, climbing there the outcrops of grit stone rock.

By the age of 18, I had advanced to climbing on the high granite ridges of the Cuillins on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. From this high granite ridge, I could see the 'Blue Sea Road' stretching out from the foot of the peaks. I then decided to sail the 'Sea Road' as a way of life, not climb mountains. The problem was how.

Post War 1940's, everyone was poor. Clothes were rationed. Our climbing boots were ex-army reconditioned boots. Our clothes were ex-army. Tents we had none. We slept in the open covered with heather and bracken or in a mountain sheep shelter. For a rucksack I made a Yukon pack frame out of wood. With no cooking stoves, we made small fires, or punched holes in a tin and made alcohol "tommy cookers".

Black and white photo of young James
James age 17 on the Derbyshire Moors.
Boat museum
James gives a lecture on the origins of the multihull.

"We", Don Whillen, Joe Brown, others and myself, did this not to become heroes in the public eye or to gain merit as "tough sportsmen" leading to a step on the "Sponsorship Ladder". We roamed the hills to be with the beauty of untouched nature. We did it, out of what I believe is a basic human sense from our archaic past, to be with and part of nature. From these experiences I learnt in early years to adapt myself and flow with nature rather than adapt nature to my urban upbringing values. This is now a basic value/component in my approach to small boat design and leads to my interest in Ethnic design.

Recently on British TV, was a program where a bunch of hard tough shipyard steel workers of "Swan Hunter" on Tyneside (North Britain's descendents of the Viking invasions of 1000 years ago) were offered the opportunity to learn basic ballet steps and perform a short ballet with fully trained female ballet dancers before 1500 fellow workers. Out of 100 volunteers 8 were chosen and given 1 month's training. One man known as "Billy One Punch" aged 47 (built like a 'brick shit house') was amongst the 8.

He reminded me so much of Eric Jones, for whom I designed the first 35ft Tangaroa in 1964. Eric Jones, a steam train builder, when Britain still built superb trains, had been a member of "Popski's Private Army" in the Second World War. Popski's Private Army experience was later absorbed into the developing S.A.S. (Special Air Service).

I have found that some of the toughest men, often seemingly inarticulate, have unrealised depths of sensitivity and dreams inside them. It has been a part of my Design Approach to reach out to such people, people who feel the Magic and Romance in sailing.

Viking ships moored at a jetty
The Museum island with all the workshops for reconstructing the Viking ships.
Viking Knarr boat
'Ottar', a reconstruction of a Viking Age trading knarr. Her sail is hand woven from a special wool and treated with horse fat.

As a sea dreaming youth I was interested in the various ship designs to sail the oceans. Arab dhows, Chinese junks, Viking ships and the Canoe hulled craft of the Indo Pacific Ocean. Boat types now called Ethnic.

At that time my boat building skills and money saved were not up to constructing a Dhow or a Junk. Had I known what I know now, I could have built a small Viking type ship, but at the time I did not, so by elimination, I arrived at the Indo Pacific concept of a canoe raft ship, one of the most ancient ship types known to man, for my sea dream sailboat. What followed, as they say, is history. The history of catamarans.

In 50 years of sailing and designing, I have never regretted that I took up the possibilities of Indo Pacific canoe form craft for modern use.

Viking Ships

In the late 1950's to early 1960's, a group of young Danes were exploring a number of ancient wrecks in shallow water north of the ancient Danish 'capital' of Roskilde. It turned out that these wrecks were 5 ships of the Viking ship era ranging from 12 to 30 m long.

The remains of these 5 Viking ship wrecks were reassembled in supporting steel basket frameworks and placed in a purpose-built museum, now known as The Viking Ship Museum, on the shores of the Fiord.

By the early 1960's there were several such ship finds in the museums of Europe. What made the Roskilde ship finds so important was that one of the wreck discovery Danes, Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, was determined to build perfect sailing reconstructions of each wreck, using the tools of the Viking ship era with boat building materials, timber, nails, sail cloth, ropes, rigging prepared in the Viking ship era way.

Viking boats
1000 years of Nordic boat design. A Viking Era ship and her Norwegian descendant, these were still used as work boats at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Tama Moana drawing
Child of the Sea (Tama Moana) colour drawing.

As a result, you can now go to Roskilde and sail on precise reconstructions of sailing craft as used offshore around Europe 1000 years ago.

Under the now 5 year old European Recreational Craft Directive (R.C.D.), none of these craft would be allowed to sail offshore for safety reasons!! (The Danish Viking ships have a special dispensation). At Roskilde, I have sailed the 17.5m-57ft 'Helge Ask' which was easily steered with an only 2ft long tiller on its high aspect ratio balanced SIDE RUDDER. It does make you wonder what is wrong with modern yacht designs that they need huge steering wheels connected to expensive hydraulics to steer them!! And since the R.C.D. came into effect in 1998, an army of bureaucrats to control and supervise yacht construction!!

For 30 years, by personal friendship, visits and publications, I have followed the work done at Roskilde. The Vikings of Scandinavia and the Pacific sailing peoples had strong similarities in their approach to the sea and the behaviour of their light displacement offshore sailing craft.

So when I was invited to Roskilde to speak and present a paper at the ISBSA 10 (The 10th International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology) on the day devoted to "Experimental Archaeology" on the subject 'The Pacific Ocean migrations by canoe form craft', I set to work. 4 weeks and 30,000 written words later, I set out to edit the 30,000 words down to 4,000 words for the to-be published Paper. Then to edit that written paper down even further to 20-25 minutes of verbal presentation.

From all this I rediscovered why I design and think of the sea the way I do. I ended my verbal presentation with these words:

Models of Tangaroa and Tama Moana hulls
Child of the Sea (Tama Moana) hull model alongside a same scale model of a Tangaroa Mk I hull (designed in 1965).
Tama Moana hull upside down
The real thing, Glen Tieman building the first Child of the Sea in California.

"A paper to be given later at this conference is entitled 'Technological transfer in remote Maritime Societies'. I have been fortunate in my life's work to have been able to transfer some of the Maritime technology of the Palaeolithic/Mesolithic sailors to the 20th Century yachtsman. Then, with the technological insights of the 20th Century, combined with the empirical knowledge of many ocean voyages, to have gained insight into the cognitive abilities of Palaeolithic man."

What I had earlier written in the Paper about the 'technical insights of 20th Century man' was:

"A large part of professional modern catamaran design is in 'Styling'. This styling often totally obscures the canoe form origins of these catamarans. As Professional Catamaran Designers, we have had to develop new and use general analytic yacht design formulae to find out the 'real', as against the advertised, sailing abilities of competitive designs. These analytical formulae with our accumulated sailing experience can also be applied to any recorded historic canoe form ships or craft that are still sailing today."

One Ethnic boat which I featured at Roskilde was our new Child of the Sea Design. Already 2 are being built, including one professionally by Andy Smith Boatworks, Philippines, with a close third to follow. The "Child of the Sea Design" will give considerable archaeological information on how close to the wind the combined rig and hull shape will sail, what load performance we can expect of an Ethnic 11.5m-37'9" Pacific Double canoe over say 2000 Nm journey??

Tama Moana hull upside down
The real thing, Glen Tieman building the first Child of the Sea in California.

The ISBSA 10 Conference lasted a week and in private discussions with Marine Archaeologists one subject that came up again and again was the shortage of funding for various projects.

Indo Pacific Canoe form craft are at the bottom of world funding for practical research. Yet the success of our little 16ft Melanesian outrigger canoe (now well over 500 plans sold and a great many built and sailing), the expressed interest in the 'Child of the Sea' from would-be owners and builders, shows one way forward for data gathering for the sailing/sea performance aspects of Experimental Marine Archaeology.

James Wharram Designs has now 3 sections:

Builders of our Ethnic designs can take part, if they wish, in an organised study sharing research via the Ethnic Design Forum.

Such a project does require certain Standards and Attitudes to be acceptable in the wider archaeological study world. In the nearest future we aim at setting up the parameters of such Ethnic ship study.

This web letter begins with my early attitudes to living with nature. In building and sailing Ethnic ships you are in effect living with nature, you have to adapt yourself, not the design, for you cannot combine modern urban comfort values (which is a major part of modern yacht design) with Ethnic ship sailing.

I must admit as I get older, I do like more urban comforts hence the 'comforts' built into my designs of the last 12 years. The question I have to ask myself: "Have I still got the physical and mental toughness to make an Ocean voyage on a Child of the Sea??"

- James Wharram