The Odin's Raven by Arne Wisth
In the company of Vikings
30 years ago Robin Bigland put an advert in the local newspaper which read “Does the Viking spirit live?” Over the following year a group of men embarked upon one of the most incredible sea journeys ever seen by the modern world.
“I wanted to commemorate the Millennium of Tynwald and its strong Viking connections- to my mind the most logical way of doing this was to build a replica Viking longboat and sail it from Norway to the Isle of Man!
Odin's Raven by Arne Wisth
“But what is a boat without a crew? The challenge was to find a group of people who would be interested in and capable of undertaking an adventure of this kind. That’s where the advert came in.”
There were over a hundred responses from all over the world to Robin’s advert.
“We were always only going to have either Norwegian or Manx people on the voyage. They needed to be people who were physically and mentally fit. Sailing a Viking Boat from Norway to the Isle of Man is not for the faint hearted. We eventually chose 11 people from the Isle of Man and 5 from Norway.
“I knew a chap from the Royal Marines who helped us train. He had sailed the Atlantic single-handed five times so he knew what he was talking about. He took us through some training exercises and that’s really where the journey began.
Sleeping onbaord by Michael Ingram
“One of the first things we had to do was to get our bodies “water-fit”. We would be sailing in extremely cold waters and if anyone should fall in, their survival time would be limited. We needed to expose our bodies to very cold water for long periods of time. Hence we spent a lot of time in the sea, throughout the winter, with no clothes on.
“It sounds a bit odd, but the reason for training in the nude was to get used to the sight of each other naked. If you train in the nude it becomes unimportant. On board the boat we wouldn’t be able to go the toilet without everybody seeing. It helped us prepare us for a voyage on an open boat where we would effectively have no privacy at all.
“You can train as much as you like for any project but the reality is, at the outset, you have very little idea of what you are getting into. The design for this boat goes back to the 9th century, possibly earlier, and they are marvellous vessels to sail. The first thing our crew had to learn was how to sail a Long ship.
By Michael Ingram
“The way the boats move is incredible. It’s no surprise that the Vikings called the Long Serpents” because they do undulate in the water. They marry so well with the sea. Unlike a modern vessel that fights the sea, a Long ship moves with the sea. That in itself was a remarkable experience.
On May 27 1979 the Odin’s Raven set sail from Trondheim in Norway and almost immediately the crew were faced with a problem.
“I remember finally getting into the open sea; the sky was a sulphurous colour and there was a long swell with not much wind.”
Odin’s Raven was about 30 miles off shore heading for Shetland when the crew saw a Norwegian fishing boat. It was to be the only vessel they met on the entire voyage and it had an extremely important message which would save their lives.
Reaching out to the wildlife M Ingram
“After giving us some fish, the fishermen mentioned they were returning to shore because of a huge storm up ahead. We had no idea about this storm but we were heading straight into it. It turned out to be one hell of a storm and in fact one or two boats were lost in it. I don’t know what would have happened had we not met that boat. The story of the Odin’s Raven might have been very different.”
Robin and his crew sailed to Shetland and after some Viking-style feasting they headed back out to sea. It was a treacherous journey across the North Sea via Orkney and the Isle of Skye but the crew handled the challenges in true warrior style. It wasn’t until they were off the coast of the Isle of Skye that something happened which ignited the interest of the international media.
“It was I suppose the most dramatic part of the journey. We capsized just off the coast of Skye. We didn’t have any escort vessel and the sea was turbulent. You can imagine if a wave breaks into the vessel and you are in a ship which has not much of a free board, it can be quite disastrous.
The Capsize by Michael Ingram
“In a Long ship if you list more than 15 degrees water comes in and then the boat turns turtle. That is what happened to us. The Vikings reckoned that one in three of these Long ships used to get shipwrecked but thank goodness that didn’t happen to us. We lost a lot of our gear but everyone was unharmed.”
The valiant crew continued on their journey and on July 5 1979 the Odin’s Raven landed on Peel beach. The arrival of the unshaven and sea-tired crew attracted a crowd of thousands to the quiet fishing village on the west coast of the Isle of Man.
“The morning of our arrival my wife phoned the police to see what arrangements she should make in terms of getting a parking space nearby. The police told her not to worry as they weren’t expecting many people because our ETA coincided with tea time. They were wrong!
“I think around 20 thousand people crowded onto the beach and promenade that day. It was an incredible sight to see from the sea I can tell you! We were supposed to have a simple but moving ceremony on the beach but of course it turned into something much bigger.
Image courtesy Michael Ingram
But the drama wasn’t over yet. A Norwegian press helicopter trying to get shots of the boat and crew flew in to give everyone one last scare.
“It came right over our heads and damn near knocked us over. The idiot pilot was obviously trying to get as close as possible for the TV crew and the fellow came so close he literally, very nearly knocked us over. It was almost a disaster but we steadied ourselves and landed very happily on the beach.
"It’s 30 years ago now and that’s hard to believe. I still work with some of the men from the crew. We will be celebrating this year and making sure we celebrate in the way real Vikings do"
last updated: 04/08/2009 at 12:41
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What are you memories of the Millennium celebrations on the Isle of Man?