Viking Ships on Fidalgo Island: Where There is a Will, There is a Way
In your mind’s eye. Fanciful phrase, and oh so appropriate for any craftsperson. For the oil or watercolor artist, it is recalled hues long after sundown has stolen wondrous reflections. For a quilter, it is the ability to see a pattern in scraps the rest of us would condemn to a wastebasket. And for the chef, a dessert or main course that just begs a few new key ingredients not previously considered. All in their mind’s eye.
Now take the same experiential lesson and apply it to woodworking. I contemplate construction problems, furniture (that desk I finally purchased Douglas Fir to complete), or building tools—I have a backing plane that is just begging hours of my labor. Others with our particular affliction make fanciful artworks, gypsy wagons, and musical instruments.
Now think even further afield.
In this case I am referring to an anachronist. That is, someone who looks back to the past with a longing and willingness to replicate that which went before us. This is not the same as a “Luddite,” people who would fight technology to preserve their employment—i.e., buggy whip manufacturers who sought to burn Henry Ford’s new business venture to the ground. No, anachronists are not fighting innovation, they are simply looking to revive elements of history lost in our race to seamless connectivity.
A case in point—Jay Smith, who lives a short ferry ride and drive away on Fidalgo Island. Residing on a pastoral plot just south of Anacortes, Jay is in the midst of handcrafting two Viking craft taken from plans that emerged over 1,000—yes, one thousand—years ago in his native Norway. This takes a huge leap of imagination, or a very broad mind’s eye, particularly when you realize the boats he is working on measure 37 and 56 feet. With beams that will span more than 10 feet. Not something you see rolling down the highway on any given day of the week.
As this is a small world here in the great “Northwet,” I had a chance to visit Jay at his shop and walk through the two construction halls. A woodworkers dream! He is milling planks out of freshly hewn oak and carving beams longer than my two trucks parked back-to-back. In many cases using exactly the same techniques ancient Norwegians would have employed those many, many centuries ago.
This is not a one-man operation. Jay has found an iron smith who pounds out authentic nails and roves, has recruited teams to help tote huge beams, and a property owner who allows him to harvest crooks from old oak trees appropriate for naturally strong heels, ribs, stem and stern. Just like raising a child, it takes a village to build a traditional Viking boat. And they are all here in our backyard!
I would be remiss if I said everything Jay has done was accomplished via a collection of axes and broadswords. His shop features a large array of antique hand tools from the 1800s and a bit of electronic contribution (bandsaws and joiners) that likely wandered out of the factory about one century ago. Not a lot of OSHA safety gear in sight, just a plethora of imagination and a skilled craftsperson who realizes you may need that finger for tomorrow’s labor.
As for the end product? Pictures do not do justice to the boats coming to life in his backyard. Nor do they make clear his contributions to the small boat world. His planking, be it laid at 16 feet or 60, is a work of art. The ability to read wood and use it to maximum potential is a challenge to would-be shipwrights around the world.
So there is a bit of the mind’s eye right here in our own corner of the great American Northwet. Jay and his projects are a real inspiration for any craftsperson. I just wonder if the neighbors will complain when I set up a shelter to cover framing for a 50 foot Viking ship in my backyard.
Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard. A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.