The Vikings in the conquest of America

Joëlle & Janusz Kurbiel from Imerpol are truly veteran sailors, having sailed together for decades. They rely on MaxSea software onboard.

Here, they recount having retraced the routes takes by the Vikings many years ago.

The accounts of the extraordinary journeys of the Vikings have come to us through the sagas, the epic narratives that were written two to three centuries after the events. This makes them difficult to interpret and even more so because their translations were not done by sailors.

We have followed the same routes as the Vikings for nearly forty years and some details that translators did not identify seem obvious to us. We are able to say with certainty that the Vikings’ explorations were in no way due to chance.

Old nautical paper chart

If it is true that Bjarni saw an unknown land being blown out of his route by a storm, he still managed to find his way to Greenland and described it well enough to allow Leif to find it again.

As evidenced by the breakthrough discovery of an undoubtedly Viking site by Mr. and Mrs. Ingstad at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada, they also landed in America 500 years before Columbus.

Yes, but how?

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In order to better understand, we isolated all information relating to navigation contained in the sagas and we compared them to the reality in the field over many years.

Contrary to what is generally believed, the route between Greenland and Labrador does not present great difficulties. With favorable winds it took four days for a Viking ship to cross and once they got there, they just had to sail along the coast when the weather permitted.

As in their home country, the Vikings had to reckon with Nature: gales and fog are common around there but also anchorages to stop and start in good conditions. As for the ice, it is necessary to wait until the end of July so that it is less dense and then sail back home before the Autumn storms, long before they form again.

They were therefore accustomed to these sailing conditions and the question is how did they manage to sail for those four days without seeing the coast?

Old nautical paper chartSome have suggested that they were navigating with the stars as the Melanesian people did, forgetting that they are invisible in the white polar summer sky around 60 ° N. They reappear in August but it is still necessary for the sky to be cloudless or fogless to see them. Same problem with navigation with the sun and thus they could go out to sea only in clear weather to keep the sun at a certain angle depending on the time of the day and follow what we call the latitude. However, these conditions are very rare in the region.

When comparing the clues provided by the sagas with our own observations, we were able to understand the art of navigation of the Vikings. After sailing on the same routes onboard our first four exploration sailboats specially adapted for the polar regions, we built a wooden one, Vagabond’elle, to be as close as possible to their realities.

Like them, we had to wait for favorable winds to cross from Norway to the Shetlands and then to the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, to reach Labrador on the American continent. Like them, we continuously scour our environment.

We watch for

  • the emergence of a certain type of cloud or mirages that indicate the presence of land or ice
  • the direction of waves and swell to know the position of storms and the direction of the winds. We follow the migration of the birds that always go to the same land and at the same period to breed

By simple methods we note our speed and calculate the distance covered in twenty-four hours. Even without seeing the stars, by carefully observing our environment we are able to follow a given course. When approaching a coastline, we note its characteristics, we engrave every detail in our memories: the terrain configuration, the depths, currents, tides, prevailing winds.

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The art of the Vikings’ navigation got lost over time with the arrival of the compass and then the quadrant.

Viking ShipThe old techniques were not in use any more and we got accustomed to rely on instruments that are much safer than what mariners call “estimates”, a subtle combination of techniques and seamanship, the result of a vital necessity.

Janusz was just recently the ice pilot aboard a cruise ship and he could see how much the old methods were permanently lost to the ease of technology among young cadets. Myself, who had no other master than Janusz, I learned to sail with instruments and I could not navigate without them.

In his native Poland, Janusz learned to sail half a century ago as people did a thousand years ago with a plumb line, a primitive compass, the observation of the marine environment and the understanding of the mechanisms linking these observations and he acquired over the years what we call “seamanship”.

When we capsized for the fourth time in the North Atlantic Ocean off Greenland with Vagabond’eux many years ago, we found ourselves in just two hours without a radar, wind vane, anemometer, radio – with nothing – and with such weather that we could never see the sun or the stars for the 20 days that separated us from France.

And Janusz arrived right at the Lizard lighthouse that marks the entrance of the Channel.

How he did it? Like the Vikings!

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