Norway’s sailor king

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A new book about King Harald V has been released just in time for the Christmas shopping season. It offers some fresh insight into the Norwegian monarch’s great passion for sailing, even describing how he’s been knocked unconscious in the middle of a regatta. He didn’t let that blow, or others, spoil the chance sailing gives him to just “be one of the boys.”

The new authorized biography of King Harald that concentrates on his sailing also reveals some little-known drama at sea. PHOTO: Skagerrak Forlag

The king, who has represented Norway three times at the Summer Olympics, was virtually born into the sport and actually met his future queen at a sailing camp . The new authorized biography describes him as a tough guy and a team player.

“I have a great respect for the ocean, but I’m not afraid,” he told author Jon Amtrup, who met with the monarch and several other members of the royal family while writing the book.

Sailing has been a lifelong passion for the king, inherited from both his father and grandfather. King Olav V was Norway’s first modern “sailor king” and his father before him was the Danish naval officer Prince Carl, who later became King Haakon VII.

King Harald first took the helm at the tender age of  two-and-a-half, when he steered the ship Stavangerfjord into Oslo in the summer of 1939. He got his first boat, named Fram, at the age of 11 and was 22 when he won his first sailing cup.

He went on to compete in the sport at top level, taking part in the Olympics of 1964, 1968 and 1972.  He and his crew have also won World Championship bronze, silver and gold medals, in 1988, 1982 and 1987 respectively.

The sea is where the king feels most at ease with himself, according to the book. “Out on the water he’s allowed to just be Harald, he doesn’t want to be king out there,” writes Amtrup. The monarch finds great solace in his friendships with fellow crew members, and everyone on his boat is equal. He reportedly doesn’t have any extra security boats following behind, either.

Hit in the head
His crew members recall, however, that it’s sometimes been hard for them to forget that their helmsman was also the heir to Norway’s throne, and then monarch. At times they found themselves out on dangerously rough seas, where it was a real fight to stop the boat from capsizing and they couldn’t help thinking about the consequences for the country if something happened to him.

King Harald’s sailing career has not been without its mishaps. During a regatta off Spain in 2004, while the crew were carrying out a complicated manoeuvre under strong winds, Harald got hit on the head by the boom. His crewmates found him lying motionless on the deck of the royal sailboat, Fram XV, with his head covered in blood. When he came to, they asked him whether they should drop out of the race and head in to land. “No. We’ll carry on,” was Harald’s reply. The episode later became known as “the time the king nearly abdicated” among his teammates.

Despite his public commitment, the King can often seem reserved in his official role. But he has opened up to his crewmates, many of whom were interviewed for the biography. It was them he turned to after his father died in 1991, and he succeeded to the throne. He was worried that he might not live up to his father, and that he would also need to give up sailing at top level.

He has still, however, managed to keep time in his life for sailing, and still competes in major yacht races at the age of 75. He’s currently looking forward to the World Champioships next year in Finland. It was sailing that made him smile again after he underwent surgery for bladder cancer in 2003.

‘Personality change’
The king is also said to be a good teacher, and taught his own children to sail, as well as many other young people. His daughter Princess Märtha Louise remembers her father as a patient, brilliant but  tough instructor. “He would undergo a total personality change, and start shouting and shrieking and giving orders, just a completely different Harald,” she told Amtrup.

Both of his now-grown children have taken part in regattas, but neither has gone on to compete in the sport. Crown Prince Haakon suspects that his father might be a bit disappointed that he is not carrying on the family tradition, although there was never any pressure to take it up at a higher level.

It was also thanks to sailing that then-Crown Prince Harald first met his future queen. Sonja Haraldsen was 14 years old, like him, and attending her first summer camp at the Royal Norwegian Yacht Club (Kongelig Norsk Seilforening). Returning from a sailing session, she felt someone creep up behind her and give her pigtails a little tug.  She quickly turned round to “give the cheeky little upstart a proper dressing down,” as she recalled to the author. She was totally dumbstruck to find the heir to the throne standing there.

When they met again some years later, they often spent time within the protective world of sailing, where they could escape from public scrutiny.

Queen Sonja says her husband has an above-average competitive spirit, even when going on family excursions in the motorboat. Although she’s taken part in regattas, she doesn’t share her husband’s passion for sailing. “It’s a bit sedentary for me,” she told the author. “I like to be more active and moving around.”

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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