A full-scale copy of Norway’s famous Oseberg Viking ship, which has sailed around the historic city of Tønsberg for the past five years, is currently tied up right at the start of its busy summer season. With no specific registry for Viking ships in Norway, the Norwegian Maritime Authority (Sjøfartsdirektoratet) believes the Saga Oseberg is either a cargo or passenger vessel, and it doesn’t meet the safety requirements for either.
The Saga Oseberg was built in the same way the original Viking ships were, and launched in the presence of King Harald and Queen Sonja in 2012. Since then it’s sailed on the Byfjord around Tønsberg, giving passengers ranging from school children to adults a chance to see what it was like to row a Viking ship and experience life on board.
That came to a halt after the owners of the open and intricately carved wooden boat received a letter from the maritime authorities in Haugesund. Until this year, the Saga Oseberg has been registered as a pleasure boat, but now the authorities claim it most likely must be viewed as a passenger boat in accordance with new regulations that took effect on January 1. And that means the open, wooden Viking ship must be equipped with a motor, clearly marked exits, life rafts and a skipper who has sailed for at least 36 months as a deck officer.
The owners, in a fit of both despair and comic relief, took the letter to the local newspaper, Tønsbergs Blad, which reported how both they and Members of Parliament from the area felt they were victims of unreasonable demands that bordered on laughable. As newspaper Aftenposten, which picked up on Tønsbergs Blad’s story, wrote, the letter could make one wonder whether the authorities had “swallowed too much Møllers tran (cod liver oil)” or something stronger before writing it.
No laughing matter
The letter’s effect on the Oseberg båtlag (Oseberg Boat Club) that owns and operates the Viking ship, and charges fees to cover its costs, however, is no laughing matter. “Our interpretation of this is that we don’t have permission to sail the ship at all any more,” Ole Harald Flåten, the ship’s høvedsmann (leader), told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) “We have already cancelled agreements worth NOK 250,000, and that’s half our annual budget. This is really bad for us, since we’re a volunteer organization that’s looking at a large loss this year.”
Dag Inge Aarhus, communications director for the maritime authorities, indicated the conflict has been overblown. They’re unhappy that the Viking ship’s owners opted to contact the media instead of contacting them instead and discussing the letter. Aarhus stressed that the authorities “are aware this is open ship” and that there will be no need for emergency exit signs. He claimed the letter only mentioned the possibility that a motor may be demanded. He also noted that the letter was sent in response to contact that the owners had taken with the authorities themselves.
“What we’ve said so far is that we need more information before we can make a concrete evaluation of their desire to continue to carry passengers, and that’s because of safety issues,” Aarhus told NRK.
Maximum 12 passengers at present
Asked whether the Saga Oseberg can legally sail under its current registration, Aarhus said, though, that “if they carry more than 12 passengers, they must have approval as a passenger ship.” With 11 oars on each side of the Viking ship, though, it would be difficult to operate with less than 12 passengers.
The owners have also made it clear that they don’t want a motor on board, because that would spoil the authenticity of the Viking ship experience. “The Saga Oseberg is really a large rowboat that was built in the same way as boats were 1,200 years ago,” Flåten said. “We can’t destroy it by installing a motor.” He also worries that the owners won’t meet the requirement for a deck officer with three years of experience, and stressed that the Saga Oseberg always sails with an escort boat “that can nudge us out of any difficulty.”
Anders Tyvand, a Member of Parliament from Vestfold, is asking the government minister in charge of business and trade, Monica Mæland, to grant an exemption from the new rules in this case. “Demanding a motor on a Viking ship like this is completely unreasonable,” Tyvand told NRK. “I almost take if for granted that the minister will grant an exemption.”