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People & Culture

Life aboard a modern-day Viking ship: A Q&A with a Canadian sailor

  • Jun 22, 2016
  • 529 words
  • 3 minutes
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Not many people in this day and age can say they’ve worked aboard a Viking ship, but James Howard can.

The 43-year-old power engineer from Vancouver Island is the only Canadian currently on board Draken Harald Hårfagre, the world’s largest modern-day Viking ship, which is two months into an expedition recreating the Viking discovery of the New World.

Howard, an avid sailor, was one of more than 4,000 volunteers from around the world who applied to be part of the Draken’s epic voyage. He joined the crew in Quebec City and will be with the ship until Chicago — a journey of about six weeks with stops at various tall ships festivals in Canada and the northern United States.

Howard spoke to Canadian Geographic by phone from Montreal, where the Draken docked for three days before continuing on toward the Great Lakes, to give us a sense of what life is like aboard a Viking ship.

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James Howard, left, with a fellow crew member from the Draken. (Photo: James Howard)

On why he applied to sail aboard the Draken:

Sailing is in my blood. I live on a sailboat in Sooke, and every opportunity I can get, I sail and I race, so something like this was just a great fit for me. How often do you hear of a Viking ship sailing our waters? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

On a typical workday aboard the ship:

I’m a deck hand, so we rotate through different jobs on board depending on what the ship is doing. If we’re setting sail, we all take part in raising the rig. If we’re in port, we’re busy doing tours of the boat and keeping it pristine for visitors. The other night, I was on the helm working the steering oar and was permitted to park the boat in downtown Montreal, which was pretty surreal.

On what he’s most looking forward to about the journey to Chicago:

The sail up the St. Lawrence will be amazing. We had an incredible following from Quebec to Montreal — other boats, freighters, everybody honking and people on shore with cowbells trying to get our attention; it was a great experience. In Toronto, we’ll be participating in a race across Lake Ontario with other tall ships, which will be really exciting. This is the first time a Viking ship will be entered, and I think we have a pretty good chance.

On bonding with his fellow crew members:

The application process was open worldwide so there’s an interesting mix of people on board. Most are from Scandinavia but there are a couple of people from Scotland, another gentleman from Portugal. We all share a common passion for sailing, which has made it very easy for us to bond. A lot of them have made a career of sailing on tall ships. They’ll take off to sail for six to eight months out of the year. For me, that shows you can have your cake and eat it too. If sailing is your dream, you can chase it and find ways to travel the world.

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