Lines in the Sand
At first glance, the casual browser would be forgiven for expecting this to be a serious volume on the minutiae of Viking shipbuilding - certainly I did - very much a highbrow tome in the "build-a-boat sail-a-boat" genre (see Thor Heyerdahl et al). For those seeking such a read, I would urge caution, for this book is not all that it at first seems. The cover notes describe the book as the "inside story" of the ship's construction but I found it more enjoyable to consider that story as a rich tapestry woven from the threads of these short, anecdotal stories. Embracing the format in this way brings the human element to the fore, bringing the book alive as it becomes an important and interesting document containing much of the information missing from other, similar records.
The background to the book is the discovery in 1962 of five late-viking ships that had been scuttled during the mid-eleventh century off Skuldelev Strand, closing a channel into Roskilde Fjord and thus affording the Danish town protection from raiders. An archaeological investigation by the Danish National Museum led directly to the creation of the Viking Ship Museum, which undertook several research programmes - including the Roar project. The aim of the project was to create a replica of Skuldelev 3 - a small cargo vessel aproximately fourteen metres long - using only traditional materials and techniques in order to gain an understanding of how these craft were constructed and how that construction might affect the sailing qualities of the hull. The research team were interested to know (amongst other things) how fast she could sail in varying conditions, what her performance might be to windward, how many crew she required and what load she might safely carry.
The construction was undertaken using Danish oak, radially cloven from whole trunks into thirty-secondths from which the planks were hand-hewn. Metal fastenings and fittings were forged on site from iron as close as possible in composition to that thought to be available at the time of the original construction. Such seemingly archaic working practices were not rooted in academic pedantry, but in sound reasoning. These traditionally formed planks were generated by separating wood along lines of weakness, preserving its strength, where a modern sawn plank sacrifices the strength inherent in the natural run of the grain in favour of lower-cost production. Similarly, it was thought that hand-forged iron might have superior corrosion resistance as a by-product of the smithying process. Twenty years on, both decisions seem more than justified.
So it was that in 1982 a small group of experts, academics and amateurs began the construction of the ship Roar. The book opens in a fairly traditional manner, two weeks into the construction with the arrival of our author and narrator Henrik Juel - but don't let this fool you! Juel, a lecturer in Philosophy and Communication, rightly plays to his strengths and reverses the usual formula of such books by using the boat-building story as the background to an enjoyable pseudo-soap opera. In this book we may revel in the full gamut of human emotion: Jan's fondness for the ladies, the complex dynamic between Juel and working partner Vibe, the intrigue of arranging a suprise birthday party for Tom. The depth and variety of such episodes lend incredible flavour to the the story of Roar's construction. This is not to imply that the book is bereft of construction detail, for there is a vast agglomeration of technical detail contained therein and any reader will learn a very great deal without really trying. I particularly enjoyed passages such as that entitled "The Rhythm" in which Juel skilfully combines detailed technical observations seamlessly with philosophical commentary and a good dollop of healthy sweat and elbow grease. It is a very winning combination, quickly endearing the reader both to the author and to his subject. I think ultimately that this book is very successful at what it sets out to do: to entertain and inform, in precisely that order.
I do hold one serious reservation about this book: the presentation of the book is irritatingly poor. The front cover image is dark, grainy and lacking in contrast, while the text is off-black and far from sharp. This is not for want of suitable material as within the book are 8 pages of colour photographs and, while leaving something to be desired in terms of reproduction quality, they hint at the wealth of images that were available to the publisher. Between the covers the story is not much improved, the shape of the book causing the text to be arrayed in an awkwardly-sized block, augmented by amateurish diagrams that would have given much-needed character to the display had they been printed at all well. 'Dynamite' Payson's "Instant Boats", an offering I imagine prepared on a similar budget, manages an elegant sufficiency of sharply reproduced illustrations and a careful use of the page width. "Roar's" careless use of full-width pages and the too-few illustrations result in a book which is more difficult to enjoy than perhaps it should have been.
In conclusion I find myself recommending the content of the book very strongly for a number of reasons. It is a witty, intelligent book that explores an area of the replica boat-building phenomenon that does not usually come to the fore in such publications. One cannot help but enjoy reading about the triumphs, tribulations and above all fun of those involved in the Roar project between 1982 and 1984. The book is, by its nature, split into conveniently sized chunks that make it an ideal bedside-table dweller, a pleasant literary night-cap to give you oak-scented dreams soothed by the soughing of the waves. I am afraid the book was spoiled for me a little for the sake of a little editorial time expended on presentation, but do not let this dissuade you! Read it and become, for a little while, a member of the Skuldelev building crew from the comfort of your very own arm chair.
Specifications: 246x189mm, 160pp, Paperback
Price: £15.00 • US$30.00
More book reviews by Alistair Wasey: