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Splintered Thinking

I spent a few too many dozen evenings this past summer bingeing the History Channel’s “Vikings” series. The production was supremely entertaining with superb acting, great cinematography, compelling locations and all the gore you’d expect from 8th- and 9th-century heathens who gleefully raid and pillage lands beyond their Scandinavian shores. Referred to as “historical drama,” it hews roughly to the story of the real Vikings and their seaborne expansion to Britain, France and beyond, albeit with soapy, salacious relationships between oddly attractive, well-spoken actors with perfect teeth, professional-grade coifs and couture clothing.

Overlooking these historical inexactitudes is part of the fun—and challenge—of the screen arts. But I found one element of the story impossible to let go. The lead band had a resident boat designer and builder named Floki. His character was eccentric to the point of mental illness, but he was renowned for creating beautifully finished, seaworthy Viking longboats. The problem was, he seemed to be able to produce them with no apparent assistance in as little as a week, or a fleet of many in a few months.

Anyone who’s watched a wooden boat of any size being built, especially in such a short time, knows this is an implausible proposition. In an age when hull planks were hewn from tree trunks using crude tools, building such a craft could take a team thousands of hours. Constructed and outfitted as nicely as the “Vikings” warships were—especially by a crazy man without power tools—was amusing at best.

Building boats of wood is a painstaking craft. It’s a labor of love, an artistic endeavor as much as a utilitarian undertaking. I’ve witnessed the process many times on keel-up builds and extensive refits of vessels large and small. Prior to the dawn of fiberglass as a production boatbuilding medium, craftsmen glued, fastened and finished wood boats by hand using techniques that drew upon elements born and used over centuries. Photos from those days show boats being built on assembly lines, but there still was that organic connection between humans, tools and trees. Such fine woodcraft exists today, but on larger boats, it’s generally only found with interior joinery.

In this issue’s “Master Pieces,” Editor-at-Large Justin Ratcliffe profiles the artisans behind boutique runabout builder J Craft. On the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea off the Swedish mainland, master craftsmen, some likely descendants of real-life Vikings, labor over a classic runabout design called the Torpedo.

Ratcliffe writes that as many as eight men take more than 8,000 hours to complete a single 42-foot Torpedo, each built to order. Only a small number are delivered each year, and there is a waiting list. Each J Craft boat begins with expert selection of sustainable West African mahogany for the veneers and the steam-shaped solid transom. While the hulls are fiberglass and propulsion derives from modern IPS units, the decks and interiors are finished in wood to an exquisite level by the the J Craft artisans.

In the final season, the “Vikings” writers and producers apparently figured out that wood-boat building is not a casual, solo operation. In one episode, prior to setting out on yet another raid, dozens of men are seen refurbishing the fleet of longboats that Floki built magically all by himself.

Maybe a historian or a wood-boat aficionado sounded the war horn to let producers in on their error. Great. As with anything worth doing, getting the details right is the game.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue.