A Viking ship and a star to sail her by

 

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A glowing sun sets over the sea as we prepare for a night sail

When the sun gently lowered itself into the sea and the planets and stars began to appear how did the Vikings navigate these majestic boats across great oceans and seas by night?

Most of us live in cities where our night skies are usually never fully dark and it’s only those nights when you go to the countryside and find yourself gazing up at a stunning spectrum of constellations you had forgotten were there every night shining down on  you. Without the interference of modern electric light pollution and long winter nights the Vikings became masters of the night sky. These nocturnal heavens fed their mythologies and sagas, but the stars also helped them follow their dreams to distant shores to discover parallel worlds and civilisations.

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We know the Vikings sailed both by day and night. They had to to cross large bodies of water to make long voyages. They used the sun and, legend has it, sun stones to guid them. The sun stone is a mineral found in Iceland and Norway which could polarize the sun light on cloudy days when the sun was obscured from view and in Denmark, there are plenty of cloudy days. They also used a pelorus, a type of compass card that lists the bearings or directions, for the ship, and it’s also said they used birds to fly to the nearest shore and guide them to land.

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Palle rests his tired feet after the day’s sailing and enjoys the sunset at Brorfelde Hill

My knowledge of astronomy is seriously lacking, however it doesn’t mean on a cloudless night I don’t appreciate the night sky and its fine illuminated cobweb of stars and planets. Our night sails have shown just how visible the constellations would have been to the Vikings. Today on the Sea Stallion, we use modern GPS equipment. Mostly to stay on course, avoiding other ships and most importantly to stay clear of shallow waters. So how did the Vikings manage a thousand years ago?

They used the stars at night. The North Star, also known as the ‘Polestar’ or ‘Polaris’ sits directly above the North Pole, and does not move so it is a reliable point to start. By measuring how high the North Star was from the horizon and comparing it to the height of the North Star when they were home the Vikings could use it to measure the latitude or distance in degrees from north to south.  However, the North Star was only useful, when Vikings were in the northern hemisphere. As they moved toward the equator their view of the North Star lost accuracy and could no longer be used to locate the true distance to the north pole. The two main constellations that are clearly visible in the Danish summer’s night sky are ‘Karlsvagn’ (Carl’s Wagon), also known as ‘the Plough’ or ‘the Big Dipper’. Karl is an ancient Norse name for man and some think it was originally known as Thor’s Wagon and when the Vikings converted to Christianity they changed it to Karl. If you follow Karlsvagn it leads you to Polaris the other is Cassiopeia. At this time of year Orion is not visible, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there it simply appears as the sun rises when the sky is too bright to see it.

During our voyage with the Sea Stallion we spent a number of nights sleeping under the stars, but one was on dry land in hammocks on a hill where Denmark’s most famous Observatory lies.
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The inredible moment where the domed roof revolved and open to the night sky

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Our guide at Brorfelde takes the Sea Stallion crew through the process of using a massive telescope and photographing the stars

After the second World War, astronomers at Copenhagen University began to seek a place to study the stars. They chose the hill at Brorfelde outside the town of Holbæk in Zealand where there was no urban light pollution or interference.
At first, when the Observatory was built it was the most modern in the world. A highly skilled workshop led by Poul Beckmann supplied and delivered observatory telescopes to the rest of the world. They were first tested on the hill at the center. One of the giant telescopes found the co-ordinates that helped the first moon landing in 1969.
As Brorfelde struggled to keep up with the expense of modern technology and research the equipment became obsolete and the center had to be shut down in 1996 and the staff moved to the Rockefeller Complexe in Copenhagen. As Brorfelde struggled to keep up with the expense of modern technology and research the equipment became obsolete and the center had to be shut down in 1996 and the staff moved to the Rockefeller Complexe in Copenhagen. Now, the center is open to the public and used as an educational resource and a museum of an Observatory that was once on the cutting edge of astronomy, its technology is outdated.  Brorfelde is still is an incredible platform for star gazing and learning about the cosmos and you still can’t help but feel that you are walking straight into a 1960s sci-fi.
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“The Control Room”

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During our evening at Brorfelde the real magic of a cloudless Danish night sky revealed itself when the sun set and Saturn appeared. Our guide told us that the planets are the stars that don’t twinkle but are constant. I lay down in my hammock while others hunted with telescopes for fleeting constellations. As I was gently swayed to sleep, a cradling motion that I had grown accustomed to on the ship, the last two weeks of sailing and its effects descended on my tired seemingly weightless limbs as I was captured under a fishing net of stars.
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Pick a hammock and a sleeping partner!

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Thorbjorn and Henrietta

The night grew cold on that hill, but we doubled up on hammocks and squeezed two bodies head to toe for warmth, like animals. We are so familiar with each other now, there is so little privacy to be had, despite sometimes craving alone time we secretly dread going home to our quiet houses.  The following morning our sleeping bags were coated with the morning dew, which quickly evaporated with the warm sun and we awoke to the chorus of a herd cattle curiously waking us with what sounded to me like a Danish “God mooooooorgen!” (Good morning). Then we made our way back, starry eyed, to the watery shore at Holbæk’s harbour and our ship.
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Casper and some curious onlookers

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