The Viking ship Íslendingur

Vikingworld's main attraction is the magnificent vikingship the Icelander (Íslendingur) built by the talented shipwright Mr Gunnar Marel Eggertsson who also sailed it to New York in the year 2000 to commemorate Leifur Eiríksson's journey to the New World a thousand years earlier. Learn all about the journey and so much more in Vikingworld.


The Viking ship the Icelander is an exact replica of an old Viking ship called the Gokstad ship, which was excavated from an ancient burial mound in Norway in 1882. The Gokstad ship was very well preserved, and scientists were able to date it back to A.D. 870, the time of  the settlement of Iceland. It is therefore likely that the settlers of Iceland sailed ships similar to the Gokstad ship.

In the Viking era, a ship like the Icelander normally had around 70 crew members, thus accommodating a double shift of rowers for the 32 oars. In the middle of the ship there was a sandpit to support an open fire, and livestock such as lamb would provide fresh meals for the long voyages. 

The Icelander is a worhty representative of the ships that sailed the North Atlantic a thousand years ago. Like the original Viking ships, the Icelander is a fast and exceptionally stable ocean-going vessel.

The shipwright and captain Mr Gunnar Marel Eggertsson began building the viking ship in October 1994 and finished it a year and a half later. The ship was launched in March 1996. Gunnar built the ship mostly single-handedly but received directions from various sources.

The ship is made of pine and oak which was carefully selected in Norway and Sweden. The sail was manufactured in Denmark. When it came to designing the bow many things were taken into consideration. The bow's height was used for two purposes, both for the figurehead, which had to be visible from afar, and as as hield from high waves during sailing. The Icelander is made of 18 tons of wood and 5,000 nails. It is 22,5 m (75 feet) long and its beam is 5,3 m (17,3 feet). Its draft is 1,7 m (5,6 feet) and its average speed is 7 mph while top speed is 18 mph.

To begin with, the Icelander was used to educate Icelandic school children on the Vikinga era. But by 1998 Gunnar Marel had already formulated ideas for sailing the ship to America in 2000 in commemoration of Leifur Eiríksson's voyage a 1000 years earlier. He then formed a company to undertake the voyage that began on Icealand's Independence Day June 17 in Reykjavík, Iceland. The Leifur Eiríksson Millennium Commission was the principal sponsor of the voyage of the Icelander. The Commission organized nearly 230 cultural events at some 70 venues in the USA and Canada for the year 2000.

On its voyage westward across the Atlantic, Icelander with its crew of 9, called at various ports in the United States and Canada, and entertainers sponsored by the Millennium Commission took part in local celebrations. The Special Celebrations Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, hosted a magor celebration on July 28, when the Icelander arrived in L'anse aux Meadows, the only authenticated Viking site in North America. Numerous special events ensued in the wake of Icealander's momentous retracing of Leifur Eiríksson's voyage. The ship arrived in New York on October 5. 

After the ship's arrival in the United States it was stored in Westbrook Connecticut for a few years. In 2002 the town of Reykjanesbær along with other parties made a decision on buying the ship and bringing it back home. During the following years the Icelander was stored outside until it received a final home in a brand new exhibition house in the fall of 2008.

The ship now rests on pillars which lift it one and half metres up into the air. This makes it possible for people to walk straight under the ship and enjoy its remarkable structure.

The Captain

The following interview with Gunnar Marel Eggertsson, captain and shipwright, was published in the daily paper Morgunblaðið, June 16 2000.

The vikingship Íslendingur (the Icelander) will set sail on Iceland's Independance Day, June 17, to take on the long voyage to the New World celebrating the millennium of Leifur Eiríksson's journey.

No mediocrity

Most people would agree that it is not quite an every day idea to decide to build a viking ship and sail it to America, and therefore obvious that that Gunnar Marel Eggertsson, shipwright and the captain of Íslendingur, is no ordinary man. Gunnar was born into a family of shipwrights in the Westman Islands and had mastered the trade by the age of 25.

"I grew up in the Westman islands" says Gunnar, "with the Atlantic Ocean before my eyes and every conversation around the house always evolved around boats and fishing." The first idea of sailing a viking ship can be traced back to when Gunnar was 10 years old and overheard his grandfather speaking to a journalist about shipbuilding. "My grandfather was telling the journalist how good and fast the vikingships were and how skilled people were a thousand years ago and that we had actually not pulled ahead that much since then." Gunnar says that his grandfathers words stayed with him and sparked a fire that was never really turned out. He had since then dreamt about sailing a viking ship across the ocean.

Replica of the Gokstad Ship

The vikingship Íslendingur was built in the years 1994-1996 almost single-handedly by Gunnar himself. The origins of the ship can on the other hand be traced back to 1882, when archaeologists in Norway excavated the famous Gokstad ship. íslendingur is an exact replica of the Gokstad ship which Gunnar believes to be the perfect example of how advanced the skills and technical knowledge of the shipwrights from the viking age were. The viking ships have usually been divided into two groups, longships and knor (knörr), the longship being rather slow freighters whereas the knor was smoother, faster and more suitable for warfare. Gunnar says that Íslendingur would be considered a longship, though many specialists believe, that the Gokstad ship might have been an attempt to combine the best qualities of both types, the stability of the knörr and the speed and manoeuvrability of the longship. The conclusion is that Íslendingur has proven to be a fast and extremely steady ocean liner.

From Gaia to the Icelander

In 1991Gunnar was second in command of the Norwegian viking ship Gaia when it sailed from Norway to Washington and later from Washington to Rio de Janeiro and up the Amazon river into middle of South-America. When asked Gunnar said that the Gaia and the Icelander are alike in many ways, since both were built as a replica of the Gokstad ship, but that the Icelander is different from the Gaia in important ways. The main difference is that the Gaia was built using blueprints from the museum where the Gokstad ship is preserved but Gunnar says that they are not absolutely correct. "The main difference" Gunnar says, "is that the keel in that blueprint is way too straight and therefore it lacks all strength. I knew this before I started building the Icelander and therefore went to the museum and asked for permission to go inside the chain that surrounded the ship to measure the keel. The museum director was reluctant, but I managed to sneak inside the chain when nobody noticed and get the  most essential measurements. That is the reason why the Icelander is what it is today. Merely beacause I took the chance of "crossing the line" for one moment, the Icelander is concidered the best replica that has been made of the Gokstad ship." Still Gunnar says that the Icelander is far from being exactly like the Gokstadship. He says that it is extremely difficult to imitate the workmanship of the builders of the Gaia. The Icelander is the best Gunnar and his companions were able to build and now it is time to find out whether it is good enough.

No easy Seaway

The vikingship's last stop before it leaves the shores of Iceland and heads to Greenland is Búðardalur, the closest harbour til Eiríksstaðir in Haukadalur, where Leifur Eiríksson is believed to have been born. When plans were made for the journey it was considered respectful to begin the voyage there and to follow in the "footsteps" of Eiríkur and Leifur.

Gunnar said that the seaways for Iceland to Greenland and then to America is far from being the easiest one in the world and that it will never be an easy voyage on a vikingship. On this account the time schedule of the trip has been made wide and time between harbours estimated twice as long as it would be under the best conditions.  In this part of the world one can expect bad weather but Gunnar says that it is not neccessary to start worrying beforehand. It will be dealt with when faced. The ship has a good crew, most of the crew members have known each other since childhood in Westman Islands and have experinced quite a few things. "We know each other inside out and can tell each other off without any harm being done."

Technical School Students Gave Shields

Students from the Hafnarfjörður Technical School sponsored a joint Nordic volunteer program where 64 shields were made which were then given to Gunnar in May. The shields were made viking style, with 8 mm thick pine boards. The reason for this number of shields made is that there were usually 65-70 men in the crew of ships like this one and thereof 64 men formed two teams of rowers. 32 men were needed to row the ship at a time and therefore neccessary to have a crew of at least 64 to take turns rowing. The shields main job was to give protection in battles but they were just as important shielding the roweres from bad weather. One can just imagine that it must often have been cold and wet on the open ships in the middle of the ocean.

The crew of the Icelander is not formed of 64 men for this voyage, but merely 9 and two ravens which the crew has attracted. In exchange for the rowers there are two motors which take up far less space then 64 crew members. The motors will only be used in need and then only for a short period at a time, because the ship can not handle the use of motors well. The oars will not be completely left behind. A few will be brought along because the plan is to row the ship the last length at a few destinations along the long journey to Vinland.