Building a Leather Boat
In the spring of 2014, I was lucky enough to be part of a project to build and sail a leather & wooden stone-age boat on the west coast of Norway.
It all started when my partner and I were travelling Norway and had arranged to help out on Godjord farm, just north of Bergen in a small town called Manger. The farm is owned and run by Børje Møster; a man of immense energy and passionate about the natural world. Børje has spent half his life on the sea as a skipper and in the navy, and now uses his farm to teach various outdoor activities to schools, and also holds free-diving and boating courses.It is Børjes dream to build a stone age camp in the local area together with a team of archaeologists, and so the boat project was started to inspire interest in the stoneage. Building and Sailing Havelgen (the sea elk) The boat was an experimental build, designed by Børje with help from archaeologists and from his seafaring experience. It is as true to form as we could hope for, as very little evidence remains of stone age boats like this in Norway.The boat is designed as a catamaran with a main hull 12 metres long, and a shorter side rigger attached via a central platform. It is made with a pine keel and frame, all steam bent into place and secured with hemp and sealskin ropes, with a body of mooseskin that has been sewn together and stretched over the hull and soaked in fish oil and tarred. There are two masts in the main hull for the four sails, and interestingly a double steering oar system which is a joy to steer in rough conditions.When we arrived on the farm, most of the main hull had been completed, but on day one we began building the side rigger and from there continued with the project until it was finished and we were ready to set sail! Due to my profession, I was given responsiblity over the leather hull and spray decks, making sure the hand stitching was correct and as strong as possible, making sure any weak spots were seen too, and repairing any damage, and also in making full goatskin and reindeerskin clothing for the crew. So during our time on the farm we finished the wooden frame, keel, and platform connections on the side rigger. The most important joints were fitted together using turned oak dowels. The wooden frame was oiled and the mooseskins were stretched over itl. These were glued together into two pieces (bow and stern) and stitched together. When both end were completed we put them back on the frame and stretched them together using rope so that they overlapped very tightly, and were then saddle-stitched together by hand whilst tensioned over the frame. Another layer of wood was added around the rim of the side rigger to protect it and then after making the platform connections, we stretched the skins over the entire side rigger to make her fully water tight. This involved an entire week saddle-stitching on patches and sleeves and adding more fish oil to the whole hull. A four metre section of the upper side rigger could be lifted off so that we could get inside to bail out water and effect repairs. I think everybody working on the project was happy to have a leathersmith on board to do all the stitching! With the side rigger finished, we fitted her to the main hull via an interlocking and flexible platform and fixed other jobs here and there like the rope systems, the side platform (not in any pictures here) and a dozen tiny things you can’t even see. The whole process involved a lot of problem solving, being an experimental project there was a new challenge every day we had to discuss endlessly to come up with the solution. After giving both hulls a coating of tar she was ready to be tested on the sea! So we dismantled the platform connections, loaded both hulls onto trailers and drove them down to the local marina. This took several days in itself as it was such a delicate job. Once on the water we fitted them together again, made some final repairs and got ready to set sail. This involved three nights of working on the sails until 2 am. Before the voyage there was some publicity for the local media, getting dressed up in stone age clothing we had been making over the previous weeks and discussing the project . The other focus of this project was to protest the mining pollution in the Sognefjord, so we had a banner with us that we hoisted between the sails when we reached port to get people interested. You can read about it in a newspaper article HERE (in norwegian). It was also during this time that my partner Fionn performed the naming ceremony; whereby she named the vessel Havelgen (the sea elk) and poured a horn of wine over the figurehead and wished it many happy journeys on our voyage ahead. Building a leather boat is one thing, but sailing it is quite another! Luckily our fearless leader Børje had enough experience for us all and we followed his every order without question. Besides myself the other crew members were: Daniel from the Netherlands, a previous wwoofer with sailing experience. Gautier from france, who has been with us on the farm working on the project. And finally Jan from Norway, a freediver for Frivannsliv, who was filming the trip for a documentary. Fionn was happier staying to look after the farm as the goats were ready to give birth and she was needed. We all had stone-age clothing that I had mostly made for us, and some made by previous woofers, but also modern gear for safety such as floating suits, life jackets, flares, and a two man kayak trailing behind us. Our plan? Go where the wind takes us and enjoy every minute!
~ The Half-Goat ~