Norway's Last Viking, Ragnar Thorseth, Sails His Saga Around the World

updated 10/06/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1986 01:00AM

It was the sort of nautical drama rarely seen nowadays: a bearded Norwegian piloting an open Viking ship through a North Atlantic storm. It was also the sort of moment that the sailor, Ragnar Thorseth, 38, would have savored had he not had more immediate concerns. As the winds hit 65 knots and the waves topped 35 feet, he recalls, "We woke everyone up and put survival suits on." When the crests began to slap over the sides of the boat, he tied a safety line between himself and his then 10-year-old son, Eirik, and kept potential rescuers aware of his position by radio. Finally, after 15 hours, the storm abated. "It was a pretty hairy experience," says Thorseth, who learned that "the best pump is a scared sailor." He also learned a valuable lesson about his ship's potential: "After the storm died down we said, 'Hell, we made it!' It really was a good feeling to know the Saga Siglar could make it."

Last August the 54-foot Saga Siglar (the name means "sailor of the sagas") kept her promise, sailing into the harbor at Herøy, Norway, to complete a 26-month, 35,000-mile round-the-world sail. Thorseth, a professional adventurer who would rather go yondering than talk, mostly stared at his feet while the local mayor and others read welcoming speeches. "Being a hero is a bit scary," he says. "People start to expect things from you that you can't live up to. But I'm not going to let it happen." A friend of Thorseth's, Siggen Notoay, suggests that the sailor's modesty will prove a futile defense in a nation steeped in Viking lore. "Many people in Norway understand what it means to sail an open ship around the world," says Notoay. "For our generation, he's the new hero."

He certainly has the résumé for the job. A so-so student in his school days, he nonetheless read everything he could about Vikings, explorer Roald Amundsen and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and determined to test himself against their achievements. In 1969, at the age of 21, he rowed a 15-foot boat 160 nautical miles from Norway to the Shetland Islands. "I was afraid before I started. I didn't know if I was as bold and brave as I meant to be," he says. "I learned a lot about myself. My first big lesson was that being afraid is a sound reaction. I don't believe people who say they are not afraid." Next came two trips from Norway to Greenland in small boats—on his second he was stranded on an ice floe after it crushed his vessel—and in 1979 he retraced fellow Norwegian Amundsen's navigation of the Northwest Passage. Along the way, Thorseth has supported his adventures by writing books and articles and running a small farm with his wife of 15 years, Kari, 32.

Thorseth began planning his round-the-world Viking sail in 1982. In addition to raising $1 million from 200 sponsors, he oversaw the construction of the Saga Siglar, a replica of a 1,000-year-old Viking merchant vessel dug up along Denmark's coast. "This was the kind of ship they used to explore the North Atlantic and to settle," says Thorseth. "It was a workhorse. There were probably more of this type than warships." Although the pine-and-oak hull is sealed with tar and the rigging is made of hemp, the ship includes many concessions to safety and comfort, including two small cabins, a motor, a stove, electronic navigation and communication equipment and a VCR. "Our living conditions were definitely better than the Vikings had 1,000 years ago," says Thorseth. "But then, they only took 14-day trips to Greenland and never went around the world. It would be crazy not to have modern life-saving equipment. I don't believe in dead heroes."

Thorseth's ever-changing crew included, at times, his wife and two sons and a varying cast of volunteers, who were given berth and board. John Gryska, 23, an American from Chatham, Mass. who came aboard in New Orleans, says that Thorseth was very much the master of his ship. "He's a tough oyster, hard to get into," says Gryska. "He's very powerful, he can't be dominated. He trained us all to sail the boat, then, once he was satisfied, he'd relax, play with his children and talk with his wife." Adds Gryska, "Kari's a very strong woman. Ragnar makes the decision—Kari says if it's okay or not."

Highlights of the journey, says Ragnar, included their landfall in Vinland—the Viking name for Newfoundland—and a visit to the South Pacific island of Tonga, where seafaring natives seemed particularly impressed by the ship's construction. Thorseth says his "only disappointment" was his passage down the Mississippi: "I had read Mark Twain. But now there are no villages along the banks, just a lot of factories."

Mentally and physically drained by the fulfillment of his dream, Thorseth has nothing more adventurous on his agenda than a sail up the coast of Norway and a family tour of Greenland. Although he will certainly return to the sea, at least one family member may be coming in from the cold and wet. Says Thorseth's younger son, Njaal, 11, who was plagued by seasickness during his stints on the Saga, "Daddy promised us a sailboat if we don't start to smoke. But I think I'll start to smoke, because I don't like sailing."

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