Lars Bill, the Head of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation, oversees Saga Asia 2023 expedition as its Project Manager. This expedition involves navigating a replica of the Norse trading ship Saga Farmann from its home in Tønsberg, Norway, all the way to Istanbul. 

In the second part of our three-part interview, having successfully reached Turkey, Lars talks with The Viking Herald about the connections between Tønsberg and Istanbul and shares insights into the plans for 2024. 

Set to depart from the Rahmi M. Koç Museum at the Hasköy Dockyard, where it has been exhibited since August, the Saga Farmann crew was preparing, as of the end of October, to resume their journey and sail back onto the Sea of Marmara.

Despite initial difficulties with logistics and bureaucracy, Lars Bill describes the warm welcome he and his crew members received in Istanbul and when the ship might set sail again.

"There was a maximum of 12 people on board during this last stage of the journey to Istanbul due to the number of life rafts and safety gear. Mostly, ten to twelve had been on all seven stages, so almost 100 people were involved altogether." 

While the entry of the Saga Farmann into Istanbul was slightly underwhelming for all who had been working on the project for years, the ship's arrival, beset by bureaucratic headaches and besieged by ferries in the Bosporus, left no doubt about the enormity of the achievement.

"It was not like this big event; it was more like pieces coming together over a few days, which was really nice, absolutely," says Lars Bill. 

The Saga Asia 2023 expedition began with the ambitious project of sailing the Viking ship replica Saga Farmann from Tønsberg, Norway, to Istanbul, navigating through Europe's intricate network of canals and overcoming various logistical and bureaucratic challenges. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

The Istanbul connection 

"The guy who interviewed us from Turkish TV was from the biggest media organization in Turkey, which produces a lot of the content for various media channels." 

"And he was a real fan of the Vikings, really interested in the history and the ship; he was genuinely interested. He came up with excellent questions, with real in-depth insight into what we're doing."

"The history of the Vikings, the power of Miklagard, how the Vikings worked there, and so on."

"All the way down, we had been talking to TV channels, radio, and newspapers, and often they just asked standard questions like, 'Are there women on board?', 'How long is the ship?', 'Do you have engines?', stuff like that."

"But this guy knew so much more, which made it interesting." 

"His piece was reused on different channels after that, and then the week after, we were on at least four or five news programs, on different channels, after we arrived, when they realized we were there. It built up. We got a lot of attention, that's for sure."

"From the beginning, we've been in close dialogue with Professor Ufuk Kocabaş from the Archaeological University of Istanbul. He's in charge of excavating the Old Istanbul Harbor, where they found 37 shipwrecks dating back to 900." 

"He has been both our friend and contact for many years. His team visited Norway to learn about our methods of reconstructing shipwrecks, aiming to apply these techniques to their own discoveries." 

"This has led to a collaborative effort, sharing expertise in the reconstruction of ancient shipwrecks and related archaeological findings." 

"Professor Ufuk also connected us with the Rahmi M. Koç Museum, Turkey's largest privately owned museum." 

"Right from the start, we agreed to display our ship there, as they already exhibit other historic ships, including one reconstructed by Professor Ufuk and his team. It's the natural place for our ship to be showcased." 

On its last stretch to Istanbul, the Saga Farmann carried a maximum of 12 crew members, a number determined by life-saving equipment limits, while the entire expedition saw close to 100 different individuals on board across its seven stages. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

Vikings in Istanbul 

"We are staying here until the end of October as part of the exhibition at the museum, and they have put up a nice row of posters to tell the story about the Vikings in Istanbul." 

"The ship is in the harbor, available for the public to visit, but we'll head down at the end of October, and we'll sail for a week in the Sea of Marmara with a crew from Rahmi M. Koç University and one from Czechia as well." 

"A member of our ship guild is a Viking from Czechia, and they also sail Viking ships. They're coming down to Istanbul to train for next year because they want to sail with us in the Mediterranean." 

"We're going to be sailing with two or three different crews at the end of October, and at the same time, we'll move the ship from the Rahmi M. Koç Museum to the Municipality Shipyard, where it will be on display, and they will take care of it during the winter."

"We'll do maintenance at the shipyard and prepare the ship for sailing in the Mediterranean, with Greece and the Turkish coast as our main targets for next year." 

"The reason for that is that we have heard a rumor, not confirmed yet, that there will be a conference in Greece next year, with the theme of Vikings in Greece." 

"If that's the case, we'll find out where it is and try to be there at the conference. They will never be able to bring in a Viking ship otherwise unless we stop by!"

"There's no date yet – we were quite worn out after this year's voyage, I can tell you – and now we're getting ourselves together for one week's sailing at the end of October."

After a rigorous journey that tested its capabilities, the Saga Farmann stands prepared for its next chapter in the Mediterranean, with the crew confident that the most demanding part of their adventure is now behind them. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

Full sail ahead 

"I was surprised at how well the ship held up. In the first stage, we had quite rough weather; she behaved nicely, and when we came onto the Black Sea, we encountered thunderstorms." 

"We were sailing with full sail, about 30 knots of wind, with no problems at all. She's really steady."

"We had some balance issues at the beginning of the Black Sea stage, actually for most of the Black Sea stage, as we had installed a heavy generator, which shifted the balance." 

"There was a little problem turning the ship into the wind, but we fixed that when we came to the Sea of Marmara, where we also had nice sailing winds. We adjusted the ship's balance, and it's really nice sailing with her now." 

"The ship itself is seaworthy, absolutely no doubt about it, and she can handle much more than we as a crew can handle. Also, we have set up the ship to be an expedition ship, with all facilities and engines." 

"The extended planning period of at least five years, caused by Covid, provided us with the time needed to do some pretty good work."

"We couldn't have left three years ago as originally planned. We needed this time to make the whole ship an expedition ship. Now, I'm really looking forward to next year in the Mediterranean. I believe the hard part is over now."

The interview with Lars Bill, Project Manager of Saga Asia 2023, continues... 

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