The story of the creation of the ship, and its voyage, shows how important the cultural pull of the Vikings is, almost a millennium after the end of their age.
A hero's welcome
On July 19, 1982, an unusual ship sailed into Bergen harbor past the royal yacht of King Olav V.
A full-scale replica of the Gokstad ship, first discovered a century before near Sandefjord, Norway, effortlessly sailed into the harbor, receiving the adulation of not only the King but also hundreds of cheering locals.
After more than a two-month voyage, the Hjemkomst had nearly returned "home."
A short trip to Oslo ensued, but the hardest part of the journey had been completed. The dream of sailing a Viking ship across the Atlantic Ocean, like the Vikings had done a millennium before, was complete.
After ten years of planning, preparation, and construction, Robert Asp's dream was fulfilled.
How a fall from the roof led to a Viking ship
Robert Asp was not having a good summer all the way back in 1971. The Moorhead Junior High School counselor was on the roof of a friend's house, helping with some maintenance.
However, Robert slipped, fell, and hurt himself. There is nothing worse than not being able to enjoy a summer's holiday – especially as a school employee – but Robert decided to use all his spare time recuperating to study his Norwegian ancestry and culture.
The city of Moorhead, Minnesota, is hardly the place where you would expect a Viking voyage to begin.
Lying on the banks of the Red River of the North, this sleepy Mid-West town has long held a tradition of being a center of the local agricultural and manufacturing industry.
This industry was part of the reason many immigrants, especially from Norway, moved to this area of the United States, especially during the 19th century CE. In fact, in a community survey conducted from 2006 – 2008, some 36.1% of Moorhead residents had Norwegian ancestry.
Studying his Norwegian heritage, history, and culture, Asp came across the story of the Gokstad Viking Ship. This was an impressive Viking ship, built in the 880s CE, that had been buried near Gokstad, Norway, as part of an elaborate Viking burial.
It was later discovered and then excavated a millennium later, in the 1880s. Asp then had a dream – to build a replica of this ship and sail it to Norway as a way to fully connect with his Norwegian ancestry.
A modern-day Viking ship
After years of planning and preparation, Asp was ready to build his dream ship. He had undertaken a long search for the right wood to be used, and in July 1972, the first lumber, from a white oak tree, was cut at a sawmill near the aptly named town of Viking, Minnesota.
Over one hundred trees were felled to complete the replica of the Gokstad ship and some 2 miles / 3.3 kilometers of wood. By 1974, the work had moved to a renovated potato warehouse turning it into Hawley Shipyard by Asp from the city of Hawley for the bargain price of USD 10 a year!
Tragedy struck later in 1974 when Robert Asp was unfortunately diagnosed with leukemia. Like his initial recuperation after falling off the roof that kick-started this whole replica construction, Asp continued to dive head first into the work with the support of his brother, Bjarne, and a dedicated team.
By 1980, some eight years after the first timber was milled, the Hjemkomst (Norwegian for "Homecoming" – an ode to the Viking past and Asp's Norwegian ancestry) was unveiled.
The finished ship was over 23 meters / 78 feet long complete with a horned head of a dragon at the mast. Sleeping quarters, a cooking stove, and an inflatable boat were all included in the modern-day Viking vessel with a 19-meter / 63 feet mast holding two huge sails.
The ship was christened by Asp's mother-in-law and a recent Norwegian immigrant to the city, Hannah Foldoe, on July 20, 1980. With construction complete, Asp and his team turned to the next phase of their plan: the adventurous journey to Norway!
The Hjemkomst Center, which houses the Hjemkomst Viking ship replica today. Photo: Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock
Go East and sail!
The first phase of the long voyage to Norway was complicated enough even before the Hjemkomst first set sail. With the help of a crane, the ship was lynched onto a truck for a journey from Hawley to Duluth, Minnesota.
From Duluth, the team first got the opportunity to sail on open water with more than 4,000 spectators coming out to see the ship's launch.
Throughout the summer of 1980, Asp finally realized a dream of sailing the Viking ship that he had spent more than eight years constructing and many years more planning.
On December 27, 1980, Robert Asp, unfortunately, passed away, but his family continued with his lifelong goal to sail the Hjemkomst to Norway.
Leaving Duluth, Minnesota, in May 1982, the crew utilized – like the Vikings had done a millennium before – lakes, rivers, and canals to eventually reach New York City on June 8, 1982.
There is an iconic photo of the Hjemkomst, from its time in New York, sailing around the Statue of Liberty, both symbols of inspiration for many.
The crew of 12 – including Asp's children and mostly professional sailors – set sail from New York. However, it sailed into a fierce tropical storm that, some 500 nautical miles from New York, damaged the keel.
Despite the damage, the crew decided it was safer to sail to Norway rather than turn around and sail against the wind back to America.
Apart from the near disaster, the remainder of the voyage was filled with dolphin and whale spotting, journaling and reflection, and swimming, sunbathing, fishing, and enjoying life on the sea.
Finally, the Hjemkomst sailed into Bergen harbor on that July day in 1982, fulfilling Robert Asp's dream and lifelong ambition: a Viking ship had sailed from the Midwest of the United States to the western coast of Norway.
After many citywide celebrations, the Hjemkomst sailed to Oslo, its final Norwegian destination. The journey was complete.
Where is the Hjemkomst now?
Following more citywide celebrations in Oslo, the ship underwent some serious repairs and was eventually shipped back, via the M/V Brunto, to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1983.
It returned on the back of a truck to Minnesota and was donated to the City of Moorhead. In 1986 the Hjemkomst took pride of place as the city's newly constructed Viking Ship Park, where it resides today as a monument to one man's lifelong ambition to honor his Viking roots.
Just to think that all of this wouldn't have happened if Robert Asp hadn't fallen off the roof one summer's day in 1971…
For more information on the Viking Ship Park, visit the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County's website here.
The Minnesota Post recently wrote an article on the 40th anniversary of the voyage, available to read here.
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