Recently appointed as the head of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation, Lars Bill is also the Project Manager of Saga Asia 2023, the voyage of a replica of the Norse trading ship Saga Farmann from its base in Tønsberg, Norway, to Istanbul. 

Having successfully negotiated the canals and the bureaucracy of Europe to reach her destination in early August, the ship has since been displayed at the Rahmi M Koç Museum at the Hasköy Dockyard on the Northern shore of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. 

This week, the crew regroups to take the ship out again, sailing in the Sea of Marmara, before preparing it for the year ahead. 

It seems the perfect time for The Viking Herald to speak at length to Lars Bill about the three-month odyssey, plans for the future, and the mission of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation. 

The interview will run in three parts – in this first section, Lars talks us through the voyage, from dreaming big in Tønsberg, Norway, to a moonlit night by the Bosporus.

"It was very different from what we had planned. We didn't know what to expect when we started this project many years ago. It actually started as we began to build the ship when we came up with the idea to sail to Istanbul." 

[To learn more about the specifications of the original Klåstad, a Viking cargo and trading ship discovered in Norway in the late 1800s, and its replica created in Tønsberg, see The Viking Herald article here.]

Northern passage or Europe? 

"We initially planned to go north of Norway and through Russia to the Black Sea. This is the ancient eastern route to reach Istanbul."

"However, after a year or two, we realized that our initial plans were just dreams as we were still in the process of building the ship." 

"When we began investigating the route, we discovered that sailing north of Norway is extremely dangerous. Not only are the waters treacherous for any sailor, but the real challenge lies in navigating past the Kola Peninsula." 

[The Kola Peninsula is a large, D-shaped area of land beyond Murmansk, past the border between Norway and Russia, surrounded by Arctic waters.] 

"You can't go ashore on the Kola Peninsula because it's entirely a Russian military zone. There are no sea rescue services in that region." 

"So, once you depart from the northernmost point of Norway, you're on your own until you navigate around the Kola Peninsula. It's a vast stretch, and those waters aren't meant for just any sailor." 

"At that time, our ship's guild was primarily made up of land-based individuals with limited sea experience. One shouldn't attempt sailing north of Norway without sufficient experience."

"We chose not to take that route because it would have been extremely risky."

"It would have been tragic if anything had happened to any of our guild members. We're all volunteers, and we don't compensate anyone to undertake dangerous tasks." 

"So, we reevaluated our plans. Then, the pandemic hit, which gave us a few extra years to prepare. However, the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war further limited our options." 

"Either we could go around Spain, through Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, or we could choose a route through Europe, which became the natural choice." 

"The reason for our caution is that this ship has only been reconstructed once. We weren't confident how she would perform in various waters, like the high seas and the English Channel."

"Additionally, we had a crew to train, and we still required more experienced individuals. We decided on the central route between Tønsberg and Istanbul, passing through Europe." 

"This would allow us to involve all our members, especially since some of the canal sections are less challenging. The main concern then becomes logistics." 

Saga Farmann was constructed in Tønsberg, Norway, and was completed in September 2018. Photo: AB Photostudio / Shutterstock

Drama in the Black Sea 

"We then had the opportunity to sail to the Black Sea from the North without entering Ukrainian waters, skirting just along the border, which was just barely achievable."

"Of course, we had to remain vigilant given the ongoing war. We had a reliable contact in Romania to assess the situation in the Black Sea."

"So, we concluded, 'Alright, that's the route we'll take. While there are thousands of canal sections throughout Europe – in Poland, France, the Netherlands, and Germany – only one route is suitable for us due to our ship's dimensions'." 

"The old canals and small rivers are actually too small – sometimes the docks are only five meters long, and since we're 5.24 or 5.25 meters, we might find ourselves in a situation where we'd probably need to pull the ship out of the water to continue." 

"We discussed that for a period of time because we really wanted to go through Poland. They have some beautiful old canals and small rivers, and it's quite scenic, with less traffic, of course." 

"However, we would have had to pull the ship out somewhere and transport it overland. We said, 'OK, the Vikings did that, but actually, the Vikings didn't pull out a 20-ton ship!'"

"They didn't bring these large ships through Europe to Istanbul. They used smaller ships and boats." 

"So, they sailed as far as possible and then transported these smaller ships overland. Of course, that's easier to do, but you don't attempt it with a 20-ton ship." 

"We decided to use the route that's actually possible, even though it meant having to go upstream on the River Rhine in Germany, which in many ways is pretty hard." 

"First of all, you must expect at least five to eight knots of current going against you, and as our top speed for our engine was seven knots, and then only for one or two hours until the battery pack is flat, it was not a simple task to plan – we had to get over the logistical issue to bring the ship up the River Rhine." 

"But otherwise, the Germans have constructed the Rhine-Danube Canal, which didn't exist in the Viking Age. Still, that was a more favorable option than hauling the ship overland, and it was a pleasant route to take."

"From there, we could follow the Danube all the way to Romania, exiting just before reaching the border with Ukraine. We'd then proceed via the canal to Constanța and, from there, across the Black Sea." 

"We actually visited the Danube Delta, situated just a kilometer from Ukraine, an area that was bombed this summer. They deployed the first drone when we were in Constanța." 

"Had we opted to navigate the Danube Delta via Ukraine, we likely would have been in that vicinity during that time. Thus, choosing to use the canal was a wise decision."

"In total, our journey consisted of seven two-week stages from Tønsberg to Istanbul. Following that, we embarked on an additional stage, sailing around the Sea of Marmara." 

Saga Farmann sailed gracefully along the Danube, making stops in Vienna, Bratislava, and the historic settlement of Szentendre before finally docking in Budapest. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

Full steam ahead 

"I undertook three of those stages – as Project Manager, I handled the segments with the most stress. I managed Stage 2 from Lübeck to Mainz, the stage in Germany where we were to be certified as an EU-compatible ship for inland canals in Europe." 

"I had been working on that for a month before we sailed. When we sailed out of Tønsberg, we still didn't have approval from Germany; we had to proceed to Lübeck and invite some inspectors on board to review everything concerning the 300 requirements we had to meet." 

"They needed to inspect every detail, grant us approval, and provide the necessary stamps and documentation for us to continue into the German canals." 

"In the end, we got our certification, which was very important because otherwise, we could only be towed after the ship, in which case we would have needed a certified captain on board." 

"As we were allowed to be towed alongside, it was very different." 

"I also managed the Regensburg-Budapest stage for two reasons. Just before reaching Regensburg, we received a new 80kw generator from China that was shipped to Hamburg." 

"I opted not to have it shipped to Norway because it would have arrived after we'd departed. So, I arranged to have it sent there and then installed on the ship. Additionally, we had to replace about 1.5 tons of batteries due to their age." 

"So I opted to be present during Stage 4 to ensure these items were brought on board and installed." 

"Also, when we reached Budapest, there was an ambassadorial meeting on board that I wanted to attend as Project Manager." 

"In Budapest, we hosted seven ambassadors simultaneously; the Norwegian ambassador had invited six of his counterparts to visit our Norwegian Viking ship as we passed through, which was a significant highlight."

"I participated in Stage 7, from Constanța to Istanbul, and was also present for part of Stage 8 in the Sea of Marmara, assisting in bringing the ship to the Rahmi M Koç Museum in Istanbul." 

"I'll be rejoining the crew soon when we venture back to the Sea of Marmara." 

The Saga Farmann will be on tour for four years, after Germany, Central Europe, and Istanbul follows a cruise of the Mediterranean in 2024, before France and the British Isles in 2025. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

Moonlit arrival 

"You would have thought that it would have been an amazing feeling first approaching Istanbul – but we didn't quite make it into the Bosporus because of all the immigration issues we had to solve." 

"We were stranded in a fishing harbor on the first night. We arrived at midnight and weren't permitted to disembark, surrounded by the stench of diesel and decaying fish." 

"There were no facilities and no one to greet us since we had come in the middle of the night." 

"Additionally, our arrival was premature; we were scheduled to enter the Bosporus three days later. However, due to prevailing weather conditions and the necessity to navigate the last stretch - about 130 km - of the Bulgarian coast without a harbor, we had to proceed." 

"One needs to pass this stretch under favorable wind and weather conditions; otherwise, the risk of crashing into the rocky shores is high, making it a perilous route." 

"Ultimately, we had to depart the last harbor in Bulgaria at 1 am. We had intended to wait a bit longer, but immigration officials hastened our departure." 

"Having noted all 12 of us on board, they wanted us out of the harbor - likely so they could return to their rest." 

"This was the concluding segment of our journey to Istanbul, leading us to the Bosporus." 

"We observed a massive bridge illuminated by red lights, set against the backdrop of a full moon. Although there wasn't much wind, the sea was rather choppy with significant waves." 

"We kept pressing on, but reaching the bridge felt everlasting! We were looking at that bridge for hours and hours and hours; it took forever to get there because it was just so far away." 

"And then we entered this industrial harbor, and the only one there to greet us was the coastguard who said, 'Welcome to Turkey – but you're not allowed to leave the ship!'" 

"Then he asked, 'How can we assist you?' We mentioned wanting to check in, to which they responded that we'd have to do that further south. So, we thought, 'Alright, let's get some rest.'"

"We did have a beer and exchanged handshakes, but it didn't feel like we had truly arrived. There was no welcoming committee, and we were still on the European side." 

"Given that our project is named 'Saga Asia 2023', we realized we hadn't truly made our goal; we still needed to reach Asia." 

Navigating the Bosporus presented unexpected challenges for the Saga Farmann crew, including restrictions on sailing boats and the need to follow immigration procedures. Photo: Wolfmann / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Crossing the Bosporus 

"It felt like only half a triumph if that. The next morning, we sent our captain south, to the Sea of Marmara, to consult with immigration." 

"He returned a few hours later with the news: 'Sorry, guys, but we need to bring the entire crew and the ship for the check-in.'" 

"Suddenly, our passage through the Bosporus seemed more like a transportation route down to immigration and the Sea of Marmara just to officially set foot on shore."

"We had planned to sail down the Bosporus and make stops along the way to take photos. However, we weren't allowed to stop anywhere or set sail because it was a freight route for large cargo ships, and they didn't want any sailing boats meandering in the waters." 

"So, raising sails in the Bosporus isn't just forbidden for us; it's prohibited for all vessels."

"So we proceeded using the engine. There's quite a current out there, but the coastguard accompanied us, which was comforting. They ensured the ferries made way for us and provided instructions on where to position ourselves safely in the Bosporus." 

"Eventually, we reached the historic part of Istanbul, where landmarks like the Haghia Sofia stand. For years, we'd dreamed of sailing close to the peninsula to snap photos with the Haghia Sofia in the backdrop." 

"However, we weren't permitted to do so. Directly in front of the peninsula lies the entrance to the Golden Horn, bustling with traffic." 

"It's the city's heart, with countless ferries crisscrossing. Thus, one has to cross over to the Asian side of the Bosporus well before reaching that point." 

"Just as we were about to capture those incredible shots, we had to cross over. Naturally, we followed the instructions." 

"We proceeded to the harbor at Kalamiş. However, we still weren't officially in Turkey; immigration hadn't processed us. Thus, we remained aboard, prohibited from disembarking or welcoming anyone onboard."

"Even with people from the harbor and the university present, bearing gifts and flowers, we couldn't disembark, nor could they board our ship. As a result, we resorted to exchanging handshakes over the ship's side, making for an awkward interaction." 

"One crew member's situation was particularly challenging. He had learned of a family emergency while we were in the Black Sea. However, due to our immigration status, he wasn't allowed to leave the ship until we were officially checked in, which wasn't until the following day." 

"He had to endure the wait to disembark and catch a flight home. It was undoubtedly a trying time for him." 

"At Kalamiş, we were finally in Asia. Once docked, and after a few hours, we received permission to leave the ship." 

"We could use the amenities, dine at the restaurants, and have our celebratory dinner. That's when it hit us: 'We're here!' We were in Asia, in Istanbul." 

"We'd passed by the Hagia Sophia, navigated through the Bosporus, and now we were in the Sea of Marmara. With the presence of TV cameras, we truly felt that we had arrived." 

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

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