Topsail and Battleaxe

Cunliffe, Tom
Seafarer Books, Woodbridge Suffolk 1998
ISBN 0-85036-460-4

Early on Tom Cunliffe makes the observation that Scandinavians are hopeless romantics, and anyone with the least trace of Nordic blood will feel that romanticism stirring from the first pages of this book. How better could one spend time than following the ancient Viking Way from Norway west to the New World? And how else to do it but aboard an authentic Bristol Channel Cutter? Tom, his wife and young daughter, and a congenial crew follow in the wake of Eric the Red and his son Lief and find that the Viking spirit is still alive, though perhaps in a somewhat less violent form. Interspersing chapters describing their voyage on Hirta with a recounting of the discovery of Greenland and Vinland, Tom Cunliffe weaves a fascinating story. It begins as they beat up the English Channel to their starting point of Bergen, Norway, passes through the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, and fetches land at the village of Quirpon in northernmost Newfoundland.

After a slow, rough sail from England, the Hirta lay at a dock in Bergen, and the crew was free to relax for the first time in days. Outside was dark, cold and rainy, but the cabin was warm and cozy, heated by a roaring coal stove, with only a few random drops of water dripping through the deck. At that moment, heavy footsteps were heard, and "with a creak the skylight above our heads swung ajar; there was a rattle as something tried to gain access and then, dripping with rainwater, two brown beer bottles slipped slowly down, each in the grip of a hairy calloused hand...Through the rain-dashed glass of the skylight it was possible to make out two faces which presumably were attached indirectly to the hands that were waggling the bottles to and fro..." Chris, who had experience in Viking ways, interpreted. "They are inviting us to their party. There's only one catch. It will be their party but it will be on your boat. You'd better hide the scotch. These guys drink like hell on wheels." So this is how they met their first two friends of the trip, Njal the Small and Arnolf the Colossal.

Reading this book fired me with the desire to see Quirpon and l'Anse aux Meadows, and in 2006 I drove from my home in North Carolina to the north of Newfoundland. This three-week trip proved to be every bit as thrilling as I had expected. The reconstructed longhouses at the site known to have been inhabited by the Vikings were true evidence of the wanderlust of these people, for no wish for material goods could ever have been enough to persuade them to go through the danger and discomfort the buildings witnessed. And the people of Quirpon, living in their weatherbeaten houses, in the rain and fog along the ripping currents of the Straits of Belle Isle, are likewise people who wish to be at the very edge of the world.