Moorhead's most famous Viking ship could have been destined for failure, but instead it became an icon
40 years ago this summer, Robert Asp's Hjemkomst ship journeyed to Norway and into the history books.
MOORHEAD — No doubt, Robert “Bob” Asp had his critics.
What is he doing out there?
Why is he wasting his time?
That’ll never make it.
“That” was a huge wooden Viking ship that Asp started building in the early 1970s with the eventual dream of sailing it to Norway.
Now some 50 years after construction began, and 40 years after the overseas voyage ended, it’s very clear Asp was not wasting his time. He was making history.
The dream begins
While recovering from a broken leg in 1971, Asp, a Moorhead Public Schools counselor, began serious research on how to build an authentic Viking ship — a lifelong dream of his to reconnect with his ancestral home. When he had recovered in 1972, he began building the huge wooden ship in an old potato warehouse.
“The plan was for him to build this Viking ship and (his brother) Bjarne’s family and our family would quietly sail it to Norway ourselves,” Asp’s wife Rose told WDAY-TV in a 1982 documentary.
The ship would be named Hjemkomst — Norwegian for “homecoming.”
Even after Asp was diagnosed with leukemia in 1974, the dream didn’t die. He just got a little help from friends and family who helped him finish building the ship in six years.
The first taste of water
Fortunately, Asp was able to see the ship, built on the landlocked prairie, get its first taste of the sea.
In July 1980, the ship was towed from Hawley to Duluth, where the 13-person crew, which included four of Asp’s children, began training for its overseas voyage to Norway. Asp took his last trip on his dream ship in September, before dying on Dec. 27. His family and friends were committed to finishing the journey for him.
But they were met with skeptics. Ed Drill, a Lake Superior mariner, said he feared for their safety and didn’t think they’d even make it past the Great Lakes.
“I don’t think they have the experience with Lake Superior that some of us have seen, and the boats that have gone down,” he said.
But the crew wasn’t deterred.
“People might say we’re crazy, but we’re not,” said Bjorn Holtet. “We’re adventurous.”
The roughest leg
It turns out the old mariner had a point. The ship’s voyage through the Great Lakes, particularly the first seven days on Superior, proved to be what crew members later called “the most difficult challenge of the entire voyage” — constant cold, wet conditions sailing directly into the wind.
One month later, 1,500 miles from Duluth, the Hjemkomst and its crew reached New York City for the start of its transatlantic voyage. The crew admitted they were nervous, particularly after one crew member decided to end his voyage there out of responsibility to his family.
“There was something in my stomach leaving New York. The ocean is big and could be cruel to us,” said Holtet.
“When the ship left New York City it was almost like saying goodbye to Bob all over again,” said Rose.
Five days out of New York, far away from the cheering crowds and happy sendoff, the Hjemkomst and its already weather-worn crew would face another challenge — a tropical storm.
Fifty-five mph winds caused serious damage, including a 14-foot crack along the keel. The amateur sailors, many from the Minnesota prairie where they were more used to shoveling snow during a blizzard, were forced to make repairs and bail water in the wind, rain and rolling sea.
While the crew sailed, nervous family members hoped for the best. Gert Solum, whose son Jeff was aboard the ship, prayed, “I have a lot of faith in the skipper upstairs,” she said.
It must have worked as the ship pulled into Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, 34 days after leaving New York City, with the crew weary, but safe and sound. In mid-July 1982, large crowds greeted the ship and the crew wherever they went in the country. The crew even met the king of Norway. Eventually, the Hjemkomst reached its final destination of Oslo on Aug. 9, 1982.
The ship was eventually transported back to the United States aboard a freight ship and brought by truck back home to Minnesota, where the Asp family donated it to the city of Moorhead, where it has come to symbolize the town. It’s been incorporated into the Moorhead city logo. The Hjemkomst Center, where the ship is housed, has become a popular multi-use facility. One of Moorhead’s elementary schools was renamed Robert Asp Elementary.
It might be hard to believe that it all started with Bob toiling away in an old warehouse, well into the night, on a project some thought was just a pipe dream destined for failure.
But Bob is getting the last laugh.
Rose told WDAY, “His dream never died. It’s right here.”
The Dream Lives On
In commemoration of the Hjemkomst voyage’s 40th anniversary in 2022, the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County is undertaking a major redesign of the Hjemkomst Ship Gallery.
Starting at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 23, a grand opening event will celebrate the “new look” of the ship gallery and some of the original crew members of the Hjemkomst, along with their families, who will be present.
This event is free and open to the public. Visit the HCSCC website for more information and a schedule of events.