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Duluth wooden boat collective to sail hand-built vessel to Two Harbors tall ship festival

A group of volunteers has been working hard to complete their work in time for the event.

Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
Justin Anderson, from the left, Jaz Sipila, Oliver Swenson and John Finkle work on various features for a traditional, 27-foot-long Scandinavian rowing boat June 1. The vessel is modeled after a Viking ship replica built in Denmark.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — A group of local volunteers has been working hard to construct their version of a Viking boat, circa A.D. 1045. And they aim to sail the vessel to the Two Harbors tall ship festival in early August.

Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
John Finkle checks the smoothness of a hull plank in preparation for installing the next plank.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

John Finkle, who founded and organized the wooden boat-building collective, said the vessel was modeled after a replica ship he visited at a museum in Roskilde, Denmark.

But the Duluth collective, called Noatun, has taken a few liberties to ensure their take on the vessel will be able to safely ply local waters.

“Lake Superior is known the world over as just cold, ferocious and unpredictable. So, we’re being very safe in raising the sides and doing a lot of things from our experience with other boats that we’ve built,” he said.

The single-masted 27-foot-long wooden vessel will be built in the style of a Norwegian “treroring,” almost entirely using hand tools.

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Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
Oliver Swenson, left, and Jaz Sipila fasten two hull planks together with copper rivets.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The project started two winters ago, as volunteers ventured into the woods to harvest and haul out the tamarack and white burr oak that is now being used to construct the boat, which Finkle hopes to name Alfinna, in honor of his Norwegian grandmother.

But Noatun hasn’t exactly encountered the type of ideal conditions that allowed for smooth sailing.

Those headwinds included the relocation of the collective’s shop work space from Lincoln Park to Duluth’s waterfront and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Noatun landed in a Duluth waterfront location formerly occupied by Duluth Timber, and Finkle considers the setting a bit of a dream come true. Yet, he said it came with some challenges, thanks in large part to the pandemic.

“It was right at a transition point where we were coming to this lovely waterfront space. So, it kind of threw us for a loop as it did everybody. It just changed the world,” Finkle said.

That pause had its benefits, however.

Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
Justin Anderson shapes a boat rib with an ax.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“It allowed us to put our heads down and really start to develop this into what we wanted it to become — a welcoming space where people could be creative and explore ideas and have some fun in kind of an unusual spot,” Finkle said.

Volunteers worked to open up the available work space, installing windows to provide more natural light. They also installed a 4-ton stone stove, leading one to believe they’re probably planning to stay a while.

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Finkle said a core group of around 20 people had been plugging away on the boat regularly. But all told, probably more than 100 volunteers have lent a hand somewhere along the line.

Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
Justin Anderson fits a rib in the boat.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

People of all ages and skill levels have gotten involved.

“We’ve had folks as young as 4 and as old as 90 doing ax work, learning from each other, and often people share stories and tools,” said Justin Anderson, another collective member.

“It’s a learning/sharing experience for everybody,” he said, noting that his own skill set has expanded vastly.

Geoffrey Gates, a 73-year-old retired physician and endocrinologist, was helping to reinforce attachment points in what will be the ship’s sail, using heavy black thread to encircle a multitude of grommets last week.

Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
Jasper Sipila, left, and Geoffrey Gates work on a sail for the boat. While primarily a rowboat, the vessel will have a sail approximately 12-by-15 feet in size for use when winds are favorable.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

His partner in the effort was 13-year-old Jasper Sipila, who said the repetitive, tedious and exacting grommet work was the kind of thing that causes you to “zone out.”

Gates agreed:, “The first ones are nerve-wracking. You wonder: Am I getting it right? Am I getting the right tension? But after a while, it becomes automatic. And it’s fun to learn new things. Still, I can’t imagine being in the 1800s, when this is a job that a person would do day after day for 12 hours at a stretch. That would get hard.”

Thankfully, Gates said the collective puts people to work on multiple tasks each day, breaking up the monotony of some of the more repetitive jobs.

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Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
Geoffrey Gates sews a grommet into the sail.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Sipila said he enjoys learning new skills, as well, and the exciting promise of having the opportunity to help sail the finished boat is an added bonus.

Finkle believes the project is on course for timely completion. “The race started about five months ago, and we still have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
Hand tools sit on a hull plank. The boat is clinker built (also known as lapstrake), with the edges of hull planks overlapped and fastened with rivets.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

But, Finkle also described the project as largely “over the hump.”

“We’re going to be working every single day, and then we’ll be spending most of July in sea trials,” he said, explaining that adjustments will need to be made as the boat’s crew fine tunes the vessel and adjusts its sail well after it kisses water.

In addition to relying on wind for propulsion, the boat also is set up for six rowers.

Finkle acknowledged that Noatun has been willing to riff on the original design of the vessel, while holding true to certain other core principles. “This is not necessarily a Viking boat, but it’s more of a project where we asked: How do you build something using local materials and sustainable products and very little plastic that’s a thing of beauty?” he said.

Traditional Scandinavian-style rowing boat under construction.
A model of a Viking longboat sits on a mantle above the Scandinavian-style rowing boat.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The collaborative relies on its members to chip in as they can, but also has sought outside funding, including a recent grant it received from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. Finkle remains optimistic more support will follow, especially as the organization seeks federal nonprofit recognition as a 501(c)(3).

He doesn’t view the Alfinna as a one-off boat build.

Rather, Finkle said: “After this one, I think we’ll be doing more.”

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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