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Opportunity Knocked

By Mark Pillsbury

Now on its return home to Norway aboard a container ship, the Draken introduced hundreds of volunteer crew to Viking-style sailing. Photo courtesy Mark Brouillette

Mark Brouillette is a guy who can tell you all about being in the right place at the right time. His place was a dock in Portland, Maine. And his time was August 2018, when he and some pals were helping a friend get a sailboat with a recalcitrant engine in shape for sea trials.

Brouillette grew up in a small town in western New Hampshire and knew nothing at all about boats until his friend, who didn’t know much more about them, bought a 30-foot cutter that was sitting high and dry on jack stands in Manchester, New Hampshire. Brouillette found himself helping get the boat to Quincy, Massachusetts, where it was launched, and soon afterward he was part of a crew who sailed it to Portland, Maine, while repeatedly trying—and failing—to get its engine to start. As they were wrapping up and about to leave the project, they looked up to see a curious looking ship on the horizon. 

“I’d never seen or heard of the boat before,” recalled Brouillette, “but it was kind of a sight to see a 115-foot Viking ship approaching us, and as it got closer, we realized it was going to dock right at the dock we were at.”

The ship, it turns out, was the Draken Harald Hårfagre, billed as the largest Viking ship built in modern times, a project led by Norwegian entrepreneur Sigurd Ause. His idea was to celebrate all aspects of the Viking culture with a ship built using traditional methods and materials. The Draken launched in 2012. In 2016, the ship set sail for North America, via the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, to L’Anse Aux Meadows, Canada, where there’s an archaeological site and Viking settlement dating back 1,000 years. From there, the Draken navigated up the St. Lawrence and into the Great Lakes. 

Two years later, the Draken went on an East Coast tour, from Maine to Virginia, during which Brouillette’s chance encounter occurred. 

After the ship was secured to the dock in Portland, Brouillette and his mates began talking with the crew as they stepped ashore. 

“So their watch leaders said, ‘Hey, you guys know how to sail, do you?’ And we were like yeah, kinda,” Brouillette recalled. “So they were like, ‘Well we’re looking for volunteers if you guys would be interested in hopping on the boat in a week or two.’ 

“We all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, that sounds pretty cool,’’’ Brouillette said. “We were just wrapping up this project on our boat—there were four or five of us at the time—we’re all like, ‘Yeah, that sounds great.’” 

Two weeks later, he and a couple of mates reported for duty in Ocean City, Maryland. His tour on the Draken lasted just over a month and he sailed for two legs of that season’s schedule, to Philadelphia and then to Baltimore.

At sea, it takes a crew of about 30 to sail the Draken. Raising its massive square mainsail and yard—Brouillette reckons it weighs close to a ton—with a giant hand-cranked windlass is an all-hands affair. And steering the vessel using only its long side-mounted oar is an acquired skill.

But Brouillette loved every minute of it. Living in the elements, rain or shine. Sleeping in a big tent on deck that could hold about two-thirds of the crew at a time. Learning the names of all the lines and gear and sailing commands in Norwegian. So much so, in fact, he’s traveled to the Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, every year since to volunteer during the ship’s annual maintenance period. The boat gets hauled, the bottom gets inspected and painted, and the whole vessel gets repainted with a mixture of linseed oil and pine tar. 

The time aboard the Draken, which was loaded on a container ship in May to return to Norway, opened a new watery world for Brouillette. It led him to a tall-ship sailing course aboard the Kalmar Nyckel in Delaware, and to Rockport, Maine, where he worked on the schooner Appledore. For the past three years, he’s put his hard-learned oil and tar skills to work as a painter in the shop at Artisan Boatworks.

“It all ties back to the Draken…Where I am today, it all ties back to that,” Brouillette said.

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