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Voyage of replica Viking ship that set sail from Duluth remembered 30 years later

Sometimes after dreams have been dreamed, they retain their power. Bob Asp, the builder of the Hjemkomst, a replica Viking ship that 30 years ago this month sailed into the harbor of Bergen, Norway, after a journey that started in Duluth, knew ab...

Hjemkomst
The Hjemkomst, a Viking replica ship, sails near the Duluth Arena on May 6, 1982. The ship set out for New York on May 11, then left New York to sail to Bergen, Norway, on June 14. (1982 file / News Tribune)

Sometimes after dreams have been dreamed, they retain their power.

Bob Asp, the builder of the Hjemkomst, a replica Viking ship that 30 years ago this month sailed into the harbor of Bergen, Norway, after a journey that started in Duluth, knew about that power.

After all, his dreams and conviction brought the ship he named Hjemkomst -- "homecoming" in Norwegian -- to life: from culling oaks in area farms and parks, to building the tiny ship that navigated Lake Superior and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.

While Asp's aspirations drew laughs early on after he came up with the idea for the ship in 1971, it was the beauty of the completed Hjemkomst, and beating long odds, that made him a folk hero.

Those qualities also turned the Hjemkomst into a symbol of pride for Minnesota, and for two towns in particular: Moorhead, the ship's resting place where a 30th anniversary celebration was to be held today, and Hawley, where the dream was nurtured and birthed.

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Moorhead's official city symbol -- seen on everything from business cards to garbage bins -- features the silhouette of the iconic sail-like fabric roof of the Hjemkomst Center, where the ship is displayed.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said the museum's outline is a symbol of the courage and vision Asp's Hjemkomst represents.

"It has become the iconic shape of Moorhead," he said. "The city of Moorhead has embraced the building shape and the dare to dream."

Hawley's city symbol is the stylized outline of the Hjemkomst's classic longship prow juxtaposed against waving wheat. It greets travelers on signs on Highway 10 and from the town's water tower.

Hawley also has Robert Asp Park, built on the site of the potato warehouse dubbed the "Hawley Shipyard," where Asp and his crew built the Hjemkomst.

It's a restful spot, with a model of the ship and tablets describing its history, said Lisa Jetvig, the city's clerk-treasurer.

"The biggest thing that happened in Hawley was the Hjemkomst. It was a big deal," she said.

Voxland said when the Hjemkomst was launched in Duluth for its training cruises, Norwegians and other Scandinavians weren't the only ones celebrating.

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"You could really feel, not so much cultural pride, but local pride," Voxland said.

'A pretty amazing vision'

After getting the idea for the ship, Asp pushed the project forward for nearly a decade, even after being diagnosed with leukemia in 1975. The ship was christened in July 1980, transported to Duluth and launched in the harbor in August of that year.

Asp lived to see his boat set sail -- but died months later, in December 1980. His ship went on display in Minneapolis in 1981, then was returned to Duluth for its trans-Atlantic voyage in 1982. Jeff Solum was the radio operator for that adventure.

Solum, who now lives in Shorewood, Minn., said he still has contact with his old shipmates, and he still thinks about Asp.

"It was a pretty amazing vision he had to build this thing," Solum said.

In the years since he sailed on the Hjemkomst, Solum has seen master craftsmen build similar longships.

"Robert over here was working in a vacuum," Solum said.

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"Without learning the craft, I don't know how he did it," even with the use of power tools, Solum said. "That's what's truly amazing. He made it seaworthy enough for us to sail it to Norway."

The crew left Duluth on May 11, 1982, and navigated the Great Lakes on the way to New York. On June 14, 1982, they set out for Bergen.

Solum remembers the pride that came at being 20 years old and being trusted with the ship on watch. And he remembers the Hjemkomst's speed.

"It didn't have a keel, so it could surf down the waves," Solum said. "When we were going, we were going quite fast."

He said the only reason it took so long to get to Norway was because the ship was damaged in a tropical storm a few days out of New York harbor, and the crew opted for a less stormy southern route instead of the North Sea.

A northern route would have trimmed 14 days from the 34-day trip, Solum said.

The ship arrived in Norway on July 17, but the crew agreed to hold off on entering Bergen Harbor until Monday, July 19, so city officials could guarantee some oomph for the celebration.

With winds up to 50 to 60 knots, the tropical storm provided plenty of excitement, he said.

"When you're in the heat of the moment, just trying to survive, you don't think of it much. You work to keep it together," he said.

The objective?

"Keep the pointy side up. Keep the mast in the air," Solum said.

'You couldn't be shy'

The only woman on the 12-person crew was Asp's daughter.

Deb (Asp) Seitz is now a teacher in Northfield, Minn., but she was a 20-year-old college student in 1982.

She had to work for her place on the boat. Some elder members of the board of directors for the Hjemkomst at the time said they wouldn't allow a woman to take the trip, passing a resolution against it.

"My brother, Tom, said don't worry about it. This isn't going to be how the crew is going to be selected," he said. It would be selected by who was best at sailing on Lake Superior.

"You couldn't be shy," Seitz said of her time on the ship. "You just focus on the job you have to do."

Seitz remembers the beauty of the nights on the Atlantic.

"There's no lights on. There are so many stars out there that you never see. The sky was more intense than I'd ever seen before and ever seen since. The sound of the ship creaking. And the waves and the swells."

And the pageantry that marked the end of the voyage.

"One of the most memorable days was the day we reached Norway. To be there. To be done," she said. "That was pretty awesome, pretty exciting."

After arriving in Norway, the Hjemkomst was shipped back to the United States and eventually ended up at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. Seitz said her father would be impressed, proud and pleased with the final berth for his ship.

"The museum is beautiful, and they do a nice job of keeping that story alive and expanding on it," she said.

Solum agrees.

"It's a great centerpiece for a larger vision." Solum said.

Helmut Schmidt reports for the Forum of Fargo, N.D. The Forum and the News Tribune are owned by Forum Communications.

Related Topics: SHIPPING
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