by Rita Leydon ©1997
History is old stories and stuff that lived in the past. Dead memories and such that have passed their expiration dates. Forgotten skills, arts and crafts engaged in by long gone ancestors. Dreams and visions of those who reside mostly beneath mossy tombstones. Boring. Dull. I hated history in high school.
However, I notice that history is becoming more and more intriguing as it and I ripen simultaneously. I am increasingly fascinated by ancient disciplines. For example: I study, collect and dance old polskas from rural 18th and 19th century Sweden. I am learning to play the nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle), a bowed instrument from northern Uppland dating back to the 1300s. I spin yarn from the wool of my own sheep and weave fabric on my floor loom. I make cheese when there is too much milk, and help ewes through difficult breech births. I like knowing how things function and doing it myself. My husband, Chris, is of a similar bend. We celebrate and applaud individual initiative and creativity beyond all else. Chris resurrects long dead racing automobiles. The rush of driving a 1931 Bugatti at full throttle as if you are Tazio Nuvolari himself has no comparison among the current crop of bland rubber treads. “Now” and “then” are intertwined and coexist all around me. I am constantly exploring new frontiers amidst the old. Is there any difference? Old for one is new for another. Old hat, and all that.
This brings me to one evening last week. Chris and I motored south via I-95, past Philadelphia to Wilmington, Delaware. I never even noticed Wilmington before! Our destination was the Kalmar Nyckel Shipyard on the Christina River, a tributary of the Delaware. A brochure unbelievably depicting the handbuilding of a 17th century type ship had found its way into my hands and ignited my curiosity. Images of the warship Wasa in Stockholm sailed through my mind. I had trudged through the hair killing misty vapors that enveloped Wasa in the first years of her liberation from the murky depths, and swelled with national pride and fascination on subsequent visits as Wasa ever so slowly dried out and released her secrets. Is this Kalmar Nyckel a similar ship?
I have felt a personal connection to the Wasa. The fact that she is history hasn’t gotten in the way of our relationship. Among the many excellent displays at the Wasa Museum is a series of detailed miniature dioramas showing all the stages of construction of a state-of-the-art 17th century wooden ship. You start with careful tree selection in the forest—knees of certain angles come to mind. There is much sawing to be done. Little miniature men are hard at work. Physical labor. Harsh conditions. Blacksmiths pump bellows and strike sparks against their anvils. Sailmakers cut and stitch with awls pressed against their hardened palms. Rope twiners create miles of coiled rigging. The air is infused with the smell of sawdust mixed with tar and pitch. Crusty Old Salts with bushy eyebrows hang around puffing their pipes. I have secretly indulged in private moments pretending to be small, wandering around among these laborers, lending my hand where it was needed, wearing sweat and grime with pleasure. Bearing witness.
The Kalmar Nyckel Shipyard in Wilmington, which Chris and I stumbled into last week is the real thing. A blood and guts, full size diorama in action. The operative word being “action.” Boy, were we surprised! Stunned. Awed. Amazed. Excited beyond expression! Before us rose a three story tall assemblage of scaffolding, beautiful in its disposable utility, sticks and stairs tenderly embracing and supporting a ship in the making. Stem, stern and everything in between. Gallantly standing there, virtually complete, full of certitude and yet slightly demure behind the veil. Instant recognition bubbled up from my center. I felt an unmistakable kinship with this ship’s looming countenance. Smelled fine hardwoods from the far corners of the globe. A carved lion, fierce with his nose into the wind—temporarily in bright red undergarments prior to his gold leaf treatment—proudly straddled the base of the future bow sprit. A full complement of graduated ribs gave sensuous form to the hull. Partially dressed in planking, she sits patiently as the remaining tasks are accomplished board by board. Her sloping stern section dispassionately anticipates application of the ornately carved and gilded coat of arms being prepared by a cadre of Master and Apprentice carvers.
We circumambulate the structure, mouths agape, uttering “can’t-believe-its” between every other phrase. Ordinary flesh and blood people—not any different from you and I—are building this recreation of the Kalmar Nyckel from scratch under the watchful eye of their Master Ship Builder. Does one look in the phone book under “M” or “S” to find such a person? Only wonderfully crazy people conceive and live a dream like this. People with guts, courage and heart. And money. Lots of money. Knowledge and research. Man and woman power. Sweat and calories. Frustration and elation.
Adjacent to the scaffold encased hull are supporting workshops. The blacksmithy. The carvers’ atelier. The sailmaker’s domain with its huge expanse of open floor for laying out and cutting the yards of sail cloth. The rope twiner’s long shed for preparing the block and tackle for rigging and six miles of rope! This is the summer of 1997, but our time seems to be a little wrinkled. Might we be in a maritime warp?
This new ship, Kalmar Nyckel II, has been under active construction for just two years. She will be authentic in every detail—93 feet on deck, 136 feet fully rigged, beam of 25 feet, with a displacement of 317 tons. Plenty of fanfare and pomp and circumstance is planned for her September 28th launch. Kalmar Nyckel II will join the exclusive ranks of Sea Worthy Tall Ships when she is commissioned in the spring of 1998, coinciding with her original landing—on the same spot—360 years earlier. Part of the dream is to sail her to Sweden. She will need a Captain and an able bodied crew. Where do I apply? Can I bring my nyckelharpa?
Kalmar Nyckel. The name means the Key of Kalmar, a city on Sweden’s southeastern Baltic coast. She is Sweden’s answer to the Mayflower. In 1637, a colonial charter was granted under the Swedish child queen, Christina, encouraging trade, settlement and “the spreading of the gospel.” The three masted original Kalmar Nyckel brought the first permanent European settlers from Sweden to the Delaware Valley in the year 1638. This stuff is a little too historical for my taste, but you might like to know a bit of her background. Kalmar Nyckel is the only colonial vessel to successfully complete more than two trips to the New World, four in fact—eight crossings of the North Atlantic. A remarkable feat considering all the nasty variables inherent in wind dependent locomotion over uncivilized water-—be it the 17th century or the 20th.
The Kalmar Nyckel Shipyard welcomes your visit.