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Helmut Schmidt, Published July 19 2012

Interactive photos: Hjemkomst a 'thing of beauty'

MOORHEAD - It’s been nearly 30 years since Mark Hilde trod the deck of the Hjemkomst, but when he saw the sail Thursday morning, fully unfurled and reaching to the roof of the Hjemkomst Center, a huge smile broke through his bushy beard.

“Now when I saw this here, the first thing I (remembered was) that one rainstorm we had when everybody lined up underneath the sail to get a freshwater bath,” Hilde said. “For some reason. That just came back. That was just so refreshing, you know? After having that stale, salt brine on you for days and days and days. It’s worse than not taking a bath, because it just gets caked on.”

“So when you come under here and get clean. Oooh, that was nice,” he said.

Hilde was 29 when the Hjemkomst sailed on its 34-day voyage from New York to Bergen, Norway, in 1982.

The former first mate (and cook) was in town for the 30th reunion of the crew of the replica Viking long ship, which will be celebrated Saturday at the museum in Moorhead that bears its name, the Hjemkomst Center.

“You can’t beat the design of this. When it’s on a broad reach … it smokes. It goes really fast,” Hilde said of the ship, built by Moorhead resident Bob Asp, a determined dreamer and self-taught ship builder.

“That’s the part I wish I could convey to others. How this boat really cuts through the waves. It’s a thing of beauty. It’s a thing of beauty,” Hilde sad.

‘He was just beamin’

Joining Hilde on the deck of the wooden craft was Lynn Halmrast, a crewmember who braved the tiny ship’s trials in Lake Superior but pulled out of the trans-Atlantic expedition due to safety concerns.

Halmrast was 32 when the crew sailed the Hjemkomst through the Great Lakes to New York.

“You’d be sailing at night with great wind, and I remember sailing through Lake Huron. It was a rush. You’d look up, and the stars would just be sparkling up there. And the sound of the water and the waves,” Halmrast said.

But the maiden voyage on Lake Superior brought a keepsake moment.

“I was right up here handling the shrouds, trying to set that sail. And Larry Moen was the skipper, and he invited Bob Asp to take the helm of the ship for the first time. And I looked back, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” Halmrast said. “He was just beamin’.”

In 1971, Asp began formulating a plan to build a Viking ship. Over nine years, he built it in a potato warehouse in Hawley. It was then moved to Lake Superior for its shakedown cruises and to select a crew.

On June 14, 1982, the ship left New York, arriving in Norway on July 17, before making a grand entry into Bergen harbor July 19.

Modesty can be costly

Just forward of the sail sits a white, five-gallon bucket, all by itself. That’s the bathroom, Hilde said.

Unless of course, you were shy and would take your chances hanging over the side if the boat, Halmrast said.

But privacy had dubious value, they said. On one of the Lake Superior cruises, the skipper at the time ordered a man-overboard test.

“He took the buoy, an orange buoy, and threw it out,” Halmrast said. The crew’s job was to retrieve it.

“We knew that with the temperature of Lake Superior, that you had about 20 minutes before hypothermia would set in and you’d go unconscious,” Halmrast said. “And we were trying to bring it about. Ten minutes, and we lost sight of it (the buoy). That was a pretty telling thing,” Halmrast said. “So when we sit and go to the bathroom, most of us were pretty mindful” and hung on tight, he said.

“Use the bucket, you’re safer. Why take the chance?” Hilde shot back.

“We did have the unique experience of going to the bathroom on a museum piece,” Halmrast said.

A necessary sacrifice

At the time of the voyage, Halmrast had a 5-year-old son.

But accidents on the boat, including a flash fire that injured a crewman, brought home the voyage’s potential dangers.

Halmrast couldn’t chance leaving his son fatherless. He elected to stay in New York before the ship sailed for Bergen.

“I’m extremely appreciative of the rest of you who didn’t have that responsibility that I had,” Halmrast told Hilde on Thursday. “The boy who I had to answer to, who I had to take care of.”

“You saw some of the mishaps,” Hilde responded.

“Exactly. There was a reason that I had to make my decision,” Halmrast said.

Halmrast said it was the right decision.

“It wasn’t easy. And it hasn’t been easy, in some respects. Because a lot of people don’t have the perspective that I think you have,” Halmrast told Hilde.

“You had a part in it. I had a part in it. All the crew members had a part in it. The community had a part in it. And everybody worked for that one dream that Bob had, to build and sail a Viking ship to Norway,” Hilde replied.

Nay to the naysayers

Hilde later asked if Halmrast remembered the manager of the marina at Knife River near Duluth who said they would all die.

“There were a few people that said that,” Halmrast said. “A number of those old sea salts from Lake Superior, they were all saying we were going to die.”

But those negative remarks never fazed Bob Asp, Hilde said.

“He just kind of pretended that like it wasn’t even there. He’d laugh. He knew something that they didn’t know,” Hilde said.

Bob was looking for people who supported his dream, Hilde said. “When he knew you were on that wavelength, he would talk to you,” he said.

Both Hilde and Halmrast said that their favorite post was at the helm, guiding the rudder.

“That’s where the power is on the ship. You feel the ship there,” Halmrast said.

The worst spot was just a few yards forward of the rudder, manning the hand pump to clear the water that accumulated in the bottom of the boat.

“You do that for a half hour, you get a workout. You’re onboard the ship. You can’t run. What are you going to do?” Hilde said.

Hilde did get to man the helm when the Hjemkomst moved into Oslo harbor and approaching the dock.

“Everybody’s rowing. I’m hollering out cadence. Stroooke. Up! Stroooke up!

“That was the accomplishment of Bob’s dream, right there. So ended the journey,” Hilde said.

And from that journey, the Hjemkomst Center has sprung, Hilde said.

“We’re still here as a part of the Hjemkomst dream. And we still will be until we get to heaven,” Halmrast added.

If you go

What: The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County will host a 30th Anniversary Celebration of the Hjemkomst expedition.

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hjemkomst Center, 202 1st Ave. N., Moorhead

Info: The event kicks off with the grand opening of the new exhibit, “The Hjemkomst Sagas: One Dream, A Viking Ship, Many Stories.”

Panel discussion: Former crew members and family of Hjemkomst builder Robert Asp will tell stories and answer questions from 1 to 3 p.m. A public reception follows at 3 p.m., with a raffle drawing at 4 p.m.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583