Vikings to set sail from Stony Creek

The beginnings of a Viking boat replica taking shape in the shop of Matthew Barnes in Stony Creek, Conn. Photo by Susan Cornell

July 2022

By Susan Cornell

Matthew Barnes’ passion for nautical is tattooed into his forearm, with the latitude and longitude of his home port, Stony Creek, at Connecticut’s Thimble Islands. A wooden boat builder, Barnes has been a woodworker for most of his life. In the summer of 2016, he had the opportunity to apprentice at the Viking Ship Museum in Denmark and travel around Scandinavia. During this time, he fell in love with the people, culture, craftsmanship, and work ethic of the region. Now, he’s brought his skills and passion back home, where he is building a Viking ship replica from scratch and all by hand.

Barnes worked for some of the biggest names in the boat building and ship restoration industry before forming Leetes Island Boatworks. He was the lead shipwright of the restoration of the Mayflower II at Mystic Seaport and lead carpenter at the Service Yard at Morris Yachts.

Barnes teaches and lectures on traditional Viking shipbuilding techniques. When he’s not building boats, teaching, or lecturing, he’s creating furniture, custom woodworking, and buildouts through his other company, Håndlavet, which translates to Hand Made in Danish.

Points East chatted with the busy builder.

Points East: How did you get started in building and restoring wooden ships?

Barnes: I’ve been in the marine trades for almost 25 years. When I was 11, I started working on the Sea Mist, which is our boat that goes around the Thimble Islands. I spent every summer doing that for almost 10 years. After high school, it was pretty clear that college was not my path, so I spent the next five or six years traveling and working, mainly working for a small boat yard in Westbrook.

At 25, I enrolled at the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS), which is a two-year trade school in Newport that teaches traditional wooden boat building and restoration. After graduating from IYRS, I spent a year and a half up on Mount Desert Island working for Morris Yachts, then came back to Connecticut and worked for myself for a while.

Eventually, I ended up at the Mystic Seaport Museum. I was hired for six months to help finish the Charles W. Morgan restoration, and I ended up working there for almost eight years… The Museum is where I really learned about and fell in love with traditional shipbuilding; apprenticing under the master shipwrights that worked there was an education that I really couldn’t get anywhere else. Now I co-own Leetes Island Boatworks with my partner Tucker Yaro, where we specialize in wooden boat building, restoration, and maintenance based in Guilford and Stony Creek.

Points East: Why are you building a Viking ship?

Barnes: Why not, ha-ha … But really, we have been commissioned by a non-profit that focuses on veteran outreach.

Points East: What tools do you use, and what were the traditional building methods used in the construction of a ship during the Viking Age?

Barnes: Mainly the axe. During the Viking Age, this was the primary tool for ship and boat construction. With no real access to saws for milling timber, the planks are “cleaved” out of whole logs. This is the process of driving wedges down the length of the log and splitting the log into 16 pieces. These would then be “hewn” down to a 20 mm thick, flat plank. The process of cleaving a plank makes the strongest and most flexible piece of lumber you could find. It allows the lumber to split along its natural grain, keeping all the long grain or “lignin” intact. Lignin is essentially the muscles within the tree … All the other structural parts of the ship (e.g., floors and knees) were hewn from natural growths or crooks in the tree – all almost 100 percent done with an axe.

Other tools used were bow drills, scrapers, crude forms of small planes, and simple chisels. They used a variety of hammers for riveting the ship together. Ships were riveted with a type of iron called “bog iron,” which was commonly used in Viking age Scandinavia. The spars were mainly made of clear fir or oak, and the sails were made of flax and later rumored to be made of silk. Rope and line were made of horsehair and other natural fibers. Caulking was made of tarred lanolin wool (the traditional form of caulking for a Viking ship, made from lamb’s wool).

For our build, we will be using slightly more modern materials. We are using copper rivets instead of iron, tarred oakum for caulking, and our rigging will be made of Vintage 3-Strand line (a modern rope provided by New England Ropes. It looks very similar to traditional line but is much stronger and lighter).

This is all to improve performance, safety, and the longevity of the boat. But the building methods will be as close as we can get to what was done in the Viking Age.

Points East: What does the process of building a Viking ship replica here in the Northeast entail?

Barnes: The Northeast has a very old tradition of boat building. Not Viking old, but old in its own right. The tradition of skill and craftsmanship are the same, and a lot of the methods are the same. The principles of shaping a timber by hand for the Charles W. Morgan and the Mayflower are the same as the Gislinge.* It all starts with a log, and then there are a series of steps to achieve your goal. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century shipbuilders relied more heavily on the adz and less on the axe for shaping and also had saws and mills for lumber, but mostly the skills are the same. (An adz is an edge tool used in shipbuilding and timber framing. It’s essentially a large chisel with lipped sides on a curved handle, kind of like a garden hoe in looks but made for woodworking).

* The Gislinge Boat was a 7.7m long working boat, most likely used for fishing and the transport of people, livestock, and goods around the coastal settlements of the Lammefjord. It was uncovered in 1993 during drainage works north of the village of Gislinge, on the island of Sjælland in Denmark. The boat has been dated back to 1130 A.D.

Points East: Where, when, and how will you launch her?

Barnes: We will be launching right where we are building her, at Bradley & Waters Marine Railway in Stony Creek. They are a small yard and railway on the coast that we operate out of. Surrounded by the Thimble Islands, you couldn’t ask for a better place to build and restore boats. We will launch right off the marine rail and plan to launch sometime mid-to late summer.

Points East: What is it like apprenticing at the Viking Ship Museum in Denmark?

Barnes: Apprenticing at the Museum in Denmark was like no other experience. At the time, I was working for the Mystic Seaport Museum. I was fortunate enough to have been awarded the Mallory Fellow Ship Grant, which is given by the Museum to one of its employees to travel and work with another foreign museum or institution. While I was there, I worked and lived with the boat builders being fully immersed in the job and the history. They are the kindest people, taking me right in despite not speaking the language. Their passion for the craft and history was inspiring, the Danes take a lot of pride in their work, and I couldn’t help but feel part of it.

Points East: Are you Danish and/or a descendant of Vikings?

Barnes: No. Well, I mean, I have descendants from Viking Age Europe, mainly from Britain and Germany, so probably at some point, but no real known connection. I just really like their style.

Points East: What are some of the Norse effects on wooden boat building today, and how is building a Viking ship similar and different from restoring the Mayflower II?

Barnes: The Norse people of the Viking Age have had a huge and lasting effect on wooden boat building today. We can see it in almost any “clinker” or “lapstrake” boat. Their westward expansion, and later their southern and westward expansion, revolutionized boat building, seafaring, and trade as we know it today. The construction method of their ships, from the method of cleaving and the knowledge of wood and how it works, too, arguably, inventing the modern keel and mastering the square rig sail, made it possible to cross the oceans and explore the inland waterways of almost half the world. It also had a lot to do with how ships were built as a defense. If you look at a ship like the Mayflower, she has these high aft- and forecastles; these were designed to defend from the more quick and maneuverable longboats of the Viking Age.

Points East: How is restoring and building boats similar and different from creating handmade furniture?

Barnes: Ha-ha, furniture is profitable… But really, at first sight, woodwork is really their connection. Milling, shaping, cutting, sanding, all this stuff goes hand-in-hand, with the main differences being that boats are round, and most tables are square. Oh, and I also don’t need to make sure a table floats. I guess that’s a big one.

Mainly the two are most connected in a metaphysical way. We are all, by nature, trying to create and create well. Whether it’s building a beautiful boat that will physically take you somewhere or a beautiful piece of furniture that will emotionally take you somewhere, the process and the commitment are the same. The Norse people completely believed that you will only be known for what you do in this life and that what you leave behind will define how you will be remembered.

Points East: If someone wanted to purchase a Viking ship from you, what would it cost?

Barnes: If someone wanted to commission a Gislinge boat built in the same manner, it would be over $100,000. Building this boat is incredibly labor intensive. We are building everything from scratch, all by hand. From hammering the 600 copper rivets and roves to making the sails, we are doing it all. It’s an estimated 2,000 manhours, if you don’t count all the times I have to stop and explain exactly ‘what the hell’ we are doing… ha-ha.

Follow Barnes and his project on Instagram at how_not_to_build_a_boat

A resident of Essex, CT, contributor Susan Cornell is an independently contracted writer, photographer, and marketing and public relations consultant who has written for Points East for nearly 20 years. She enjoys kayaking, sailing, hiking, travel and Puggles (dog Bailey has appeared MANY times in PE, and before that it was Salty, a Westie who wasn’t so salty based on the number of times she’d get seasick.