Lines of blood and water connect Seattle, Scandinavia



A tour boat takes tourists through a canal by Copenhagen’s Nyhavn, a centuries-old sailors street near the city center.

COPENHAGEN — I came to visit Denmark, but somehow I feel like I’m in Ballard. It’s not so much the pickled herring, which you can find on Market Street, or the wienerbrod, which is a dead ringer for the wares of Larsen’s Bakery up on 24th Avenue Northwest. It’s the boats.

A rich vein of Scandinavian culture runs through Seattle, and a visit to the Emerald City’s Nordic homeland shows how much the two places share an affinity for floating craft. The Danish, Norwegian and Swedish love of the water is running strong here after more than 1,000 well-documented years, and it takes little imagination to see how many of the same maritime traditions have made it to Seattle’s ship canal, Shilshole Bay, Poulsbo and beyond.

Just this month a boat called the Sea Stallion left for Ireland from Roskilde, a town half an hour from here. The boat is a replica of Skuldelev 2, an oceangoing longship that Vikings built near Dublin in 1042. The original Skuldelev 2 is one of five ships discovered near Roskilde in the 1960s. With room for 70 warriors, it is a classic representation of the craft that Vikings used to dominate trade, exploration and general malfeasance around northern Europe for three centuries.

The Battle of Hastings pretty much ended the Viking era in 1066, but Scandinavian sea power continued for centuries more.

“The Dano-Norwegian Empire was the second maritime nation after Britain,” said Erik Sundholm, vice president of Harris Electric, a Ballard-based marine electrical supplier and contractor, and holder of a University of Washington master’s degree in Scandinavian area studies. At its peak, said Sundholm, the empire included Norway, southern Sweden, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands, the Orkney Islands and Greenland.

The Dano-Norwegian fleet was substantial enough to give the English a serious run for the money in the first Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. British Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson got the upper hand in part by putting a scope to his blind eye — hence the expression — so he could ignore a flag ordering him to withdraw from battle. The Dano-Norwegian fleet was strong enough six years later that the British feared it would fall into Napoleon’s hands, so the Brits attacked Copenhagen.

While its maritime military power waned, Scandinavia’s marine-merchant power remained. Danish-based Maersk is the largest shipping company in the world, and its turquoise-hulled ships and containers are a common sight on Puget Sound as they steam in and out of their Port of Tacoma terminal. The line’s owner, Arnold Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, is Denmark’s richest or second-richest man, depending on whom you ask.

A traveler with boats on the brain can fill several vacations chasing down maritime treasures here. Copenhagen has a naval museum, Roskilde has its Viking ships and the national maritime museum is out by the castle Shakespeare made famous in “Hamlet.” In &Aelig;eroskøbing, a truly quaint village reached only by ferry or other boat, I schlepped my family to the “Flask Peter” Museum, which houses hundreds of the 1,700 ships-in-bottles that Peter Jacobsen built until his death in 1960.

Up north in Jutland, I was visiting yet another of the country’s incredible granite-and-brick churches when I found myself once again taking a picture of a massive ship model hanging from the ceiling. Henning Thalund, keeper of a modest Web site on the subject (, estimates there are about 1,300 Danish church ships hanging either as decorations, memorials, gestures of gratitude or religious symbols.

Small wonder, then, that so much of Seattle’s own Dano-Norwegian empire should have some connection to the sea.

Gordon Strand, business manager for the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard, recalled that his Norwegian grandfather Chris Nelson led the local fishing fleet into Fishermen’s Terminal when it opened in 1913. Behind him were 200 or so other boats, many of which were sailed by fellow Scandinavians.

“That’s what they knew,” said Strand. “My dad came from a shipbuilding family in Norway and came in the ’20s and that’s what he gravitated to.”

His father’s original name was Fiskerstrand, as in fisherman’s beach, but immigration officials changed it to Strand as he came through Ellis Island. Other Scandinavian names have arrived intact, not the least of which is Hansen, as in Sig, Norman and Edgar of the F/V Northwestern and the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” As they note on their Web site, the brothers Hansen “are continuing in the family tradition of commercial fishing that started in Norway four generations ago.”

Eric Sorensen, who is of Danish descent, and whose family name originally had a slash through the “o,” sails out of Edmonds, home to a lot of Norwegians. You can reach him through his Web site, www.ericsorensen.netLink to story

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One Response to Lines of blood and water connect Seattle, Scandinavia

  1. I’d LOVE to go to this…..for the Norwegian ballads. LOL.

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