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1998, Sailing in the Lofoten Islands, Norway

Lofoten Islands off Norway

Rape and pillage were probably the last things on the minds of those crewing the square-sailed longboats racing out of Grotoy on Norway's Arctic coast during the endless days around the summer solstice. It is, after all, some 1,200 years since the Anglo-Saxon chronicles recorded the Viking plunder and slaughter among the monastic community on Lindisfarne.

But, just as something of the wolf remains in the domesticated dog, the Norwegian love of the sea has a strong ancestral lineage. A desire to hold on to traditions was behind the revival of a race to the Lofoten Islands once undertaken by commercial fishermen each year to find the returning shoals of cod.

Today the race is held mainly among modern yachts but there is always a smattering of Viking-style longboats, a design which persisted commercially up to and beyond the turn of the century.

Pitting our ocean-going racer against a longship was hardly fair but neither was pillage in Lindisfarne. We had not planned to join in. It just happened. Besides, it did not seem right to be pottering along the coast in a boat that had twice raced around the world.

Finding it was easy enough. Its 85ft mast towered above the rest at the moorings in Bodo harbour. The paintwork was chipped in places and the mooring warps were chafed but the sponsor's name was still there. It is still called 3Com.

The yacht started life as The Pride of Teesside for Sir Chay Blyth's British Steel round the world challenge. It was renamed for the last challenge race and will soon, no doubt, be renamed again. As a new fleet is built for the next race, the veteran craft are now used almost exclusively for holidays or management training.

Most of those who come on a Challenge Adventure Sailing Week are seeking to sample the experience of traversing the ocean. Crews range from complete novices to those with yacht master certificates and thousands of miles of sailing under their belts. Ours seemed a typical mix.

All had come to experience some hard sailing but the weather had deserted us. It wasn't bad weather. Quite the opposite - days of blue sky and continuous sunshine, but there was little wind. The sea was flat enough to sap the spirit from a spirit-level.

It was like driving your Ferrari to the shops. It looks good, feels good, but you don't find out how it really performs. The vessel was making so little headway that we had time to launch a dinghy and photograph the lighter craft as they glided past like swan feathers on a mill pond.

A gentle breeze wafted us sedately into Henningsvaer, the finishing port, a huddle of red- painted timber houses surrounding quaysides which in winter are crammed with fishing boats. This time they hosted the racing fleet. Its crews celebrated their crossing long into the night where the light never dimmed, bingeing on whale meat and lager.

But no one had been tested. What do you do when there is no wind? Well, you can do what the Lofoten islanders do - go fishing. Dangling a hand line over the side for an hour at anchor brought three large cod.

There seems so much cod around the Lofotens it is surprising the islanders have never discovered fish and chips. Cod is a mainstay of the islands' economy but tourism is equally important to the Lofotens' prosperity. One brings the other. Every village has wooden frames where gutted fish are hung to dry before being taken down for export in mid-June. Most of the dried fish, called stockfish - from the Dutch word stok , meaning pole - is exported to Italy. Some goes to the UK, US, France, Germany and Nigeria.

Tourism is growing, so much so that almost every village has some sort of heritage museum. One community, enigmatically called "A", but pronounced "O", has gone so far as to turn its village into a museum with a working blacksmith's shop and boathouses preserved as they were during their heyday.

These days the fishing boats are mechanised but a century ago the industry relied on open Nordland-type boats that were no match for the fiercest storms. In February 1849, some 500 fishermen were lost on one day in hurricane-force winds.

Many of the Lofoten families will have a fading photograph of at least one male relative who has been lost at sea. The seas around the islands inspired a generation of authors. Jules Verne described the Maelstrom - a strong tidal current between two islands - known for its eddies and whirlpools, as the world's most dangerous stretch of sea.

Verne would have been familiar with the depictions of swirling seas among 16th century cartographers. But reality does not appear to live up to the descriptions. Mark Sadler, 3Com's skipper, said: "We sailed over the spot and never noticed anything. It was perfectly calm."

There is so much tranquillity about the Lofotens it seems difficult to imagine their Viking ancestry, yet at Borg on the island of Vestvagoy, archaeologists unearthed the remains of the largest Viking-age building to be found in Scandinavia.

Further north in Trollfjord it takes far less imagination to picture the return of some longboat from an epic voyage. Sadly, my own imagination has been blurred by Hollywood, invaded by images of Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas in The Vikings.

At least the Hollywood Vikings were able to row their boats. We were forced to motor. No wind, no sails, no horns on our helmets, just sun. Where were the tooth-fronted, tightly knit isobars of a good old roaring depression? You can never rely on the weather.

© Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved