A Modern Day Viking

Travelers’ Tales Solas Gold Medal

The sea raged in mythical proportions and I set my sights on the distant horizon. I am a modern day Viking on the high seas. The crew call came just before Christmas and I was more than ready; this was just what I wanted to bring in 2016 and get back to the “hard ways” and turn my “husky “physique back into a fine-tuned warrior’s body.

Vikings sailors needed: Thirty-two volunteer crew members needed to sail an original Viking knarr from Greenland to Vine Land (L’Anse aux Meadows). Extreme hardships, open deck berthing in the north seas, rationed food, and long hours, with minimal sleep. Must have deck and navigation skills.

11 a.m. intercom announcement: “Hola…This is Luigi your cruise director with today’s activities and distractions. Come on people, if you’re bored, you’re boring.”

I roll over in my bunk, slightly hungover, severely sunburnt, and look out the porthole. What the hell has happened to me? I find it nearly incomprehensible that I am in Patagonia on a high-end Celebrity cruise ship called Infinity. The news and opportunity came out of the blue; a message from the World Explorers Bureau asking if my wife Siffy and I would be interested in lecturing on a cruise ship going around Cape Horn in South America. I am supposed to be on a wooden knarr off the coast of Greenland. Yes, the bed is nice and I haven’t slept this well in years, the food is nearly always of Michelin five star quality, swimming pools and Jacuzzis await my arrival, and a global staff kisses my ass at every possible opportunity.

But, but, how could I turn down a seafaring journey around Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan. How could I?

The New Year rolled around and I still hadn’t heard back from the Viking voyage; I had sent a long and emotional resume outlining my Norwegian genetic abilities, years at sea as a navigator and commercial fisherman, and strongly relayed the message that I was a Viking sailor who “worked hard and played hard.” I smugly felt that I was a shoe-in, given my practical credentials and my mythical Tor Torkildson name. It is hard to be patient when you want something so badly. It had been years since I truly pushed my envelope and thoughts of the raging north seas had me guzzling mead and musing into the New Year.

My face and body are nearly unrecognizable in the morning mirror. I have a severe sunburn- my lips are peeling off, and the pain all over my body is excruciating. This was to be expected living out on the open decks of a knarr. We had sailed out of Valparaiso on the Infinity on a clear and blistering hot day. Six hours of sipping white Chilean wine while lounging poolside had truly done a number on me!

New Year’s morning I receive a message that I hadn’t ‘made the cut’ to crew on the Viking knarr. There had been over five thousand applicants and only thirty two positions; I am devastated and feel old. I think back to my swashbuckling days in the Navy navigating the high seas of the world; standing on the bridge, looking out over the ‘Infinite’ horizon, and feeling the inner strength of the sea. Working hard at sea and playing hard in port, young and buff, confident and loving the simple life.

I am on the Celebrity stage in front of several hundred ‘Cruisers’ expounding on my adventures in the Himalaya, wearing a suit coat, and thoroughly enjoying myself. The presentation goes well and a group gathers in front of the stage afterwards to ask me questions.

I feel a little bit like a celebrity. I am invited to the exclusive lounge for a drink and a round of storytelling with the Fortune 500 club members.

Swigging a Bombay gin and tonic with a group of millionaires initially feels a bit odd, yet; I quickly begin to enjoy myself and end up becoming a regular at the club’s happy hour. I sort of feel like Dr. Livingston. The next day I join the blind wine tasting with the ship’s sommelier; our group is twenty strong and we are presented six glasses of wine, three white, and three red. After initial instruction we swirl, peer at, smell, and sip the wines. I am the only one in the group that finishes each glass of the expensive wine (each bottle I will find out costs over two hundred dollars.) Afterwards, I head out on deck to watch the passing Patagonian glaciers and breathe in the salt air. My mind wanders.

My fingers firmly grip the wooden rudder handle of the knarr. My face is red and wind burnt. Waves crash over the bow. I am bone tired and thirsty. Soon I will be relieved of my rudder watch and will catch a few hours of sleep on the deck covered in my rain gear. There will be oatmeal for breakfast and bannock for lunch to look forward to.

The menu has ten appetizers to choose from and eight main courses, which change daily, and are paired with the proper wine.

“Rudy, please give me the escargot, and the duck pate for starters. Oh…and the rack of lamb grilled in the rosemary sauce with a side of lobster. Cab will do tonight.”

After dinner we take in a show in the big theater; one night it is a 70’s musical, the next night a magician, and on another a famous acrobat dance couple from Russia. Later, we might go dancing in the Constellation lounge or have drinks in the martini ice bar.

Everywhere I go people stop me and ask about Tibet, my adventures, and how to purchase the books that I have written.

As the days pass my dress pants grow tight and I resort to sweat pants when not in a formal situation. Initially, I had planned to use the ship’s extensive workout facilities and watch every sunrise and sunset. Sleeping in turned out to be a better idea; the rocking of the ship is so calming and the breakfast options tantalizing.

After weeks of very little sleep I am growing weary and hunger for a warm bed and a hot meal. We are weeks away from our destination and there are days when the seas are so rough that eating is out of the question. I have lost twenty pounds and my gut is disappearing rapidly.

The ship makes port calls every other day and provides shore excursions to view penguins and sea lions, kayak, ride horses with the gauchos, visit vineyards, or hike around Patagonia’s parks. Not wanting to be part of the “pack” I venture out with my wife Siffy to explore on our own. One day we four wheel into a remote area outside of Ushuaia, to go trekking in the pouring rain, and enjoy feeling the weather of Patagonia on our faces. Another day we ride horses with several swarthy gauchos across the pampas and grill huge chucks of meat on their parilla. We dance the tango in Buenos Aires, munch on crab stew in Puntas Arenas, and hit the beaches in Uruguay.

After weeks at sea we duck into a small inlet and go ashore to explore. It is freezing cold and there are no trees to provide firewood. Our food supplies have run short and we collect as many berries as possible. I have lost twenty-eight pounds and weigh less than I did in high school. A polar bear scares us back onboard the knarr. We still have so far to go before we reach L’ Anse aux Meadows. The crew is so tired and weak that we can hardly manage to speak to each other.

We must call on our true and innate heroism to survive. We are the only human beings for hundreds of miles.

While cruising around the calm seas near Cape Horn all hell breaks loose. Siffy is onstage giving a presentation on the explorer Annie Peck when suddenly the ship starts to buck and groan. Siffy holds it together and gives a wonderful lecture, while I notice several folks in the audience run out seasick. I feel a little wicked inside and secretly grow excited and imagine the ship sinking and my brave rescue efforts. After the lecture we go out on deck; the sea is indeed raging away with white caps and heavy rollers.

“Torkildson…my gawd man, take the rudder, and get us out of this maelstrom.” The North Sea is awash and confused and our knarr seems as if it will crack in half. I am the only one left of the crew that can manage the rudder. I feel alive with my Vikingness.

Back on the Infinity we join the “gang” at the club for a final round of drinks and discuss the stock market, Donald Trump, and our next cruise. For dinner we have Argentine T-bones, seafood salad, and a bottle of aged Brunello. Many Cruisers stop by to chat like old friends and we compare meals and side trips. We exchange email addresses and plan to meet again. Before disembarking from the ship, Luigi flags us down and asks if we’d be interested in joining a cruise the following week in the Caribbean. We mull this over and he emphasizes that there will be a room upgrade and all expenses paid.

“Thank you for the offer, however, our interests lie in the Arctic, Antarctic, and the South Pacific. Fair winds and following seas Luigi.”

We will miss his smile and energy (one day we saw him teaching a tango class, running a jeopardy-like show, introducing a naturalist program, and on the ship’s in-house TV station talking about tours).

I have gained ten pounds and couldn’t be happier, that is, until I step off that gangway and return to reality. This cruising business has truly been a new adventure for us, something we would have never thought to do in our wildest imaginations, yet we know that trying something new always has its rewards and insights. Yes, we would do it again, and find new ways to explore the world while cruising. This journey down to Patagonia has inspired future travels for us in the wilds of South America and we will be back. It is tough being a modern day Viking, real tough. –Tor Torkildson