Handmade replica Viking ship takes shape in a San Diego County backyard
Some carpentry buffs spend their retirement years building birdhouses, furniture or jewelry boxes. Tom Kottmeier had bigger plans.
The 76-year-old San Marcos resident has spent much of the past 2½ years building a 33-foot replica Viking ship.
Now in the final stages of construction in a Vista backyard, Kottmeier’s wooden boat was inspired by the famous Gokstad ship, an authentic Viking oar boat excavated from an ancient burial mound in Norway in 1880. Originally built around 750 A.D., the Gokstad ship was a 78-foot, 100-man wooden boat of the style used for Viking raiding expeditions.
Kottmeier is a Swede with a lifelong passion for boating and a deep fascination with Viking culture. His dream is to sail his ship — named Sleipnir, after the Norse god Odin’s magical eight-legged horse — up Sweden’s Göta Canal to Stockholm harbor in 2024.
When asked what he loves most about sailing, Kottmeier answers: “Everything.”
“It’s about the elements. You’re under the power of the winds,” he said, during a break in boat-building on Tuesday. “Sailors say the best thing about boating is when you turn off the engine. Then you’re using the winds to move around.”
Sleipnir (pronounced “slape-near”) isn’t the first Viking ship Kottmeier has built. In Vancouver, B.C., in 2001, he was one of 30 volunteers who helped build a 42-foot replica of the Gokstad ship for the 1,000th anniversary of Eric the Red’s landing in Newfoundland. After the ship, named Munin, was built, Kottmeier served as its skipper for its first season. Ever since then he has been deeply interested in Viking boat-building, history and culture.
Kottmeier said the Vikings started exploring in dugout canoes around 400 A.D., and over the next 500 years they perfected their nautical technology, using boat-building skills and vocabulary that are still in use today. Kottmeier said Vikings were the first seafarers to create a gull-wing-shaped hull that stabilized the boat from tipping over and the first to create distinctive trapezoid-shaped sails that allowed boats to better sail into the wind. Their long wind- and oar-driven boats were also extremely fast — so fast that no other country’s navy could catch them on the water after a raiding expedition.
“My heritage is Swedish and I have always thought the Vikings were part of my ancestry. Their curiosity and spirit of exploration, and their ingenuity in shipbuilding, navigation and trading have always inspired me,” he said.
Kottmeier was born in Argentina to Swedish parents and moved with his family to Vancouver as a boy, where he plied the waters frequently on his father’s motorboats. He built his first of many sailboats at age 17 and sailed frequently throughout his adult life while running a technology sales company in Vancouver. After his year of skippering the Viking boat Munin in Vancouver, he and his wife and fellow Swede, Pia, moved to Santa Barbara in 2003, where he started another technology company. In 2018, he retired and they moved to San Marcos to be closer to Pia’s youngest son, who lives with his family in the 4S Ranch area.
Kottmeier said he talked about building his Viking ship for decades, but he didn’t have a place to do it. Then in January 2020, the Sons of Norway Lodge in Vista offered to let him build the boat on their property, so he got started. Using the plans for Munin, Kottmeier drew up his own design for Sleipnir, which included reducing its size so it could fit inside a 40-foot container for shipment to Sweden.
Kottmeier called the building process a “3-D puzzle” that has come with multiple setbacks because he’s an amateur shipwright. Many times his plans haven’t penciled out properly and he’s had to dismantle and rebuild parts of the boat. Pandemic-related lockdowns also repeatedly shut down the project. But he’s happy with how things have turned out.
Eighteen months into the building project, Kottmeier gave a presentation on the project at a Sons of Norway Lodge dinner and asked for volunteers. Seated at the same table with the Kottmeiers was Ivar Schoenmeyr, a 73-year-old veteran sailor who was born and raised in Sweden and moved to the U.S. nearly 50 years ago. Ever since he met Kottmeier that evening in July 2021, Schoenmeyr has driven down two days a week from his home in San Juan Capistrano to work on the boat with Kottmeier.
“It’s been a learning experience, but it’s very creative work,” said Schoenmeyr, a semi-retired engineer. “We work from a plan but we make mistakes. It can be a bit frustrating, but it’s enjoyable to see the fruits of one’s labor.”
Last fall, the lodge asked Kottmeier to find a new home for his project because they needed the land to host public events. After posting a notice on the Nextdoor app, Kottmeier got numerous offers from homeowners offering their land. He ended up choosing a family of Scandinavian heritage, who have lent a portion of their backyard to Kottmeier for free.
Every weekday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Kottmeier works on the ship. The boat, which is 7 feet, 4 inches wide, has a white oak keel, overlapping Port Orford cedar planking held together with 1,500 copper rivets and a 27-foot fir mast that is reclaimed wood from a former church building.
Upon completion, Sleipnir will weigh from 2,000 to 2,500 pounds. Kottmeier ordered from Hong Kong a trapezoid-shaped, 300-square-foot Dacron sail with Viking-style vertical maroon and cream stripes. He’s also planning to attach the figurehead of a horse to the bow.
The ship is 90% complete. Kottmeier and Schoenmeyr are now finishing the interior framing. Then they will clean up the hull and check for possible leaks. After that, they’ll build the deck and benches, attach the rudder and oars and give everything a few coats of varnish. Hopefully sometime this summer, they’ll tow the boat to a nearby harbor and take Sleipnir on her maiden voyage to test her seaworthiness.
Kottmeier has created a website, vikingshipsleipnir.com, where hobbyists can follow his progress, as the privately owned location of the ship-building project is secret. On the new website he wrote about the reason for this labor of love.
“Guess I was a little boy who wanted to show I could achieve what the big boys did, the Vikings,” he wrote. “Guess I am a bit of a pigheaded Viking, too. Of course I can build a Viking ship!”
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