Sailors battle costs, regulations to bring Viking ship to Chicago

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The Draken Harald Harfagre sails through Independence Bridge in Bay City, Michigan. | Jacob Hamilton/The Bay City via AP

It’s easy to imagine what Norwegian Vikings might have done if they’d encountered the same bureaucratic mess that’s threatening to sideline a reconstructed Viking ship on its journey to Navy Pier to join a fleet of tall ships.

While docked in Bay City, Michigan, the crew of a 115-foot vessel found out last week that they were required by law to have a pricey navigational pilot on board while traveling the Great Lakes in U.S. waters.

The cost — estimated at more than $400,000 — will break the budget of the ship and jeopardize its plan to visit several other Great Lakes ports before heading east to spend the winter in Mystic, Connecticut.

“There are no boxes to check for Viking ships when you apply for things,” said Sarah Blank, a spokeswoman for the ship, which is scheduled to arrive in Chicago on Wednesday, July 27.

Lorne Thomas, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, said trip organizers apparently ran afoul by assuming U.S. law included a similar exemption that was granted to the vessel by Canada, where the ship had been before entering U.S. territory.

“A foreign flag ship needs to have a pilot on ship the entire time,” Thomas said.

A fundraising effort by a Norwegian American group in Minneapolis called the Sons of Norway has raised more than $68,000 to help cover the cost. It’s unclear if the crew will have to cut short their trip, which calls for visits to several cities, including Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota, after departing Chicago.

“We don’t blame the Coast Guard or the pilots or anyone actually. . . . It’s an unfortunate mishap,” said Blank, who is optimistic a solution will present itself.

“We are not out of struggles yet,” she said. “We really hope we are going to make this work. We really want to continue. But as of right now we are only a go for Chicago.”

The Viking ship — full name: Draken Harald Hårfagre — is capable of drawing power three different ways: from sails, engines or 100 oarsmen.

There are no comfy quarters in the ships belly. It’s crew sleeps in tents on the ship’s deck.

The project was financed by Norwegian businessman Sigurd Aase, spawned by childhood dreams of his seafaring ancestors.

The ship is scheduled to be in Chicago from July 27 to 31 for Pespi Tall Ships Chicago 2016, an event that invites the public, for a fee, to check out the ships and even go for a sail.

But the Draken and its 32 crew members might remain at port to save money. Every minute they are not docked they must pay the navigational pilot that’s now on board.

The pilot is required to help navigate tricky situations, such as crowded ports or tight waterways, the Coast Guard’s Thomas said. The requirement is generally meant for commercial ships.

Blank acknowledged the law, but said: “We have a very skilled captain and crew with knowledge of the Great Lakes. We don’t really use the pilot that much.”

It’s possible a pilot could work on a pro-bono basis, said Paul Anderson, Honorary Consul General from Norway to Illinois. “But it would take a very special pilot to want to do that.”

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