Viking ship’s crew tangled in red tape, seeking out the blues

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Torben Hildemar is captain of the Draken Harald Hårfagre. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

The crew of the Viking ship that pulled into Navy Pier on Wednesday did not honor ancestral tradition by immediately raiding the Giordano’s Pizza that was within spitting distance of their dock.

Instead, all 32 crew members paid homage by drinking a shot of whiskey to celebrate safe landing.

They deserved it. It’s been a trying week for the folks aboard the 115-foot Draken Harald Hårfagre.

After traveling to the Great Lakes from Norway, the crew found out last week they were required by law to have a pricey navigational pilot on board.

The cost — estimated at more than $400,000 — threatened to 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.

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. waters.

As word of their plight spread, donations poured in — totaling about $100,000 as of Thursday. It will be enough to leave Sunday after the Pepsi Tall Ships festival and carry on to their next scheduled stop in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The ship will speed there under engine power to cut down on the pilot’s hours.

“It kills the crew because they want to sail,” captain Bjorn Ahlander said.

Whether they’ll reach Duluth, Minnesota, after that is up in the air.

“We hope, but we’re not sure,” Ahlander said. “We’re not blaming anyone. We feel like we’ve let people down, and we’re ashamed we have to beg for money like this.”

It’s not all bad.

A bunch of guys on the crew know Chicago as the “home of the blues” and are eager to check out the city’s blues scene. Members of the crew asked anyone they encountered: “Do you know where we can go see the blues? Like any underground spots for great blues music?”

“We went to Buddy Guy’s bar last night,” said Torben Hildemar, 51, a Swede who’s spent many hours of the voyage jamming with shipmates on a harmonica. They usually form a circle on the boat’s bow, under a carved wooden dragon’s head — the ancient seafaring equivalent of a hood ornament.

Sailors from eight nations make up the crew. “We end up speaking a form of Vikingesque gibberish,” joked Sarah Blank, a spokeswoman for the ship.

A storage room below deck holds a cache of musical instruments.

“Everything is a little bit more expensive in Scandinavia,” explained crew member Woodrow Wiest, 34, a Pennsylvania native. “So the crew keeps going to these little music stores and picking up instruments.”

Draken Harald Harfagre crew members (from left) Woodrow Wiest, Bjorn Ahlander, Sarah Blank and Dag Sjovold. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Draken Harald Harfagre crew members (from left) Woodrow Wiest, Bjorn Ahlander, Sarah Blank and Dag Sjovold. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

The Draken Harald Harfagre, a 115-foot Viking ship, is docked at Navy Pier. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

The Draken Harald Harfagre, a 115-foot Viking ship, is docked at Navy Pier. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

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