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The time a high school guidance counselor built a Viking ship to sail to Norway

While recovering from a fall in 1971, Robert Asp read a book on Viking shipbuilding. This sparked a thought.

Robert Asp dreamed of building and sailing a Viking ship as a way to connect with his Norwegian heritage. He read several books on the subject while recovering from a broken leg after a fall. Once recovered, he began working on the ship in earnest. Asp chose for his ship the name Hjemkomst, a Norwegian word that means homecoming, and set his plan to sail the Atlantic Ocean into action.

In July 1972, the first lumber was milled at Harvey Engen’s sawmill north of Viking, Minnesota. Asp personally selected each White Oak tree that was milled. He estimated that fifteen trees would be needed to build a Viking ship; ultimately, over one hundred were needed. He chose an old potato warehouse in Hawley, Minnesota, to house the ship and leased it from the city for $10 per year. Renovations transformed the Welter Potato Warehouse into the newly minted Hawley Shipyard.

Asp was diagnosed with leukemia in 1974 but never lost sight of finishing his dream ship. It took six years for him and his volunteers to complete. The finished ship featured the horned head of a dragon, which the crew named Igor, at the bow. Sleeping quarters, along with a stove, water, food, sea anchor, and inflatable life boat, were all outfitted on the ship. The center mast was 63 feet tall and supported a thirty-foot-by-forty-foot main sail and a ten-foot-by-thirty-foot top sail.

On July 17, 1980, the Hjemkomst made her debut and was presented to a cheering public. The ship was towed overland from Hawley to Duluth and first set sail in Duluth Harbor on August 9, 1980. Over 4,000 spectators witnessed the maiden voyage. The crew trained for weeks on Lake Superior for their journey to Norway.

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Robert Asp took his last trip on his dream ship in Duluth Harbor on September 27, 1980. He died of leukemia later that year on Dec. 27. After his death, his family and friends remained committed to keeping his dream of sailing the Hjemkomst to Norway alive.

The Hjemkomst and crew on open water during their voyage to Norway, 1982.
Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County
The Hjemkomst and crew on open water during their voyage to Norway, 1982.
In May of 1982, a crew of 13, including four of Robert’s children, began the voyage from Duluth to Norway. The first leg of the journey took them through the Great Lakes, where they stopped in several port cities for celebrations. The Hjemkomst arrived in New York City on June 8, 1982. The ship sailed around the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and then embarked on its cross-Atlantic journey.

A few days out of New York, the crew encountered a storm. When the winds and waves caused damage to the ship, including a crack that ran fourteen feet along the keel, the crew considered turning around. However, their experienced Norwegian skipper determined that they could continue on.

During the following weeks, the crew sailed and entertained themselves by writing in journals, playing cards, water skiing off the back of the ship, and playing guitar and singing. On July 19, 1982, the crew arrived in Bergen, Norway. Family and friends had flown to Norway to greet them and locals came out in large crowds. The crew was honored in many celebrations, including a royal visit with the king of Norway on his yacht. The Hjemkomst fulfilled Robert Asp’s dream by reaching its final destination of Oslo, Norway, on August 9, 1982.

The Hjemkomst was stored in Oslo for one year after the voyage, then transported from Norway to Cleveland, Ohio, aboard a freight ship in August 1983. It was towed from Cleveland to Detroit, Michigan, and transported by truck back to Minnesota.

In 1986, the Asp family donated the Hjemkomst to the City of Moorhead. The city built a visitors’ center to preserve the ship, tell the tale of the voyage, and keep Robert Asp’s dream alive for future generations. The Hjemkomst was taken into the care of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County and installed in a museum (the Hjemkomst Center).

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.