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Viking ship replica renovation begins
By Susan Sarkauskas | Daily Herald Staff

Mike Killackey of Methods & Materials grinds a piece of steel for a brace as work is done to repair and restore the 115-year-old replica of a 9th-century Viking ship in Geneva. The ship is being stabilized and reinforced.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

Luke Boehnke of Methods & Materials, a sculpture and artifact rigging company out of Chicago, finds the work space a little tight as he squeezes under the Viking ship in Geneva during repair work.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

Plans from a Norwegian museum are used as a reference for repair work on the Viking ship in Geneva.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/21/2008 12:01 AM | Updated: 6/21/2008 10:05 AM

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The ship made only one trip over the bounding main. It's been moved around the Chicago area over the past 115 years.

Its figurehead and tail are in storage 49 miles away from the hull. Its planks have dried and cracked, and the hull is sagging.

But it is finally getting the help it needs, as conservationists arrived in Geneva this week to halt the decline of the replica ship that proved Viking Leif Ericson could have sailed to North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

The stabilization work is expected to take two weeks.

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Boats are designed to be supported by water pressure on their bottoms and sides. So it's a problem when a boat is not in the water, as is the case with the old ship in Geneva's Good Templar Park.

"The hull is not supported. The longer it is out of the water, the more it sags," says Luke Boehnke of Methods and Materials, a Chicago metals firm repairing and improving the steel beams that cradle the ship.

The 75-foot ship -- also known as the Raven -- was built in 1892 in Norway, modeled after a circa 880 warship that was unearthed in the 1880s. It sailed to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In the early 1900s, it was moved to Lincoln Park Zoo. When the Chicago Park District wanted to get rid of it during a renovation in the 1990s, a council of Scandinavian heritage groups offered to take it.

The ship was moved to a warehouse in West Chicago. The council disbanded in 2001, and ownership reverted to the park district. When the warehouse owners wanted it out, the International Order of Good Templars, a temperance group that started in Sweden, offered to house the ship on the grounds of its park in Geneva.

The plaster figurehead and tail were removed about 30 years ago and are in storage at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Bob Fink of Renaissance Yachts estimates the ship, made of black oak, probably weighs about 20 tons now dried out; when the wood was green, it was likely four to five times heavier. When it sailed in 1893, with a crew and cargo, the Raven probably weighed in at 28 tons.

A ship this size in a shipyard today would have at least 40 supports, he said. For the past 14 years, the ship has been supported by four wood blocks on the beams. Thanks to the work going on now, it will have six large screw jacks holding the hull in.

"What we're about is trying to push it back into shape," said Fink, who builds wood yachts. They are also clearing out the debris and putting temporary frames over the cracked planks to prevent the cracks from getting larger. When the stern is stabilized, the rudder can be reattached.

Another problem: Although it has been under partial shelter in the park, rain, snow and debris blew in from the open ends of the shelter, particularly the west end near the stern. Stuff such as leaves ended up in the hull and held water, leading to rot.

The shelter is essentially a large half-cylinder frame with a white plastic material attached to it. The bottom part of the frame is open, with plastic mesh fencing stretched between the posts for ventilation.

Recently, rigid plastic sheets were installed over the east and west openings of the shelter, and the shelter itself was extended 8 feet to prevent elements from entering.

Last year, Landmarks Illinois named it one of the most endangered sites in Illinois. The American Express Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation had a contest in Chicago to determine which historic sites should receive grants, totaling $1 million, for preservation work. The Raven placed second and is receiving more than $50,000 for the conservation work.

Fink, whose boat-building business is based out of Maryland, is impressed with the design of the boat. The planks, held together by iron rivets, overlap each other and allow the hull to expand and contract.

"Flexibility is a key part to their seaworthiness," he said. He points out that it had no permanent deck; instead, short floorboards between the ribs were removable, so cargo and provisions could be stored underneath.

In the long term, the ship should be inside a climate-controlled area, Fink said. It won't sail again and is so fragile it should be moved only once more. That's a point Liz Safanda of Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley and other Raven fans made in a meeting last week with Chicago Park District officials.

"I think it should be near the lakefront," Safanda said.