About the tradition and knowledge
Boatbuilding and boat pulling are related traditions in Bjørkedalen in the Volda district, West Norway. At its height, there were 27 boatbuilders in the settlement, which lies some ten kilometres from the fjord. It goes without saying, it was hard work getting the finished boats from the boatbuilder’s shed down to the water, generally at Kile or Straumshamn. It required community effort and cooperation, and if the roads and weather were fit, several boats were often pulled on one day.
Clinker construction is the traditional way of building boats at Bjørkedalen. The smallholders have boatbuilding as a side occupation and use the techniques and materials common to the entire Norwegian coast. The craftsmanship is a variant of the shared Norwegian clinker-built boat tradition.
Boats have been built at Bjørkedalen for over 1000 years. Local written sources show that boats were being built here in the 16th century. Local historian Per Årviknes reports that Saxe Balle (1534-1620) was building both boats and sailing vessels. The Heimskringla Saga states that Earl Håkon was in Halkjelsvik to repair his boats before the battle of Hjørungavåg at the end of the 10th century. Halkjelsvik is the old name for Volda centre. It is natural to assume that boat pulling has been practised for just as long, as the boats had be removed from the shed and taken down to the fjord even then.
The first phase, pulling the boat out of the shed, requires people, slipways and keel blocks. How many people depends on the size of the boat. The helpers spread out on both sides, with their back to the boat; they hold it up, balance it and move it forward over the keel blocks. One man shouts out instructions for everyone, as it is very important that everyone works together and pulls in unison. The work is not without its dangers.
With heavy boats, horses used to be employed for pulling while the men supported the boat. As motorised vehicles became common, tractors, lorries or diggers were taken into use.
Once the boat is out of the boatshed, there is still a long way down to the fjord. This part of the process has developed from horses and men via horses and carts to tractors with trailer. Whatever the means used, muscle power is essential for getting the boat out of the shed and the final phase of getting it onto the fjord.
As boats were built on practically every farm in the settlement, each farmer received help from the others. Everyone made themselves available for boat pulling, and neighbourhood feuds were set aside on those days. Each was dependent on help from the others.
The boatbuilder stood ready with refreshments for the volunteers. Boat pulling was hard work and could take all day, as it was a long way down to the fjord. The women prepared the food. Before sandwiches became commonplace, “dravle “(simmered sour milk with whey) was the usual picnic food. As a rule, this was mixed with cold porridge. A similar dish was called “soppe”. This was skyr with bits of flat bread, mixed up and eaten with a spoon. As drink something called “syreblende” was often used. This was half whey and half water. The fluid left over from churning butter was also used. The women would also serve potato dumplings and porridge made with soured cream.
In days gone by, it was also usual for the boat’s buyers to be present during pulling and launching. They were often generous with drinks to seal the bargain and not just to the boatbuilder. In later times, the pale “kornøl” beer was often brewed when large boats were ready for moving from the boatyard.
The people who took part in boat pulling were primarily the men from the farms round the Bjørkedalen lake; farmers/boatbuilders, their sons and farm hands. The young men often had the task of going round the farms to give notice of the boat pulling.
From the 1970’s onwards, large copies of the Viking ships were built at Jakobsgarden. The boat pulling would take several days, and advertisements and posters were used to invite people to take part. Several thousands were sometimes present for these boat pulling days.
The number of people taking part in present-day boat pulling depends on the size of the boat. The boatbuilders themselves are always involved. Often the people who ordered the boat are also present, together with neighbours and other interested persons. Large boats still require lots of people to get the boat out of the stocks. The odd woman can be seen, but it is mainly the men who shoulder the heavy work.
Many have a special interest in the traditions and craftsmanship associated with boatbuilding and see boat pulling as a way of getting involved. Not least the 120 members of the Bjørkedal Coastal Club are eager to encourage and perpetuate these traditions.
The number of boats built is fewer than before, but boat pulling of some kind is still necessary for delivery.
Highly skilled practitioners
Though many take part in a boat pulling, it is those who have grown up with boatbuilding in Bjørkedalen who master the safe moving and balancing of the boats. In the main, this is the men of the settlement.
As with boatbuilding, the art of pulling a boat from the stocks has been passed down from generation to generation. People learn by taking part, seeing how the experienced hands do it, and being allowed to try it for themselves. Young people are present from an early age and start to take part as they grow older.
The development of boat pulling is usually divided into three phases: without roads, on the road with a trailer, and with tractor, crane or lorry after motors were introduced.
Before the road was laid, the boats were either rowed over the three lakes (Bjørkedalsvatnet, Mevatnet and Nestevatnet) between Bjørkedalen and Kils Fjord or pulled over the ice in the winter and pulled or restrained on keel blocks down the hills between the lakes by people and horses. Permanent keel blocks were laid down. Large boats were built down by the fjord.
In the 1870’s, the Norwegian Parliament granted a subsidy of 7500 kroner for roads, bridges and boat trailers. A bridge was built over the Vassend River and a road from Bjørkedalen to Straumshamn. Engineer Heyerdahl and Road Surveyor Rosenquist designed a boat trailer which was constructed by a wainwright at Veblungsnes in Romsdalen. This made boat pulling much easier, as wheeled vehicles could be used all the way down to the fjord. And it became possible to build larger boats back home in Bjørkedalen.
When the internal combustion engine made its entry in the 20th century and people were able to buy a car and tractor, boat pulling became even simpler.
Plan for preservation
Boats still have to be brought out of the stocks and down to the fjord in one way or another. People and manpower are still necessary for parts of the process, but machinery is used to a greater extent than before.
It is important that the craft and tradition of wooden boatbuilding continues, and that the market for wooden boats is maintained. While boats are still built at Bjørkedalen, boat pulling will also continue.
In days gone by, boat pulling was a duty and hard work. Now that fewer boats are being built, boat pulling and launching is becoming rarer and viewed by outsiders as something exotic. Many people are eager to join in.
Many of the members of the Bjørkedal Coastal Club are members precisely because they wish to support boatbuilding and its traditions.
Helset, Karl: Bjørkedalen i Volda. Ei båtbyggjargrend langt til dals. I: Yearbook of Volda Sogelag (Local History Society) 1977, p. 7-29
Helset, Jakob: Båtedraging. I: Voldaminne, 2014, p. 51-59.
Aarviknes, Per: Volda-soga III: Farms and families, Volda Bygdebok (Local History Book) Committee, 1973.
With its project “Adopt a coastal cultural heritage site or practice” (2012-2014), KYSTEN Federation invited local clubs to adopt a local heritage site or practice. Bjørkedal Coastal Club decided to adopt boat pulling. The Coastal Club has collected old photos, written articles and volunteers to be present when boats are being taken from the stocks.
Bjørkedal Neighbourhood Committee and Bjørkedal Boat Collections are helping to put focus on boat pulling and boat building.