Under sails with war veterans

By Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen

Edited by: Lauran Timlin

In Norwegian

Military veterans do not automatically have a natural cohesion across missions, operations, and ages. But if they are put on a joint project, something happens. Like a veteran’s cruise.

A late evening in August. I will immediately muster at Veteran Cruise 2016 together with around thirty other veterans. I have PTSD after staying in war zones for several years. Most of the veterans have already gathered from the cities further into the Oslo Fjord. The three-masted schooner “Svanen” (The Swan) lies at the harbor in Stavern, bathed in the spotlights at the top of the masts. The walkway rests on the pier. Two shadows appear on the deck and meet me where I stand with my bag. One of them is an old friend and veteran of the UN service in Lebanon. We were squad leaders in a mechanized infantry platoon, now Jan Edgar Nilsen is the project manager for this voyage. He hasn’t changed much since we camped together in the village of Ebel Es Saqi. We haven’t met in 30 years, but it seems like yesterday. Veteran man hugs are exchanged.

It is a hammock that applies

I am told that I have to be quiet in the orlop, where everyone is sleeping, and that I must sneak down. After a couple of brutal encounters between my head and some beams, I note that there weren’t many seamen that were about two meters long in 1915 when the ship was built in Denmark.

I push myself into a hole in the deck and lower my body along a narrow and steep staircase. Down below, in the orlop, I find a good mix of fixed wooden berths nailed to the bow side, and hammocks. The snoring is tremendous. Jan Edgar whispers and points to a hammock that is strung between two hooks and is only a few centimeters below the upper deck. I nod, but immediately think that it is physically impossible to get my body so high up into the narrow cloth there. So I spread out my sleeping bag on one of the wooden benches, knowing that a nightly toilet visit by one of those sleeping in the fixed bunks could result in a foot in my face or some other vital part of my body. After a few minutes, it dawns on me that I shouldn’t be worse than others, and I jump up onto the massive table under the hammock, and with an elegant movement, I suddenly feel like a full-blooded seaman as he rested a century ago. Sleep comes quickly when the boat sways lightly and creates movement in the hammock.

The next morning, the wind blows fiercely under dark clouds. The veterans meet on deck for breakfast. I get the opportunity to greet the others. Some are known to me, but also many are strangers. Some of them are injured, primarily psychologically. Others are affected, but by definition not sick. The third group is people who get involved with the veterans. The fourth is the crew itself, those who can sail a schooner. The idea is that we will carry out various tasks on board, whether at sea or in the dock, well assisted by the crew.

Skipper Aake looks up at the sky skeptically. The weather forecast says that it could be a tough trip over to Ålborg in Denmark, which is the next destination. The experienced skipper is used to the fact that the sea and wind can be rough sometimes, but most often he has sailed in the inner Oslo Fjord in recent years, sheltered from the worst weather.

The moorings are released and the boat sails from the jetty. Three masts are the hallmark of a schooner, which was often called “111”, because that’s what the masts looked like when she came sailing.

Way outside the comfort zone

The weather picks up as the majestic ship, which was originally built to transport timber, comes out to open seas. The untrained crew is supported by the trained section. An intricate system of ropes holds the sails up. Some are hoisted, others are hauled, while most look up questioningly at the sails, anxious about which sail belongs to which rope. The wind is strong, but not insurmountable. However, the 13 foot waves, the aftermath of a powerful storm coming in from the side, starts to be a challenge. The landlubbers begin to feel that their contribution is plummeting. I myself have been in the merchant fleet years ago and have only been seasick once in my life, but what applied there probably does not apply here. I’m falling asleep where I’m sitting. The wind increases, the sails are torn and the engine ensures that we cut through the waves as there is almost a headwind. Several of us lie above the row and make strange noises while they feed the creatures of the sea, primarily the crabs, it is said. I myself have to give up too. The struggle to get from aft to amidships and down onto the barge is enormous. The boat lurches, the seas hit the deck, and I’m way out of my comfort zone. I tumble into shipping crates one moment and against the rail the next.

Veterans home in Aalborg, Denmark

Ålborg as a destination for the voyage was canceled due to the weather. To shorten the trip, we went to Skagen, which is much further north. From Skagen, we travel by train to Ålborg to meet the people who run Ålborg Veterans Home. The veterans’ home is in practice a home for the injured, where those who live there have no obligations, nor are they followed up. Most of us from Norway are surprised by this, it looks a bit unambitious. We are usually concerned that follow-up should have a certain movement, some kind of development, but it may be that the Danish system also works for those who only need peace?

From Skagen we are heading due North towards the Norwegian city of Arendal. I am woken early in the morning by someone who has nightmares and convulses violently in his sleep. Post-traumatic stress disorder is apparently not letting go, even out here.

There is work on board

We gradually contribute to the watch, work in the galley to put out food, and wash dishes. Some stand at the helm, others stand ahead and keep a lookout. Some people need to adapt a little every now and then. Down below and rest is the best solution. But the understanding is evident among the others. Here, the injured veterans can be themselves and step in when they feel they have the strength to do so. Courses in splicing ropes are carried out on deck in the afternoon sun which finally shines over the Skagerak sea. Feeling of mastery again. We can do this!

It doesn’t take long before one loses the sense of time and space on such a trip. You have the sea, you have the ship and the people on board. The only mission you have is to assist the group that will get the sailing ship to its destination. But over time something happens to most people. Belonging is created. Friendship is established. Veterans thus have no natural affinity across missions, operations and ages. Not all veterans are resourceful either. Something many people say this about themselves, and it naturally applies to a large extent to the injured. But they would like to be more involved. They were contributors once and can be again. By giving them a joint project, with a mix of veterans, you see that most of them flourish. Again, they show that they can master new challenges. That they can achieve things they never thought possible.

Norway in sight

The archipelago outside Arendal appears on the horizon. We slow down and circle outside one of the large islets. A wreath lies by the row and people are gathered on the top deck. The time has come to remember the fallen of the country. In addition to the soldiers, they also remember the many seamen who lost their lives while sailing supplies and materials that were meant to support the Allies’ fight during the Second World War. When the poem “The Best” by the Norwegian author and poet Nordahl Grieg is read, the wreath is thrown into the sea and the flowers are scattered by the wind. And silent tears are dried.

In Arendal, it is easy to see the effect of this voyage. There is a good tone on board. Several of those who had decided to withdraw earlier have suddenly decided to join in. Because something magical happens between those who have been out in the Norwegian Armed Forces’ international operations when they take part in such a project and can once again cultivate the close camaraderie that arises. There are several here who have become friends for life.

Some believe that “Svanen” should sail with veterans all season, every year. This is a measure that really raises the recognition of veterans going forward. Which in turn gives them the opportunity to show unity and gain strength!

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