Norwegian shipping expertise, built over centuries.

Text: John F. L Ross                                                                              Photo: Kon Tiki Museum, Visit Oslo 

Life by the water has shaped many a nation. Norway’s sailors, shippers and builders have gone one better, turning exposure to the sea, and reliance on its resources, into a genuine national asset. Here’s a brief look at a remarkable relationship, still going strong after all these years.

If you’re in Oslo and seeking perspective on Norway’s relationship with the sea, a good starting point is Bygdøy peninsula, a short hop (fittingly, by boat) from City Hall quay. Not many cities can boast a museum dedicated to life afloat. Here, in a single suburb, are four.

They tell a powerful and varied story. And they showcase not Norway’s great adventurers – Amundsen, Nansen, Sverdrup, Heyerdahl – but rather the vessels that carried them over distant and dangerous seas. The Fram, the Gjøa, the Kon-Tiki, and the Viking-era Oseberg, Gøkstad and Tune justifiably take pride of place.

They speak of global reach, vaulting ambition and defiance of the odds. They also reveal other, quieter traits: mastery of detail, willingness to adapt, and ability to think outside the box.

One chronicler, Arne Emil Christensen, put his finger on it. “Many of the finest achievements of Norwegian nautical architecture,” he wrote, required “a sure eye and a practiced, steady hand, and whose background was securely anchored in the experience of many centuries.”

These two elements – vision and pragmatism – doubly underpin Norway’s national approach to an industry where fortunes are as fickle as a Nordic summer.

Bygdøy is not just famous ships in mothballs. From the springtime smell of fresh varnish to the yacht-filled marinas nearby, it reveals a living tradition based on independence, affinity with nature, and social inclusiveness. There’s another, emotional side too: what historian Paul Vigness called Norwegians’ “great longing and wholesome, unfailing love” of the sea.

Norway’s maritime focus has been through some astonishing transformations. No less surprisingly, it keeps a distinct profile in an industry that is ever less “national.” How did it happen? Here are some clues.

Infinite variety

With its placid fjord stretching southward like a liquid carpet, Oslo seems to benignly rule the waves. Yet coastal towns from Larvik and Kristiansand in the south to Stavanger and Bergen in the west to Trondheim and Tromsø further north, all stake a claim as homes of Norwegian shipping. Norway’s geography – its undulating coastline (second longest in the world), elongated profile (matched only by Chile) and varying sea conditions (Baltic, Atlantic, North Sea and Arctic Ocean) – has meant that local conditions have shaped developments. For example, western boat shapes were typically longer and narrower, built of wider, thinner planks, and rode higher in the water than those in the east or south. Northern ones needed still steeper stems and sterns to withstand ice. Ships in west Norway kept square rigging even as their 18th century eastern versions shifted to sprit-style sails. Oak hulls in the south became pine hulls in the north, reflecting vegetation patterns. Even in water sports like rowing, regional differences persisted. The result was not one national seafaring “style” but variations on a theme. The western Hardanger region, for example, developed a sloop-building tradition (the celebrated emigrant ship Restauration and the restored Mathilde) unmatched elsewhere.

Yet adaptability and pragmatism remained a common thread. Accumulated local knowledge enabled renowned shipbuilders like Colin Archer (who designed the Fram to “float” like an egg on pack ice) to apply themselves with consummate skill. They built on the shoulders of giants, even if many remain anonymous.

Vikings and beyond

The Norse raiders 1,000 years ago relied on longships built to purpose. They were fast, to enable stealth raids; they were versatile, able to be sailed or rowed; and they could be hauled onto dry ground and carried elsewhere. (The same people who made it across the Atlantic also reached Constantinople, in Europe’s opposite corner, and by river.) Mainly, they had to be reliable. Flourishes like serpents’ heads even made a fearsome artistic statement (see under “Loch Ness monster”). For all their brutish reputation, the Vikings were incorrigible tinkerers. Design-wise the Gøkstad was strikingly different from the Oseberg, built a half-century before. As early as the 9th century, specialization was setting in. Raiding ships had sleeker designs than did trading vessels. Their seaworthiness and renown quickly spread.

Decommissioned, they were even used as burial vessels for royalty, like pharonic tombs of ancient Egypt – and for us, revealing time-capsules. The Norsemen literally lived and died by their ships. It’s a sentiment their descendants can surely appreciate.

Mercantilism, a system of controlled trade that discouraged competition, ruled the late Middle Ages. It was epitomized by the Hanseatic League, a commerce-based power arrangement. Bergen still displays that era’s tiered architecture and lively quay life.

Post-Hansa, Norway remained hamstrung. To the east, Sweden’s navy ruled the Baltic. Britain dominated the North Sea, and its Navigation Acts, from 1651, restricted trade access by third-party ships for some three centuries. But other elements gave new openings.

From sail to steam

The period 1690-1710 represents the first “golden age” of Norwegian shipping. The rise of the timber industry led to new thinking and ship designs. Danish king Christian IV even commissioned a huge man-of-war, the Hannibal, built in southern Norway from 1645-47, but since lost to history. During a second “golden age” (1775-1800), Norwegian domestic shipbuilding surged amid growing continental tensions. In 1799 the richest Norwegian was Bernt Anker, owner of some 27 ships. Yet isolation and long stretches of peace had emphasized local use and self-sufficiency, with little exposure to competition. A shakeup was soon at hand.

The great age of sail, and thereafter of steamships, gave Norway its modern shipping boost, turning it from a regional provider into a genuine global force.

Trade boomed in the 19th century laissez-faire age. Norway’s fleet shot up from 300,000 nrt (net registered tons) in 1850 to 1.5 million nrt in 1880 – a five-fold increase in 30 years. There was new demand for people-carriers in the great wave of Norwegian emigration across the Atlantic, and for bulk-carriers for goods.

By 1880 Norway was the world’s third-biggest shipping nation, after the US and Britain, with around 7 percent total, much like today. It was an astonishing leap. Much tonnage, however, was bound up in tattered vessels, used to ship Swedish timber, Russian corn and other low-grade products to Europe, manned by badly paid sailors. The image of tramp services and cut-rate crewmen makes quite a contrast with today’s specialized and legally protected maritime labor force.

The gradual passing of the age of sail ushered in another: bigger, faster, workhorse steam vessels. Adapt or die was the latent message of the post-1870s slump.

Metal-clad steamships relied little on Norwegian value-added, and had to be bought abroad. They burned (imported) coal and were costly to maintain. Few shipowners could afford them, so a tradition of joint stock ownership grew – and with it, a kind of democratization of Norwegian shipping.

Shipping services provided another opening. Pushed by Thomas Fearnley and others, a Norwegian Shipbrokers’ Association was established in 1899 (nicely chronicled in Dag Bakka’s book A Century of Shipping). A new class of “Mr Fix-Its” rose, integrators, agents, brokers, insurers and sundry other experts able to sell their specialized expertise to interested parties.

The years 1890-1910 brought a resurrection. Industry expansion finally spilled into the political realm: a prominent west-coast shipping figure, Christian Michelsen, served as Norway’s prime minister during the break with Sweden (1903-07).

Busts and Booms

World War I was a heady but dangerous time, with over 800 Norwegian ships lost to German submarines. Yet blockades caused shortages, shortages created need, and many shippers cashed in. Norway became a creditor nation, with shipping at the crux. But it also created political pressures, both externally and within Norway, while after the war many ships were scrapped. Recovery in the 1920s pushed overall fleet size up 77 percent by 1939.

Shipping is a function of trade, and the post-1945 boom quadrupled the merchant fleet within two decades.  Entire new sub-industries emerged, while demand mushroomed for mega-carriers: car ferries, oil tankers, cruise liners and container vessels. A Norwegian hand could be seen everywhere, even in the Mediterranean cruise market. Shipping had become global and capital intensive, with fortunes riding on single ships.

Too much of a good thing brought overbuilding in the ‘60s, and the 1973 oil embargo hit Norway hard. The postwar generation of ships burned fuel that had shot up in price, while single-hulled oil tankers were prone to damaging spills. The situation in 1975 oddly mirrored that of 1875: an industry riding a long boom, with aging ships and overcapacity, classic supply-side problems. Once again, regeneration was called for, and the call answered.

Consolidation and Rebirth

A huge 1980s research effort, “A Competitive Norway,” examined each big industry segment, from dry bulk and chemical carriers to cruise liners. New priorities were set. Interests and knowledge were pooled via the Maritime Forum of Norway, established in 1990.

The effort to join forces – to “cluster,” in the contemporary lingo – revitalized a sector employing over 100,000 people in specialized niches (ship classification, insurance, financing, satellite technology) that were long fragmented. The outline of a national maritime policy, built around green technology and safety at sea, began to emerge. In Norway as elsewhere, power lies in numbers, and success in synergies.

Once again, the result was a dramatic recovery; Norway remains a leading European player, with Oslo second only to Singapore as a world shipping capital.