The Kalmar Nyckel Sets Sail for Adventure in Delaware

Photos by Jan Ross and Jon Caspar

The historic Kalmar Nyckel brought the first European settlers to Delaware. The replica ship is a hands-on historic experience.

Kalmar Nyckel
The Kalmar Nyckel was a 17th-century Swedish vessel that brought the first permanent European settlement to Delaware. This historically accurate replica ship, built in 1997, allows visitors to get hands-on with history.

“We’ve done this a thousand times before, but every time, it feels like a miracle,” says Samuel W. Heed, standing on the broad-planked deck of the Kalmar Nyckel as the ship embarks on a voyage. Heed, the senior historian and director of education at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation (KNF), beams up at the 8 miles of rigging strung overhead and the dazzlingly blue sky beyond. A gentle breeze rustles the sails, bringing with it the rich scents of wet earth and the Christina River, and the sound of the river lapping at the flanks of the ship. It’s the perfect day for a sail.

“On deck!” a voice bellows.

“On deck, aye!” comes the shouted response.

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Kalmar Nyckel history
The replica Kalmar Nyckel is the official Tall Ship of Delaware, and serves as an ambassador for the First State’s rich history and culture as she sails from port to port.

Crew members haul ropes as thick as their wrists, stride across the deck and call to their crewmates. With unbelievable smoothness, the hulking hull slices through the glistening water and the ship begins to move. From the shore, onlookers stop to admire the Kalmar Nyckel as she glides past, gleaming with vibrant color in the chilly sunlight—blue, red, green, gold, purple. The stern and bow are bedecked with brightly painted carvings of animals, faces and mythical creatures. On deck, a group of schoolchildren peer curiously at their surroundings as a volunteer explains the history of the ship. They’re on a field trip, and today, they’ll be traveling back in time.

The Kalmar Nyckel is an accurate replica of the original ship, built in Amsterdam in 1627. She is best known for launching the colony of New Sweden and establishing Fort Christina—the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley—in 1638, bargaining and trading with the Lenape tribe in the process.

The ship was originally called the Key in Dutch. She was sold to the Swedish Ship Company in 1629, using tax revenue from the towns of Kalmar and Jönköping. She was acquired to serve in the Swedish Navy but could also operate as a privateer and gun-armed merchant vessel. The ship was renamed the Kalmar Nyckel (nyckel is the Swedish word for key). She was a part of a famous invasion fleet on the coast of Pomerania, marking Sweden’s entry into the Thirty Years’ War, fought in Torstenson’s war against the Danes, and transported Swedish diplomats during the negotiations that led to the Peace of Westphalia. But the most significant accomplishments of this ship are her four round-trip colonial journeys to North America.

volunteer crew
Volunteer crew member and board member Nigel Veater stands proudly at the whipstaff. A person in this position moves the rudder and steers the ship by pushing the whipstaff around, despite not being able to see for themselves where they are.

The first expedition in 1638 was led by Peter Minuit, a former diamond merchant and former governor of New Netherland. He had been to North America before and had chosen an outcropping of blue granite rock as the perfect spot from which to launch a new colony. The Rocks, the namesake of the Wilmington Blue Rocks baseball team, remain in the same spot where they were those hundreds of years ago, no more than 200 yards from the site of the KNF (the nonprofit educational organization that built, operates and maintains the replica ship) and the Copeland Maritime Center, the adjoining museum that opened in 2015.

The idea to construct an accurate square-rig tall ship replica was many years in the making. The KNF was founded in 1989 by a group of passionate Wilmington citizens who wanted to create an educational resource for people of all ages that would serve as an ambassador for the First State, teaching people about the rich history of Delaware and our connections to Sweden and Finland. Their vision was seen as far-fetched. Even so, the organization got to work. They hired naval architects Thomas C. Gillmer and Melbourne Smith to design the ship, and master shipbuilder Allen Rawl to construct it.

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In a recent lecture about the shipbuilding process, Rawl recalls how Francis I. “Nick” duPont personally recruited him for the task. Rawl was taken to the shipyard to scope the place out: “I saw that the land was about 6 to 8 feet above the river, and I thought,What a perfect place to launch a ship,” he recalls. He traveled to Guyana to acquire the dense tropical purpleheart wood needed for the hull of the ship, supervising the entire operation under the direction of the Guyanese government and the Rainforest Alliance.

“There is an ineffable quality to being a shipmate, a brotherhood and sisterhood that is difficult to describe but felt by all who serve together on a ship at sea.”
Samuel W. Heed

The Kalmar Nyckel was built using modern technology and a host of traditional shipbuilding techniques, such as lofting. “It’s about preservation of the craft, the legacy and the history of the Kalmar Nyckel, but to me, it’s also about the preservation of attitude,” says Rawl, referring to the community mindset that allowed people to come together to produce such quality constructions so many years ago.

Over 10 years of planning and two years of arduous construction later, and the ship was complete, measuring a mammoth 94 feet on deck, 131 feet overall and a displacement of 300 tons. The replica ship was finally launched on September 28, 1997, before an audience of over 20,000 well-wishers and Wilmington residents.

In 2016, the Kalmar Nyckel was recognized as the official Tall Ship of Delaware. Today, she functions as a majestic floating classroom, making voyages from Virginia to New England throughout the sailing season and reaching over 30,000 visitors each year. Every person, no matter their age, can get involved in the sailing process. During field trips, every student gets to haul lines, turn the capstan and use 17th-century navigational tools. “What they’re learning is that sailing is real work,” Heed notes.

The ship is operated and maintained by an all-volunteer crew as well as a handful of paid staff members. The spirit of volunteerism and cooperation is the heart and soul of the KNF, with a diverse group of about 250 active volunteers (over half of which are women) providing over 42,000 volunteer hours per year. “There aren’t many solitary jobs aboard the Kalmar Nyckel,” Heed adds, “so teamwork is important.”

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To the shipmates, some of whom live on the ship, the crew is like a second family. As Heed writes in his book Kalmar Nyckel: The Tall Ship of Delaware, “There is an ineffable quality to being a shipmate, a brotherhood and sisterhood that is difficult to describe but felt by all who serve together on a ship at sea.” This strong sense of camaraderie is what propelled the construction of the Kalmar Nyckel, and it’s what maintains the ship to this day.

Throughout history, civilizations have been shaped by voyages, the ocean and the seafaring world. Even today, the port of Wilmington remains crucial to Delaware. The Kalmar Nyckel replica is a striking bastion of cultural significance and remains today as a testament to the importance of education, cooperation and community.

Visitors can travel aboard the historic replica ship with river cruises, day sails and pirate-themed excursions available through late October. The Copeland Maritime Center also offers exhibits on the history of the ship and the area. The Kalmar Nyckel is operated and maintained by a crew of volunteers, which welcomes new members. To plan a visit or explore volunteer opportunities, go to kalmarnyckel.org.

Related: The Delaware Museum of Nature and Science Delights in Wilmington

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