Final Word: How Swede It Is

A sail on the Kalmar Nyckel may be a pleasure cruise, but the passage of our originals was anything but.




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Illustration by Dav Bordeleau


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Call it savvy 17th-century marketing: Travel in a ship whose name would become recognized across the land as that of a moving company, dress in garb that would look good on an oatmeal box, then give your landing place a proper name.

When the Mayflower landed with the strikingly dressed pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, it assured interest from junior-high history students for generations to come. When it comes to colonizing, it’s not what you know or even who you know. As we’ve seen with modern sports stadiums, it’s all about the naming rights. The pilgrims had all the names.

Now consider the Kalmar Nyckel. A hardy band of 24 Swedes, Finns and Dutchmen, with one black Caribbean freedman, set sail for the New World on the last day of 1637. They endured a harrowing three months shivering under the grip of a North Atlantic winter crossing before landing in Wilmington in March of 1638.

Most of the passengers probably couldn’t spell Kalmar Nyckel, much less help make it a household name in their new colony. Their garb represented the fashion of the times in their own countries, which is to say they got off the ship collectively resembling some kind of traveling carnival. And they didn’t think to give their landing place a name. To this day, the memorial that stands where the Kalmar Nyckel first docked is known simply as “the rocks.” No doubt the local Lenape took one look at the troupe, then muttered, “We’ll still be closing up the tepees before 9 p.m.”

The original Kalmar Nyckel is gone, lost at sea sometime after its fourth voyage. And that fact, to me, is the most salient about historical sailing ships and sea voyages.

A lot of wooden sailing ships sunk during that era of mass transportation—as many as 1,000 off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina alone. That means travel via wooden sailing ships back then is comparable to travel via bus in South America today.

There was no need of life vests, life boats or swimming skills. Due to the difficulty of maneuvering a vessel at the mercy of prevailing winds, rescues at sea were unheard of. Travel insurance was more or less an “investment” for your surviving next-of-kin.

As far as meal service, who could keep an appetite up—or keep anything down—during a three-month voyage that included 40-foot swells? The sides of those vessels were no doubt priced at a premium.

While entertainment aboard was generally limited to a variety of “man overboard!” scenarios, there was the tradition of the crew’s singing sea shanties to help keep the passengers’ minds off drowning and seasickness.

Aboard the modern Kalmar Nyckel—a re-creation of that first Dutch-Swedish vessel—the crew’s singing can make you feel you’re on the set of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The crew members—all volunteers—come from diverse backgrounds in business and the professions, so shipboard chatter today is more likely to revolve around entomology, sculpture and renaissance music than it is about the best whaling grounds, the latest techniques in scrimshaw or where to go for a good wooden leg.

Yet booking a three-hour sail aboard the modern Kalmar Nyckel will reveal much about life asea in the 1600s—even if the view today is of chemical plants, container docks, rust bucket freighters and the I-495 overpass.

If you sail, note the work of the crew: It seems endless and exhausting. A trip aboard the Kalmar Nyckel is not about recollecting a romantic time in our maritime history, so much as a robust one. It’s a wooden Nyckel you should take.  



Reid Champagne believes open water is where you realize you’re just another link in the food chain.


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