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Viking ship Draken leaves Great Lakes but hard feelings linger

Draken Harald Hårfagre

The replica Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre has sailed out of the Great Lakes, wrapping up a contentious visit.

The 115-foot Norwegian vessel sailed across the Atlantic Ocean this spring and toured Canadian and U.S. waters all summer. It made stops in Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay, where visitors came aboard for tours.

But the Draken has no plans to return to the Great Lakes.

Organizers are still smarting from paying pilot fees that ran well into the six-figures. Those fees stem from a 1960 federal law requiring foreign cargo vessels to hire a U.S. pilot to steer them through the unfamiliar waters.

Capt. Bjorn Ahlander says the system should exempt tourist attractions like the Draken.

“This is a wooden ship of a 1,000 years construction and you make it pay like a tanker or a cargo ship today -- it’s not fair," Ahlander said.  

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains that pilots are needed to ensure safety. Spokesman Todd Haviland said the Coast Guard has no authority to offer exemptions.

"The Norwegian government registered the vessel as an ocean-going cargo vessel,” Haviland said. “That in and of itself makes all of its activity commercial."  

The Draken charges visitors for tours and sells merchandise from a truck that follows the ship. At a stop in Oswego, N.Y., some tourists like Emily Bergamo scoffed at the idea that the Draken is categorized as a cargo vessel.

Credit Payne Horning
Visitors tour the Draken in Oswego, N.Y.

"When I saw this was charged the same amount as the large freighter that's over there, I just couldn’t understand why,” Bergamo said. “But I was grateful that there was a groundswell of fundraising. Thank you to the Sons of Norway."

That cultural heritage group raised more than $120,000 online to help pay the Draken’s pilot fees. The money ensured much of the ship's journey, but a stop in Duluth, Minn., was eliminated.

“It was an incredible response from the Norwegian community far and wide,” said Eivind Heiburg, the CEO of Sons of Norway. “I have never seen anything like it before.”

Draken expedition manager Luke Snyder said the assistance was appreciated, but the emergency fund-raising offered only a temporary solution.

"I think that we would be happy to return if there was some sort of legislation written so that it could reduce the [pilot fees],” Snyder said. “R ight now, we just couldn’t afford another expedition in the Great Lakes.”

Snyder said the bill for the American pilots was about $135,000 -- and that was after the ship's original schedule had been curtailed.

A spokesman for another historic foreign vessel sailing the Great Lakes, the El Galeon from Spain, agreed that charging these ships for pilot fees will limit their visits.

But the Coast Guard recently moved in the opposite direction, increasing pilot fees more than 50 percent. That move is being challenged in court.

Lakes Pilot Association Capt. Bruce Haynes said the increase is necessary to address a shortage of pilots.

“They need pilots by law and by good practice so that there is no accidents and environmental catastrophes,” Haynes said.

He notes that a ship recently ran aground in Lake Erie because there was not a pilot aboard.

As for the Draken, it’s bound for New York City. It expects to work out a less costly deal with pilots there because those waters are within the state’s jurisdiction.

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