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A dream fulfilled, with a little help

Teacher built a Viking boat with plans to sail it to Norway; after his death, friends/family made dream a reality 

By Carol Stender

Robert Asp on the Hjemkomst on its maiden voyage on Lake Superior, 1980. Asp died shortly after this voyage. Photo from Minneapolis Tribune

Mark Hilde of Moorhead calls Robert Asp’s dream “infectious.” And Hilde was one of several friends or family members who helped Asp fulfill his dream. 

Asp, a Moorhead teacher, envisioned building a Viking longboat replica and sailing it from Duluth to Norway. Although Asp died before his vessel, the Hjemkomst, made its historic voyage, his dream was fulfilled when friends and family completed the journey for him. All were captivated by Asp’s spirit for the journey.

“When you think of a dream, it’s more than you,” said Hilde. “You go beyond yourself and it affects others. That’s the way it was with Bob. Bob Asp started it all for me.”

The Hjemkomst as it arrived in Bergen, Norway July 1982. Photo by Peggy Guin.

Peggy Guin experienced that same connection when she saw The Hjemkomst approach the Bergen, Norway dock. Guin, of Moorhead, was serving in the military and stationed in Germany at the time. She was on military leave and spent much of her time traveling through Norway with her 12-year-old sister.

Her family kept her informed on The Hjemkomst’s progress. Although she never met the Moorhead teacher, Guin did attend the same school where he once taught. And she had the same zest for her Norwegian heritage as Asp. During her travels, Guin visited the places her ancestors once called home.

Guin was sunbathing in Bergen when she spotted the ship. She still gets emotional some 42 years later recalling the sight. She thought, at the time, that she would miss its arrival as her leave was soon ending.

She saw a tour bus and asked the guide if he knew of The Hjemkomst. He did, but he told Guin it would not arrive for a few days.

Peggy Guin of Moorhead was serving in the military in Germany in 1982 and had followed the Hjemkomst story. She was on leave when the Hjemkomst arrived in Bergen. Although she never met Robert Asp, the ship’s builder, she did attend the same school where he once taught. She is pictured in front of the ship at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. Photos by Carol Stender

“Well, there it is,” she told him.

Guin got a ride with the tourists to the dock and joined others welcoming the vessel and crew. She even got to go on board through special connections. Her backyard neighbor, Sonja Halmrast’s brother was part of the crew. He helped with the construction and sailed through the Great Lakes until he reached New York Harbor when he left the ship to join his family back in Moorhead.

“I admire Robert Asp because he was given his diagnosis and he kept on with his dream,” she said. “He didn’t get to see it sail across the ocean, but it went thousands of miles. The courage that it took is really something.”

Asp’s dream was borne of adversity. He was working on a roofing project one summer when he fell. Asp suffered 13 cracked ribs, a broken shoulder blade and punctured lung from the accident. During his recovery, his brother, Bjarne, gave him books on Norwegian history. Asp became especially interested in the Viking longboats called Dragon Ships.

The brothers were part-time carpenters and discussed the boats’ construction. Asp had an idea. What if he was to build a Viking boat?

Once he recuperated, Asp set his plan to motion. He harvested white oaks in Minnesota and had them milled at area sawmills. He found an abandoned potato warehouse in Hawley and dubbed it the Hawley Shipyards. This became his workplace.

The vessel’s design was based on the Viking Gokstad ships. He traveled to Chicago to see a replica of the boat and to get dimensions. Then, he began construction.

Robert Asp built the Hjemkomst in Hawley, Minn., in an abandoned potato warehouse. A sign from the building during the ship’s construction now calls the Hjemkomst Center home. The building was dubbed the “Hawley Shipyard.”

His work on the ship was part time while he continued to work at the school. It took him about 10 years to complete all the harvesting of wood and construction. Then he was diagnosed with leukemia. In a video about The Hjemkomst, his wife, Rose, described seeing him in the boat amidst construction of the keel and ribs, with his head in his hands. He told her he didn’t want to sit around and wait to die. She told him to keep building. If he couldn’t finish it, it would be done by others.

Hilde was among the family and friends who helped with the construction. He’d met Asp through friends. The teacher was interested in Hilde’s sailing knowledge, which he’d gained while in the Navy.

Originally, Hilde was drafted number one in the 1971 Vietnam War draft, but he enlisted in the Navy. While serving in San Diego, he became intrigued by the sailboats in the harbor. Hilde took sailing classes at night after his military shifts. Once his tour of duty ended, Hilde continued to sail upon his return to Minnesota.

He joined Asp and others to complete the Hjemkomst’s build after Asp’s diagnosis. The ship featured the horned head of a dragon which the crew affectionately called Igor. The center mast was 64-feet tall and it was supported by a 30-foot by 40-foot main sail and a 10-foot by 30-foot top sail.

Mark Hilde of Moorhead served as first mate and cook on the Hjemkomst voyage. Hilde joined other family and friends to help Robert Asp with the final construction when Asp was diagnosed with leukemia. He is pictured in front of the boat at the Hjemkomst Center.

They sought experience to be at the helm of the vehicle. Erik Rudstrom of Norway, who had experience sailing such vessels, was named skipper. And, besides Hilde, there were 11 others including three of Asp’s sons and his daughter. Two of the crew were from Norway.

On July 17, 1980, the Hjemkomst made its debut in dramatic fashion. A wall in the warehouse had to be torn out in order to get the large vessel out. It was towed over land from Hawley to Duluth and made its maiden voyage on Aug. 9, 1980 with Asp at the helm. He died a few months later.

The crew continued to work on the vessel, practicing their sailing skills on Lake Superior and making final adjustments to the boat itself. In May of 1982, it set sail.

Going through the Great Lakes was a challenge, Hilde said. There was some damage to the boat when it rammed into some pylons. Once the vessel made it to New York Harbor, repairs were made.

A few days after the Hjemkomst began its journey, the ship encountered a storm. A rogue wave washed over the ship causing the rudder to break, Igor to lose a horn and creating a 14-foot crack in the hull. The crew worked furiously to pull in the sails.

Some talked about turning back or sailing to Newfoundland, but the experienced skipper Rudstrom said to continue with the voyage. Repairs were made to the rudder and burlap and clothing was used to fill in the crack.

The crew enjoyed the voyage. Some days they water skied and swam and sometimes they saw whales. They played cards, sang and wrote in their journals.

There was no lower deck aboard the Hjemkomst. A tarp covered the sleeping area and a bucket was the latrine.

Asp was on the minds of crew throughout the voyage.

The Hjemkomst in all its glory as it arrived in Bergen, Norway in the summer of 1982. Photo by Peggy Guin

“We were doing what Bob Asp had dreamt of doing,” Hilde said. “For me that was like, ‘Hi, Bob. You had a great plan. Your dream was great.’”

Hilde served meals made from a soybean base. They were good, he said.

Before they arrived at Bergen, the Hjemkomst was greeted by another older ship. Its crew told them it was the weekend and the citizens of Bergen weren’t in town. Many had left for their mountain retreats. The two boats stayed side by side for two days.

On Monday, Aug, 16, 1982, the ship came to Bergen. But that didn’t mark the end of the journey. Over the next few days, the Hjemkomst also made stops at Haugesund, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Arenaal, Risor, Brevik, Porsgrunn, Skien, Tansberg, Horten, Nesodden and Oslo.

Each crew member was able to get off the boat and stay with a local family for a few days.

The Hjemkomst was stored in Oslo for a year then transported to Ohio on a freight ship in August 1983. Asp’s son, Tom, made the arrangement in his role as project coordinator. The boat eventually made its way back to Minnesota and, in 1986, the Asp family donated the Hjemkomst to the City of Moorhead.

Moorhead built a visitors’ center to preserve the ship and tell the Hjemkomst story.  The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County installed the ship in a museum. The museum is also home to a stave church replica.

“The Hjemkomst’s story is steeped in Scandinavian heritage and the immigrant journey,” said Markus Kreuger, Hjemkomst Center Program Director.

So many Scandinavians moved here after the end of the 1800s that we have kept the cultures and traditions alive in our communities more so than most places,” he said. 

And the Hjemkomst is part of that homage to the past.

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