Sail of the centuries

PUBLISHED: 11:39 08 December 2015 | UPDATED: 11:39 08 December 2015

Sae Wylfing, a half length model of the Sutton Hoo ship with sails built by Edwin Gifford and his wife, Joyce

Sae Wylfing, a half length model of the Sutton Hoo ship with sails built by Edwin Gifford and his wife, Joyce


How did the Sutton Hoo ship make its way up the River Deben? An exciting project taking shape on Woodbridge’s waterfront could shed light on the mysterious vessel’s past.

Words: Nick Cottam Photos: Tim Curtis

Paul Constantine is passionate about recreating the Sutton Hoo shipPaul Constantine is passionate about recreating the Sutton Hoo ship

Who can solve the mystery of the Sutton Hoo ship? Did it ever sail up the River Deben on a rising tide, having ferried its royal passenger King Raedwald to all parts of his kingdom, or was it solely reliant on powerful Saxon oarsman as it manoevered its way around the narrow inlets and harbours of the watery east?

The answer to this ‘Did she ever sail?’ conundrum should become clearer over the next few years with the building of a life-sized replica of the 27metre (90ft) vessel. A modern version of the Sutton Hoo ship is to be built in a community shed donated to Woodbridge town as part of a new waterside development on the site of the old Whisstocks Boatyard. Once finished the vessel should act as another dramatic window on our past, helping to shed more light on a question that has puzzled academics and enthusiasts for years.

“It’s quite clear that the Sutton Hoo ship was rowed, but there is no evidence that it was ever sailed,” says Paul Constantine, a member of the Woodbridge Riverside Trust that is co-ordinating preparations for the waterfront build. “When the ship was revealed as part of the Sutton Hoo excavation it had ‘tholes’, the Saxon version of what we call rowlocks for oars, but there was no evidence of any sailing equipment.”

In fact the ship uncovered as part of the world famous Sutton Hoo excavation has left much to the imagination with items such as the rudder, oars and seats all missing. With all the organic material dissolved away over the centuries what was left was an impression in the ground, leaving so much to imagination – including how the boat was powered. Supporting the case for sail, arguably, is the fact that the Anglo-Saxons had to travel to these shores across the North Sea – a distance of up to 150 miles one way. Relying on oar power alone would have been a tall order, even for the toughest mariners.

Woodbridge waterfront, where the Sutton Hoo replica will be built on the site of the old Whosstocks boatyardWoodbridge waterfront, where the Sutton Hoo replica will be built on the site of the old Whosstocks boatyard

In 1993, the debate around Anglo-Saxon sailing prowess prompted naval architect Edwin Gifford and his wife Joyce to put talk to the test by building Sae Wylfing, a half length model of the Sutton Hoo ship. Above all, the Giffords wanted to test whether this craft, built at Southampton, could actually sail – and it passed the test with flying colours.

“Sae Wylfing proved that sailing was a possibility, but it did not prove that the Sutton Hoo ship actually sailed,” notes Paul Constantine. “At present we have no evidence that Anglo-Saxon ships sailed, but the Sutton Hoo replica, which will take three to five years to build, should tell us more about how a ship like this might have been set up for sailing.”

Once it is underway, the build will be as authentic as possible, says Paul, a wooden boat enthusiast who was trained in timber technology, and as a Suffolk teacher was able to work on wooden boats during the school holidays. He has also built two trimarans in his Woodbridge back garden as well as writing extensively on the art and technicalities of Anglo Saxon boat building. Paul is currently looking for skilled craftspeople and other experts who are interested in becoming part of the Sutton Hoo build.

“Anyone who wants to help will need a real understanding of the Sutton Hoo ship and how it was built. What we are trying to do at the moment is bring together people with the right expertise.” This, he says, has included talking to Danish contacts who have built replicas of the Viking ships whose pillaging arrival in East Anglia dates from some 200 years after the Sutton Hoo craft.

Excitement around the project has been further heated by the arrival in Suffolk of Sae Wylfing, which was brought to the county on a special trailer last year and is already being used as an educational resource, and at events such as Maritime Ipswich. The model ship will stay in Suffolk for the foreseeable future and should earn its keep, both as a working example of Anglo-Saxon sailing potential and as a useful point of reference alongside the replica build.

And when the Sutton Hoo replica finally rolls out of its waterfront housing for sea trials the town of Woodbridge will have a community shed for other uses, only limited by imagination, suggests Paul Constantine.

“We could be talking about anything from concerts and exhibitions to a waterside market,” he says. “It will be a major asset to Woodbridge with the river as a backdrop.”

By this time, we hope, the academics and experts will have a better idea of how the Anglo-Saxons built their ships – not to mention how they powered them once in the water.

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