• Nynorsk
  • English

Universitetet i bergen logoUniversity of Bergen

Search form

A Hardanger sloop in full sail on the Trøndelag coast.

A Hardanger sloop in full sail on the Trøndelag coast. (A. B. Wilse, owner: Norsk Folkemuseum (W 7236)).

“But sloops and smacks were the real life of the fjord, at every time of the year they came running before the wind, or cruising out, laden down with stone flags for the city and elsewhere, with piles of hazel barrels, with wood and with empty barrels too, skimming the water with its round bows. But what made the most impression were the sailing sloops when they came out the fjord, laden down inboard, erect, heavy and under way. With a long trail of brand new, oiled, six-oared and four-oared open boats and dinghies tied together - four or five together, they followed bobbing along like ducklings after their mother, and if the sloop was crossing, every bow had a long wait for the whole of the oil-yellow flock which slowly, jumping in the wave of the fjord wind trying to imitate the “mother’s” dancing. But occasionally when a sharp sloop with a pointed bow and good sails cut across bound for Nordland and the large fishes, all the 12 year old boys’ hearts stood along the beach yearning, with Robinson Crusoe in their gaze.”

The quotation is from Hans E. Kinck. In his book “Steder og folk “(People and Places) he conjures up a fascinating glimpse of Hardanger Fjord and the rural districts around, about nature and the weather, about settlements and the character of the people, about the life of the fjord in all its diversity. The image is from the time when Kinck grew up, in the 1870s and the 1880s, at time when people’s lives were very much bound up with the fjord.

The marine harvest

Through these portrayals Kinck expressed an essential feature of people’s way of life in older times, their dealings with the sea. Agriculture alone could seldom provide a living. People had to add to their livelihood with different additional trades or activities. Each rural district developed its own pattern, depending on historical and natural conditions. But common to most people was a relationship with the sea. This expressed itself in many ways; through different types of fishing, through cargo shipment, and through the effects that using the sea created; boat and ship-building, bark-stripping, net-binding, coopering etc.

Marine activities expanded greatly throughout the 19th century, and provided a livelihood for many people. Fishing and shipping were probably the subsidiary activities which had greatest economic significance throughout the century. Marine activities brought, literally speaking, wind into the sails of many rural districts in Hordaland during that period. 

The great herring fisheries

An important precondition for this was the development of the spring herring fisheries in Southwest Norway through the first half of the 19th century. The fisheries had something of a sense of adventure about it and created economic growth both in the towns and in the rural districts.

The spring herring fishery was primarily an export fishery. The bulk of the catches were processed as salt herring and exported to Sweden, Germany, Poland and other Baltic countries. In the beginning the herring trade with processing and export, was largely a town business, run by trading citizens in Bergen and Stavanger. The transport of the herring itself, that is the transport from the fishing grounds to the salting factories was usually in the hands of the rural people. They could either sail on their own account, or they could sail on behalf of the processor.

After 1830 a change took place in this pattern.  More rural folk began to salt herring themselves. They put up salt houses in the herring districts and then the barrels of herring were transported to the towns and sold to the exporters. But the herring export could also go on its own to Riga, Stettin and other Baltic cities. The return cargo was usually rye which they sold in small portions in the home districts. In this way rural youth could develop into enterprising and self-confident tradesmen, and they often moved to the recent herring capital of Haugesund.

Building herring sloops

The rich spring herring fishery created a great demand for boats and vessels. The fishery required vessels for transport of fresh herring, for export of salt herring and for accommodation for fishermen. From the 1820s onwards ship-building therefore experienced a sharp upswing. The activity was mainly concentrated in the forested parishes in Sunnhordland like Skånevik, Fjelberg, Kvinnherad and Strandebarm.

Ship-building was organised in several ways. Farmers on farms with a lot of forest and proper tidal conditions could often become contractors. If the farmer was capable of doing it he himself could be responsible for the building But preferably it was specialist vessel builders who took responsibility. The most effective ones were in great demand and they went from one yard to the other and could build several vessels a year.    

The building usually started in the spring so that the sloop was completed for the spring fishery in the following winter. The chief builder usually had four or five men under him in the work. In addition a carpenter was usually hired to do the internal work and a smith who was responsible for the ironwork.

The sources show that it was mainly small boats which left the slipway in the shipyards in Sunnhordland and Hardanger in those years. The boats, often referred to as herring sloops, were rigged with a snesegl (an asymmetric square sail), and this could vary in size from 35 to 50 feet, with a carrying capacity of from 100 to 400 tonnes. The superstructure was in pine, with the keel, the bow and stem in oak. In the beginning almost all were clinker built, but gradually they went over to a combination of clinker (below the water line) and flush plating.

After 1850 it was increasingly usual to build vessels with flush plating, especially the biggest ones.

When construction was at its peak around 1840 fifty such herring sloops could be built a year in Hardanger and Sunnhordland. Where the farmer himself acted as the builder, it often happened that he himself used the vessel in the herring fishing the next winter and then sold it. Many such vessels went to city traders and others ended up with herring speculators in the rural district.

Traffic on the fjord

Up until 1860 it was the spring herring fisheries which were the motive force in the development of marine traffic in the rural districts of Hordaland. The rich fishery established the basis for a fleet of small and medium-sized vessels. But the herring fishery only provided employment in parts of the year. Many a sloop skipper therefore had to find an alternative, especially if there had been loans taken out on the vessel. This is probably one of the reasons why the sloop sailors decided to extend their radius of action in the years up to 1850. From as early as the 1830s we know of Hardanger vessels which undertook trips north to Romsdal in order to buy up summer herring (fat herring). This traffic seems to have been extended northwards to Trøndelag in the 1850s. However more important was the so-called fjord traffic or transport traffic, which caught on, especially after trade in domestic goods was made free in 1842. The fjord was important for the transport of goods between the rural districts and the market towns. The transporter, that is to say the sloop owner, bought goods from the farmers around and transported them in his own vessel to market, be it in Bergen, Haugesund, Stavanger or the towns eastwards along the coast.  In the 1850s the Hardanger vessels began to take trips to Trondheim with farming goods.

This extension of sea trade in time and space that the spring herring, the summer herring and the fjord traffic represented, is important to understand what was to come, that is the great leap northwards.

Traffic to northern Norway

During the 1850s the spring herring fishing in the southwest of Norway began to decline. The herring shoals moved further north to Kinn and Batalden. In some of the years around 1860 the fishing was hectic. But in the beginning of the 1870s the herring disappeared both in Southwest Norway and in Sogn og Fjordane County.

At that time Trøndelag and North Norway experienced some years of a great infiltration of herring. Many drift-seiners from western Norway therefore went north for fishing large winter herring and fat herring. Winter cod fishing in the Lofoten Islands and spring herring fishing in Finnmark County also did well in these years. This led to the vessel owners moving northwards along the coast. North Norway was the new place to put one’s money. The purchasing trips northwards after herring and cod came to mean a lot for the vessel districts in Hardanger and Sunnhordland. In the good years up until 1880 the traffic was dominated by districts in Inner Hardanger, and purchasing trips to North Norway created fantastic times in the districts. Halldor Opedal wrote that the prosperity reached right up under the chins of the vessel-owners.

During the 1880s the journeys to North Norway began to lose money. The decline continued through the 1890s and much of the use of vessels in inner Hardanger was lost. Many of the sloops were sold outside the fjord to Jondal, to Strandebarm and Tysnes which in the years up until the First World War operated an extensive trade with North Norway.

From herring sloops to Hardanger yachts

The extensive use of vessels for North Norway had a major influence on boat construction in Hardanger and Sunnhordland. The extension of traffic northwards along the coast required bigger and more seaworthy vessels than the small and medium-sized herring sloops, and a rich handicraft tradition was reshaped.

Now the professional ship builders entered the scene, tradesmen who had usually served apprenticeships in the shipyards in Bergen. Master builders could still move from one building project to another. But if the conditions were right any seashore could become a shipyard. Later on such small yards could develop into big wooden boatyards as at Skaaluren in Rosendal and Gravdal on Halsnøy.

The new times also found expression in building techniques. After 1850 they began seriously to build larger ships using flush panelling. The master builders also got round, to a greater extent, to building in accordance with measurements and drawings. and a considerable amount of effort was put into further developing the vessel types, as the new times demanded. The well renowned Hardanger sloop was mainly formed in those years.

The impulses for these changes came from several quarters. On the one hand the master builder was affected by the client who wanted a boat that would service his purpose. The trips to North Norway created a demand for, amongst other things, good sailing properties.

On the other hand the master builder was open for impulses from professional circles, and not least from the shipyards in the cities. In the 1850s American clipper construction made a breakthrough in European shipbuilding, and lines from the fast-sailing clipper were transferred to the new type of sloop. The bow on the Hardanger sloop was supposed to have been taken from the American clipper.

Fishing smacks and cutters

The traffic with North Norway finished at the beginning of the 20th century. And so the days were numbered for the traditional Hardanger sloop.

At the beginning of the 20th century the herring can back to the coast of West Norway, and in the years up to 1960 we could again experience a rich herring harvest. In the years around 1920 an extensive motorisation of the Norwegian fishing fleet took place. These factors provided the basis for new boat and vessel types, and in the period up until the 1960s it has mainly been the building of “modern” fishing smacks and cutters which have dominated in the shipyard districts in Hardanger and Sunnhordland.

But this type of vessel also had its time. Around 1960 the herring disappeared once more at the same time as the traditional coastal fisheries was giving way to a greater degree to industrial deep-sea fishing. In the 1960s a steadily increasing proportion of transport was switched from sea to land. Thus the foundations for this type of vessel had disappeared, and after 1990 there has hardly been one fishing smack launched in Hordaland.

History dictates that all of us have our allotted time on this earth, whether we are boat or person.

Bakkeverven in Strandebarm, ca. 1902-1903

Many vessel builders built right on the shore, as here at Bakkeverven in Strandebarm at the beginning of the 20th century. The Bakke family in the foreground. (unknown, owner: Kvam Kulturkontor).

Vesselbuilding in Ølve

Vesselbuilding in Ølve, Kvinnherad. A painting by Amaldus Nielsen, 1873. ("Ølve, Hardanger". owner: Oslo Kommunes Kunstsamlinger).

Handling fish on board a Hardanger sloop during the Lofoten fisheries

Handling fish on board a Hardanger sloop during the Lofoten fisheries. Trips for purchasing fish in North Norway created prosperity.  (unknown, owner: Stiftinga Hardangerjakt).

  • Nerhus, H. (1955) Frå vikings tid til vår tid: eit stykke vestnorsk skipsbyggingssoge. Sunde, Gravdal skipsbyggeri og trelastforretning.
  • Nilsen, T. (1983) Treskipsbygging i Bergensområdet 1776-1814. I: Sjøfartshistorisk årbok. Bergen : Stiftelsen Bergens sjøfartsmuseum, s. 7-58.
  • Olafsen, O. (1912) Skibsfart og Skibsbygning i Hardanger. I: Hardanger. [Utne], Hardanger historielag, s. 1-16.
  • Thowsen, A. (1968) En studie i vestnorsk trebåt- og treskipsbygging. I: Sjøfartshistorisk årbok. Bergen : Stiftelsen Bergens sjøfartsmuseum, s. 7-89.
  • Thue, J. B. (1972) Frå bygdehandverk til industri: treskipsbygginga i Ryfylke frå 1845 til 1880: framvekst og samanbrot. I: Sjøfartshistorisk årbok. Bergen : Stiftelsen Bergens sjøfartsmuseum, s. 39-102.