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Boat Burning Honors Lives Shared and Lost

By Julie for the Pennsic Independent

Baron Garwig the boatbinder and his friends spend hours building a Viking ship with intricate detail only to burn it upon the waters of Cooper’s Lake at each Pennsic.

The burning of the Viking fighting boat is “a celebration of lives shared and lost,” Baron Garwig said. The event is “a tribute of respect and honor, and it involves a certain amount of sacrifice,” he said.

Baron Garwig of the Kingdom of Ealdormere puts the boat together plank by plank, gluing one into place and waiting days for it dry before another piece can be added. In all, he spends about 60 to 80 hours building the boat. Sometimes he gets a little help as he did last year when he fell behind on the building. Lady Unnr came to his aid and built the boat, and Baron Garwig put on the finishing touches. Master Charles, a carver, creates an intricate figurehead for the boat each year.

People ask Baron Garwig why he would burn something that has taken so much effort, and that, he says, is the meaning of the sacrifice, putting in your best effort and sending them off to burn.

The boat launched Thursday evening just after a major rainstorm and included tributes to about a dozen loved ones. Usually the launch is on Saturday with some 80 tributes aboard, and this year’s earlier date may have caught some people off guard, Baron Garwig said. The tributes are shields painted with the arms of a loved one who has passed. Sometimes there other mementos such as a picture or, in the case of a beloved pet, a part of a collar.

Thirteen candles are placed on the boat in cups of wax, with more wax shavings placed along the boat’s bottom. In a brief ceremony usually attended by some 80 people, he reminds them that this is meant “not to mourn, but to honor; not in grief, but in loving memory.”

He said the event is very emotional for those involved, that it is a giving up or release. It is “finally saying good-bye in a meaningful way,” he said.

The boat is anchored by a fishing line and pulled out into the lake where it burns. The hull of the boat below the water does not burn, and it is brought back to shore and burned in a camp fire. The boat must be completely destroyed according to the tradition, Baron Garwig said.

Baron Garwig usually makes a 4 1/2 foot boat, but created a 6-foot craft this year. This year’s dampness caused some problems. The group needed to retrieve and re-light the boat a second time and add wiring to bind some of the planks since the glue began to lose hold.

The event began about six years ago when reigning King Thorbjorn Osis and a woman, Lady Lauren, were killed in a car accident in the spring. Pennsic that year was very subdued for Ealdomere. At that time, Baron Garwig got the idea and built a crude boat in six days.
“The burning of the boat was such an emotional catharsis,” he said. Kingdom members who had attended both funerals were still moved by the event. They were so touched, they told Baron Garwig that he could not stop, and so the tradition began.

Because the Pennsic event is based on the Viking tradition of burning a deceased’s fighting boat, or drakkar, Baron Garwig’s creation is a shallow draft boat only about four inches deep. This Viking design allowed the marauders to move swiftly over the sea, land in shallow water and jump right out to charge in before the local militia could organize, he said.

To the Viking, the boat was “greater than home,” Baron Garwig said. In fact, when wintering in foreign lands, Vikings would build walls and use the boat as a roof.

Boat burnings were reserved for great chieftans, the actual owners of the boats. They sometimes were done with the boat being docked on land and being burned with the body on board. At other times, the boat was pushed out onto the water and burned with the body aboard. Vikings also were buried in their boats. Poorer Vikings would have boats built out of stones on their grave sites.

Anyone who would like to remember a loved one or even a pet may do so by contacting Baron Garwig next year at Pennsic. Those who wish to do so should paint a shield at least two days before the launch, giving it time to dry. The blank shields are free, but a $2 donation to Chirurgeons is suggested.