Are older, classical boat designs really better? High-tech testing in the Ship Towing Tank at the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute in Trondheim pits a 16th century classical rowboat against its newer, easier-to-build cousin.
There is excitement in the air at the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute’s Ship Towing Tank. Two types of traditional Norwegian boats – one called a “geit boat”, literally goat boat, and the other called a møring boat – are going to be pitted against each other and compared. Their resistance and stability in the water will be tested under different conditions. The equipment in the room might be high tech, but the questions they are trying to answer are age old.
Which of the two traditional boats is best? The geit boat takes four to five times longer to make than the møring boat, whose construction involves a number of shortcuts. Is all the extra work worth it? Modern technology will finally provide an answer.
The geit boat is a traditional boat from the Nordmøre region, along Norway’s southwest coast. It can be used as a rowboat or as a sailboat, and was commonly found in Nordmøre and in the Trøndelag region of central Norway until another type of boat called the Åfjord boat became more popular. The recorded history of the geit boat stretches back to the 16th century.
“The geit boat is special. Both geit boats and møring boats are very shallow with a long keel. The difference between the boats lies in the lower strakes,” explains Professor Sverre Steen at NTNU’s Department of Marine Technology, a rowboat enthusiast and the scientist in charge of the testing.
A geit boat has strakes, or hull planks, of uneven thicknesses. The two lower hull planks must be hewn into the correct shape, a time-consuming process. It has a sharper bow than the more modern møring boat, and the hull planks that extend towards the rear of the boat are narrower and sharper in a geit boat.
The møring boat was first constructed in the Sunnmøre region around 1870, and is a simplified version of the geit boat, where all of the strakes are sawn rather than hewn. The construction still requires craftsmanship, but is less time-consuming and therefore cheaper to make. For these reasons, the newer møring boat quickly outcompeted its older cousin the geit boat.
The møring boat was built by boat-builder Jakob Helset in Bjørkedalen in Sunnmøre, the region where these boats were first developed. Jakob Helset lives in an area steeped in the tradition of this type of boat.
The møring boats are good, but the geit boats are more advanced. They are also much older.
“It seems like the geit boat disappeared when the need for a really good sail boat was replaced by larger boats that eventually were outfitted with motors,” explains Steen. “The extra work needed to build the geit boat was no longer worth it.”
A gathering of experts
But it wasn’t Steen who built the boats. The geit boat in the test tank was built by Øystein Elgvasslien from the Geit Boat Museum in Halsa. He’s now an accomplished geit boat builder, after having built 15 of the boats, so he is in attendance for the tests. The geit boat was built in the same way it was two centuries ago.
A lot of other experts have come for the test: Einar Borgfjord and Kristin Mellbye, who are also boat builders, as well as Marine Technology’s Rémi Retho, who is interpreting the data.
Gunnar Eldjarn is cut from the same cloth, and even though he would have rather seen a Nordland boat in the test tank he is excited as well. Eldjarn is probably the world’s only boat builder employed at a university, in his case the University of Tromsø. He learned how to build boats by working for many years with old boat builders.
But when it comes to the subject of geit boats, there is probably no better expert than Jon Bojer Godal.
Godal, the geit boat guru, is calm and collected as the tests get underway.
”This is very exciting,” he says simply, and although that’s not an exaggeration, it basically covers the tension in the air.
The tests are something Godal has wanted to do for a long time. He is, of course, deeply involved in the work at the Norwegian Geit boat Museum, and started working with geit boats in the 1980s. It was his idea to test the two boats.
Serendipity brought Godal and the head of NTNU’s Department of Marine Technology, Harald Ellingsen, together, and soon they had hatched a plan. Both agreed their project was interesting research, but it was hard to find time to test both of the boats. In June, they finally found a slot.
Godal points to the neck of the boat, explaining how it is hewn. The mathematics behind making a boat that is good for both sailing and rowing are intriguing, but building boats is more than angles and techniques. Boat building is about being a part of something, a tradition, which can’t be understood until you have built a boat yourself – something that Godal has done.
Godal learned to build boats from old boatbuilders, such as Johan Hårstad and Sigurd Brubøk. Another boat builder, Ole Skålvik, got finished pieces for the keel and the bottom of the geit boat, as well as for the front and upper ends of the strakes from his grandfather Ola Sakså. The pieces were clearly marked, and were essentially a pattern for building a geit boat. Thus Godal has continued the tradition of his forefathers.
Godal has written books on the topic. He recently finished “Living, breathing and building goat boats”, which is a fascinating read, even for the uninitiated. The book discusses the use of boats as a reflection of culture.
Geit boat – the goat boat?!
The name ‘geit’, which means goat, was probably given to the boat because of the way it climbs over waves, like a goat. Legend has it that two crews of fishermen were making fun of each other, and the crew in the Åfjord boat yelled to the crew from Møre, “Look at how the goat climbs”, as they saw the boat climbing over the swells. The other crew is said to have retorted, “Pig boat!”
Or perhaps the boat is named after its protruding neck, or because the stem head of the boat curls like a goat horn. Or maybe not. Maybe the name has nothing to do with goats at all. No one knows for sure.
”The most likely explanation is that the name comes from the stem of the ship, but has nothing with goats. Especially the foremost stem is softly shaped, and associated with the female bosom. The word ‘geit’ then comes from a common Norwegian expression for breastfeeding,” says Godal.
Today both geit boats and møring boats have been outcompeted by boats made of plastic and glass fibre. Even møring boats can be hard to find. If you want to buy a geit boat, you either have to be really lucky or search for a used boat. If you want a new geit boat, you’ll have to contact the museum. The price for a new 19-foot geit boat is NOK 187 000, or about USD 30 000, keeping in mind that it takes 400-500 hours to build. They can be made in all sizes.
You won’t be able to see the difference between the two boats unless you know – but now you do. The test in the towing tank took several days, and then the data was analysed.
How it went
So how did the test turn out? Steen says in an email that the geit boat has much less resistance in the water at high speeds (30 % less at 6 knots).
He also wrote:
The geit boat generates a larger sideways force for a given drift angle and speed, which means that a smaller drift angle is necessary at given wind conditions. This means that it can go faster.
The geit boat’s center of pressure varies slightly with drift angle and speed, making the boat easier to control in varying wind conditions.
The møring boat has larger straightening momentum, and is therefore more stable. This is because it is wider, which also explains the higher resistance at high speeds. The straightening moment improves slightly for geit boats at high speeds, but at these points the differences are minimal.
So what does all of this mean? The møring boat is wider, and therefore more stable, but otherwise the geit boat beats it in every aspect. The geit boat is a better boat, both faster and easier to row and steer. Especially in strong winds, the science says the geit boat is better.
The elders were right after all, something Godal and other enthusiasts knew all along. But it’s nice to have the science to back it up.