Kalmar Nyckel sails in from the past

A sailor climbs the rigging. (Photos by Nicole Terpening)

Captain Lauren Morgens at the “whipstaff.”

It’s a sauna-like August day on the deck of the replica 17th century armed merchantman Kalmar Nyckel and Captain Lauren Morgens has her eye on the weather. In this case, seeing that it’s the 21st century, that means the weather app on her smartphone. Back on the quarterdeck, children from a nearby sailing school are gathered around the mizzen mast learning how to hoist a sail using authentic 1600s technology and muscle. 

“If we’re getting a thunderstorm, I need to get them ashore,” said Morgens, who has helmed the Kalmar Nyckel since 2007.

The mix of old and new technology — and a focus on education — encapsulates the mission of the Kalmar Nyckel, which plies the east coast from her homeport in Wilmington, Del., keeping alive the techniques of the Age of Sail and the memory of a lesser known chapter of Colonial America’s history: the settlement of New Sweden. This week, visitors to the Rondout waterfront’s Hudson River Maritime Museum will have a chance to experience the Kalmar Nyckel, both at dockside and underway as the educational vessel completes a week-long port call in Kingston.


The original Kalmar Nyckel was launched in 1627 as an armed merchant vessel in service to the Swedish navy. In 1638, the ship made its first three-month Atlantic crossing, bearing a platoon of 24 soldiers to the mouth of the Delaware River where they would establish the colony of New Sweden.

Over the next few years, the Kalmar Nyckel would make four transatlantic voyages ferrying settlers to the colony, a record in the colonial era. The colony, which eventually covered parts of modern-day Delaware, southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, squeezed between the Dutch New Netherlands colony to the north and England’s Chesapeake Bay colonies to the south, led a tenuous existence. With a dearth of settlers willing to leave the relative comfort and freedom of Sweden for a perilous life in the New World, the colony relied on army deserters, mercenaries, avaricious adventurers and utopian religious sects to people the new land. 

Among the New Sweden colonists were a large number of “forest Finns” — ethnically Finnish residents of Sweden’s rugged backcountry. Like their new Native American neighbors, the forest Finns were accustomed to a rugged life in a wild country where hunting and slash-and-burn farming were the primary means of sustenance. Among their lasting contributions to America’s colonial history were their imported-from-home notched timber dwellings — the prototype for the iconic frontier log cabin. 

The Kalmar Nyckel tied up downtown.

New Sweden would be a short-lived experiment. Established by the first Kalmar Nyckel voyagers in 1638, the colony would fall to an armed incursion led by New Netherland Gov. Peter Stuyvesant in 1655. The Dutch in turn lost the colony, along with the rest of their North American holdings, to the English in 1664. By that time, the Kalmar Nyckel was at the bottom of the North Sea, where she was sunk by ships of the English Royal Navy in an action off of Scotland in 1652. 

“Telling that story is important,” said Morgens of the ship’s educational mission. “But it also connects more broadly to history. Who were these people? Why were they coming to the New World? It’s also the story of the technology that they used to get here.” 

The modern Kalmar Nyckel was launched in 1997 by the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, a Wilmington, Del.-based educational nonprofit. The ship was built to authentic 17th century specifications using historic shipbuilding techniques. The three-masted sailing vessel measures 141 feet long with a displacement of 300 tons. Like the ships of the day the Kalmar Nyckel is brightly painted and adorned with ornate and fanciful carvings. Along the stern, the ship’s builders paid homage to the 17th century tradition of carved wooden busts depicting contemporary heroes and villains with a row of carvings memorializing people who played key roles in the construction and operation of the Kalmar Nyckel (hence the carving of the guy with sunglasses).

The ship predates the ship’s wheel, so steering is accomplished by means of a “whipstaff” — a lever-and-shaft contraption beneath the quarterdeck that allows a helmsman to manipulate the ship’s 3,200-pound rudder with ease. The ship also has modern-day systems including twin engines, generators, electronic navigation systems and even Wi-Fi.

The crew is comprised of Morgens, three full-time mates and a rotating crew of 22 volunteers. After an initial three-week training period aboard the ship, volunteers can sign up in one-week increments to work on board during the sailing season as the Kalmar Nyckel cruises the coast and inland waterways. 

During its stay in Kingston, the Kalmar Nyckel will be open for dockside visits. The ship is also offering scheduled two-and-a-half hour cruises on the Hudson River and 90-minute “pirate adventures” for kids. Pricing and schedule information is available at the Hudson River Maritime Museum website at www.hrmm.org.