The fate of the world’s largest Viking ship’s tour to the United States, including Duluth, remained uncertain Thursday as a last-minute fundraising campaign to cover pilotage fees got underway.
With a goal of raising more than $400,000 to cover the unexpected costs of paying for a pilot to guide the Draken Harald Hårfagre through the Great Lakes to its final U.S. destinations, the charitable Sons of Norway Foundation launched a “Help the Draken Sail Again!” campaign to allow the ship to continue its participation in the Tall Ships Challenge Great Lakes 2016, which includes a four-day stop in Duluth in August.
“We are certainly keeping our fingers crossed,” said Eivind Heiberg, CEO of the Minneapolis cultural organization. “This is a huge thing for the community. We have 850,000 people in Minnesota who claim Norwegian heritage, and it’s important to bring this to all who have worked for and planned their visit.”
Others have started private efforts on two separate GoFundMe pages.
Minutes after the Sons of Norway campaign went live, one person donated $26. But there is a long road ahead, and time is short.
A spokeswoman for the ship, which features an oak hull and a 3,200-square-foot sail, said it probably will have to turn around and head back to Norway if funds are not secured by Sunday, when the Draken is supposed to depart from Bay City, Mich., where it is part of a Tall Ships event this week. More than a million people are expected to see the ship during its 11 stops at Great Lakes ports.
The Draken’s crew thought it qualified for an exemption to U.S. law that requires a pilot for all foreign vessels. It was following a Canadian law that waives that requirement for ships less than 35 meters long. The Draken is 34.5 meters (115 feet).
When news got out that the ship had to hire a pilot at roughly $400 per hour and could not pay, a number of pilots e-mailed saying they’d do the work for free. Earlier this week, the Coast Guard said it would be OK with that, but the decision to let pilots donate their time largely rested with their associations.
Such a move would put us in “uncharted territory,” said John Swartout, president of the Western Great Lakes Pilots Association, which covers lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan. By law, the association must provide pilots to any vessels that request one and charge the fee set by the Coast Guard, he said. By offering a pass to the Draken, it might open the door to other ships wanting the same treatment.
“Where do you draw the line?” he said.
The fundraising development came as a positive development at a time when things have looked bleak.
“We are getting our hopes up to continue this expedition,” said spokeswoman Sarah Blank, who is traveling with the ship.
In another twist, the Draken did its part to foster goodwill. On Wednesday night while sailing Lake Huron, the ship responded to a call from the Canadian equivalent of the Coast Guard to search for a woman who had placed a distress call.
“We searched for three hours with no luck,” Blank said. “We are having all this drama.”
The fundraising site is at www.sofn.com.