FAIRPORT HARBOR — A 1992 Harbor High School graduate made a Viking's entrance into Fairport Harbor Thursday.
Gunar Luhta arrived aboard the Draken Harald Harfagre, a ship designed to remember the Vikings that was built from scratch in 2010 based on designs and knowledge from ship wrecks and old boat building traditions, according to Luhta and the Draken Harald website. It is 115 feet from stem to stern and is 26-feet wide.
Luhta said he didn't sleep much Wednesday night because he was trying to get some shut-eye on the deck of the Draken Harald Harfagre when a brutal storm hit the ship on Lake Erie.
"It's really hard sleeping," Luhta said after the ship arrived in Fairport Harbor about 11 a.m. on Thursday.
The ship is in the region for the Tall Ships Challenge event, which allows people to see and even board the ships. The event has been in Cleveland since 2001 but moved to Fairport Habor this year because of the Republican National Convention.
Luhta said the Draken Harald Harfagre's first voyage was in 2014 and it has been sailing all over the world since. The ship's website said the ship is sailing to create inter-cultural connections and remember the voyages of Leif Erickson 500 years ago.
"It's owned by a wealthy entrepreneur," Luhta said.
The ship is a not-for-profit operation with a crew of about 30 interns and volunteers — but it took millions of dollar to build.
Luhta came aboard to help guide the ship in American waters. He works as a pilot for ships operating under "foreign" flags in Lake Erie — no ship is allowed to enter American waters without a licensed American captain.
"I bordered the vessel in Port Colborne on the Welland Canal" in Ontario, he said, adding, "I take command of the vessel."
Luhta said he ran a sailing class for the crew during a waiting period to continue on to Fairport Harbor. He said the Norwegian captain has been sailing tall ships into harbors throughout the world for many years.
The Darken Harald crew comes from all over the world including Sweden, Russia and Norway, Luhta said.
He said a small central portion of the ship is used for sleeping.
"They are all cuddled up," he said.
Luhta said the ship took off from Norway April 26 and made stops in Iceland and Greenland before arriving at the St. Lawrence Seaway and entering Canada in late May. The ship is spending the summer at ports throughout the Great Lakes and will end up in New York City in mid-September.
"They have a huge following on Facebook. It is the only boat like it in the world," he said.
Luhta said he enjoys his job because he is able to have a more "normal" schedule than most captains on the Great Lakes or on seas around the world. He normally works one day on, one day off, with a lake crossing usually taking anywhere from 17 hours to six hours on rivers that connect the Great Lakes.
The winter time also provides downtime.
"As soon as the docks close we are done for three months," Luhta said.
He said a couple of hundred ships come in regularly.
"We are hoping Ashtabula picks up a little bit, but our busiest is Detroit and Cleveland," he said.
His family is staying short-term in Ashtabula and he hopes to find a house in the Chagrin Falls area for his wife, Jenny, and three children, Kayden, 10, Fallon, 9, and Kai, 7.
Luhta said his family spent many hours sailing and, after spending two years in the U.S. Army, he attended the Maritime Academy in Traverse City, Michigan.
"When it came time to choose a career, it was a no-brainer," Luhta said.
After completing the four-year Maritime Academy program, he spent four years sailing in the Caribbean before returning to work the Great Lakes for the last 13 years.
The Fairport Harbor Tall Ships Challenge event lasts all weekend from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with ship boarding privileges available for sale. The festival pass, without boarding privileges, is $10 for a day pass and $15 for a day pass with boarding, according to the festival website. For more information visit, www.tallshipsfairportharbor.com.