The Kalmar Nyckel celebrates seamanship, 17th century-style


Watching the crew prepare to haul the tack line, a passenger asks, “Don’t you use gloves?”

The Kalmar Nyckel is a replica of the ship that was used to establish the New Sweden colony in the Delaware Valley.

“Nah,” the deck chief says. “Two, six, HEAVE!” he shouts, and the main yardarm shifts.

“The way we keep the lines under control, you don’t need them,” another mariner adds. And with another shout of “two, six, HEAVE!” the yardarm is angled to the captain’s approval and belayed.

Those who want to experience the life of a tall-ship seaman — without the scur-vy and floggings of the 17th century — can make the short voyage from the Chesapeake region to experience Delaware’s spectacular tall ship, the Kalmar Nyckel.

The first Kalmar Nyckel — an armed merchantman known as a pinnace — was built in Holland and bought by the city of Kalmar in Sweden to protect the port. She was used for national defense when the legendary warrior king Gustavus Adolphus II summoned her. In 1637 the Kalmar Nyckel was bought by the New Sweden Co. to help establish the colony of New Sweden in the Delaware Valley. Arriving at “The Rocks” — a place suitable for landing an oceangoing ship — Peter Minuit and his crew of Dutchmen, Swedes and Finns established a trading post named after Sweden’s Queen Christina, now the city of Wilmington. In testimony to the ship’s durability, it made four voyages bringing colonists and supplies to Fort Christina, then returned home again to fight in the Baltic Sea during the Swedish-Danish War in 1645. In its most significant battle in that conflict, the Kalmar Nyckel took on the heavily armed fluyte St. Peter. To overcome the Danish ship’s firepower, the Kalmar Nyckel closed with the ship and sent its sailors and marines across the bulwarks with flintlock and cutlass to seize it in bloody hand-to-hand combat.

Decommissioned and sold back to the Dutch in 1645, the Kalmar Nyckel’s end is shrouded in mystery. One story has it sunk in the North Sea during the First Anglo-Dutch War at the Battle of Kentish Knock. Another has it finishing its days peacefully plying the Baltic Sea trade, its bones resting on the bottom at the Port of Kalmar.

Recent research suggests she may have gone down protecting the Dutch fishing fleet from British warships in 1652. This version has the Swedish government selling the Kalmar Nyckel to Dutch merchant Cornelius Rolofsson. Rolofsson then leased the ship to the Dutch government, which assigned it to convoy duty in the North Sea, where it was hit by cannon fire from British warships sent to drive Dutch fishermen from the waters off the Shetland Islands. Determined to be not worth repairing, the ship was scuttled, whereupon the merchant owner produced an inventory of the vessel’s gear and successfully sued the Dutch government for his loss.

In 1989 the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation was created with the goal of “preserving and promoting the cultural and maritime heritage of Delaware for the education and enrichment of all.” To this end, the keel of the replica Kalmar Nyckel was laid in 1995, and she was launched in 1997 and commissioned in 1998 with officials from the United States, Sweden, Holland and Finland presiding. In addition to the ship, the foundation has a yard and offices, and its most recent addition is the magnificent Copeland Maritime Center, a three-story, 18,000-square-foot cultural facility featuring the Watercraft of the World collection of 72 model ships representing 60 lands. All of this is on Wilmington’s Seventh Street Peninsula, Delaware’s historic shipbuilding site and where New Sweden began. The foundation offers numerous educational programs for adults, students and teachers, geared to the ship’s operations, the history of the New Sweden colony and the Delaware Valley, the Copeland Center and the shipyard (

The modern Kalmar Nyckel is a replica of the original 17th century pinnace, built using traditional materials and methods. It has a sparred length of 141 feet, a beam of 25 feet and a draft of 12 feet, 5 inches. It displaces 298 tons, and the rigging spans 105 feet from the waterline to the main flagstaff. The framing is of Guyanese purpleheart, the knees North American hackmatack, and the spars and planking Douglas fir.

The Kalmar Nyckel has more than seven miles of rigged line — made of sturdy manila-like Robline — and the sails are Oceanus, made from recycled plastic by Maine sailmaker Nathaniel Wilson. Among its more remarkable features are the handmade carvings around the ship, with angel faces representing its most dedicated crewmembers and supporters, as well as mythological figures and animals. The carvings were done mostly by local artisans, and the mahogany griffins in the captain’s cabin are reputed to be the “first such beasts carved for a wooden tall ship since the 1620s.”

Ornate carvings adorn the ship’s unique stern.

The Kalmar Nyckel can deploy as much as 7,600 square feet of sail to drive the ship at 12.5 knots. Twin Caterpillar 3208 diesels, producing 180 hp each, push the vessel at 9.25 knots. It has two 16-kW Northern Lights generators to provide electric power and a propane-powered stove in the galley for the cook’s notable creations. The ship’s wheel wasn’t invented until the early 18th century, so steering is done by a whipstaff, with the helmsman in the “coach” on the main deck adjusting the position of the 3,200-pound rudder under the direction of the officer on the quarterdeck above.

The Nyckel sails with a crew of about 24, divided into two watches. The work schedule is arranged in “Swedish Watch” style — that is, 0700 to 1300, 1300 to 1900, 1900 to 2300, 2300 to 0300 and 0300 to 0700. There are usually eight or nine crewmembers working at a time, changing duties (helm, fire watch, setting sails, bow watch, etc.) every half hour during watch. The crew is supervised by one of the mates or the captain, who is assisted by the deck chiefs overlooking the fore, main and mizzen decks.

The crew’s thorough training pays off with smooth sailing for passengers, who find it takes only a short time to be charmed by the camaraderie and fun on board. “It gets addictive pretty quick,” one crewmember says. “Want an application?”

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.