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For some, retirement means traveling the world or spending more time with grandchildren. But for one San Marcos resident, it means connecting with his roots and building a Viking ship. KPBS North County reporter Alexander Nguyen brings us his story.

San Marcos man taps into his Nordic roots one plank at time

In a Vista backyard, five days a week, Tom Kottmeier is toiling away, hammering, sanding and chipping away at pieces of wood strewn across the carport.

"It doesn’t have to be precise, but if it’s not well fitted it doesn’t look right,” Kottmeier said, holding one a piece of the ship's rib.

This is his definition of retirement. The retired sailor is busy building his own Viking ship.

"Because they're very beautiful and excellent sailboats," he said. "That's my real motivation."

His love for Viking ships started in 2001 when he and a group of volunteers helped build the Munin, a replica Viking ship in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was also that ship’s first captain.

“I found it such a lovely, excellent sailboat to be on that I thought this would be great to build my own sometime,” he said.

After talking about it for decades, Kottmeir decided he would finally build his dream boat when he retired in 2018. There was just a small problem: He didn't have the space to do it.

Sons of Norway lodge in Vista
Alexander Nguyen
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KPBS
An ax sculpture in front of the Sons of Norway lodge in Vista, Calif., June 29, 2022.

In came The Sons of Norway Lodge in Vista. In January 2020, he asked for permission to use their dirt yard and they agreed. Kottmeier said the pandemic set his original timeline back a bit. The ship was supposed to be completed in the summer of 2021.

About 1½ years into building, Kottmeier made a presentation at the lodge to ask for volunteers to help. That’s where he met Ivar Schoenmeyr, a “semi-retired engineer.”

"I wanted to learn how to build a Viking ship," he said. "And what is a Viking club without a Viking ship? I've been waiting for this for five years for someone to come around and say, let's build a Viking ship."

Since then Schoenmeyr has been driving down from his home in San Juan Capistrano two days a week.

Last fall, the lodge needed the land back to start hosting events again. Kottmeier posted on the Nextdoor app to find a new home for the project.

"It was amazing," he said. "I had 80 responses to the message and 10 of them offered space."

That’s how the ship ended up in a backyard in Vista. Kottmeier said the family that's letting him use the place is of Scandinavian descent.

Tom Kottmeir - Ivar Schoenmeyr - viking ship
Alexander Nguyen
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KPBS
Tom Kottmeir and his friend Ivar Schoenmeyr working on the mast of the Viking ship in Vista, Calif., May 17, 2022.

He already has a name for the ship — Sleipnir (pronounce sleep-near). That name came from Norse mythology. Sleipnir is Odin’s eight-legged horse. There's a bit of poetry in the name: When the ship is complete, it will have space for eight rowers — four on each side.

Kottmeier based the plans on the ship he built in Vancouver, which was a replica of the Gokstad — a 78-foot ninth century Viking ship unearthed from an ancient burial mound in Norway in 1880.

"This is 33 feet," he said. "Some of the Viking ships were 75 and even more long. And they could carry 50, 60, maybe. Even 100 people on board on long voyages. They carried all the provisions. They carried live animals, cattle and whatnot."

It’s a scaled-down version of the Gokstad, which created its own set of problems.

"When you scale something like this — like this is almost half scale — is it's OK length-wise, but people are not half scale. We are stepping into a half-scale board. And that is why we're sitting up, because if this is the real Gokstad ship, these boards would be up here," Schoenmeyr said, raising his hands above his head as he sits inside the boat. "And so now we're going to be pretty close to the waters. That will be interesting. When we launch this to see. Are we going to get swamped?"

"No, we're not," Kottmeier said. "(Ivar's) worried about the ship sinking. It's not going to sink."

The pair is close to finishing the ship. Kottmeier hopes to have it ready for its maiden voyage in San Diego Bay later this summer.

After its maiden trip, the ship will be shipped to Norway in 2024 so Kottmeier can sail into Stockholm harbor.

You can follow Kottmeier's progress on his website, Viking Ship Sleipnir

Corrected: July 11, 2022 at 8:19 AM PDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Tom Kottmeier's name. KPBS regrets the error.
As web producer, Alexander Nguyen is responsible for covering breaking news online, writing web stories, and copy editing and updating the station’s website and social media. Alexander has covered Southern California extensively for several publications, including Patch, Times of San Diego, MyNewsLA.com, and NBC San Diego where he won several Society of Professional Journalists and San Diego Press Club awards for his writing. Alexander is a member of the Asian American Journalists Association and San Diego Press Club. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in journalism innovation from Syracuse University.