THE VIKSUND STORY:
40 Years with safety at sea
written by Bengt Erik Iversen for the Norwegian magazine Båtliv (Boatlife).
At boat fairs, the flashy models always occupy front stage centre, while those built for safety, seaworthiness and manoeuvrability are found – often by chance – in obscure corners of the exhibition area.
And so it was at the boat fair “The Sea for Everyone” in Oslo in 1971; where an entirely different kind of boat could be found, discretely placed, in a far corner of the smallest exhibition hall. Everything about it was off the trend: the rugged looking hull, the light beige colour and the comfortable, standing-room wheelhouse amidships. It was the Viksund 25 Combi.
Erling Viksund himself was onboard, welcoming visitors with weighty arguments about the seaworthy hull and extra thick laminates for the rough coastal weather in Western Norway. The self-bailing aft cockpit was equipped with an extra wheel for close manoeuvring and had plenty of room for fishing or fair weather recreation.
These features were new and addressed a number of needs not met by the flashier models at the fair. The Viksund 25 Combi earned the “Grandest Boat” award from the leading Norwegian boat magazine Sjøsport and Erling Viksund signed a number of orders. With this, the “West Norwegian Boat” was born and production had to be moved to larger facilities in Strusshamn outside Bergen in order to meet demand.
In the beginning…
The first Viksund model was a 25 foot smooth hulled “sjark”, a typical Norwegian fishing boat with a large aft cockpit and a smallish wheelhouse placed forward. It was followed by the more family-friendly Sabb Cruiser in 1965/66. When asked how many boats were built with these hulls, Erling Viksund shakes his head: “I don’t know; several thousand”. Those sales figures notwithstanding, there was a noticeable resistance in the market to plastic boats. The Norwegian coastal population is not one to switch to something new overnight, and Erling Viksund found himself in an uphill battle against the entrenched wooden boat culture.
Plastic versus wood
The battle lines were drawn when a Bergen newspaper printed that “plastic boats were death traps”, and it became clear that the market must be educated. Other plastic boat manufacturers faced the same problem and it was not unusual for boat fair visitors to be given a sledge hammer and told to have a go at the hull. But Erling Viksund also wanted to prove the overall boat strength and survivability and in 1967 arranged with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation to have a boat dropped off a cliff into the sea. It was a marvellous PR stunt; the boat popped up again good as new and was subjected to the sledge hammer test while the cameras were running. (Nobody knew that Erling Viksund first had made a test drop, just to be sure).
Safety and seaworthiness
And this “need to be sure” was one of the basic Viksund characteristics. In the many models developed and produced the following decades, safety and seaworthiness were in focus and these principles were never compromised regardless of adaptations to market preferences. The business grew rapidly in the Seventies and eighties and the orange/yellow Viksund boats became an established part of the coastal scenery. There were boats for professional fishing, family boats with and without sail and even flashier and speedier models for the upper end of the pleasure craft market. The Viksund 31 Goldfish is perhaps the single most important model in the recreational category. It was equipped with a main and a mizzen and a bowsprit was added for better balance under sail. It was reminiscent of the famous Colin Archers and enjoyed an immense popularity for decades. New models were introduced, but failed to replace the Goldfish.
Always looking forward, Erling Viksund established agencies in Sweden, the Faeroes, Greenland, England and USA in order to open up new sales areas – not only for pleasure boats, but for tough professional fishing vessels as well.
The development of a professional fishing vessel was no accident; a former fisherman and sailor in the Norwegian merchant marine, Erling Viksund had a unique understanding of the needs in this particular market segment. He clearly saw that the existing fleet of mainly small and ageing wooden boats was ripe for renewal – and now he had the experience and the right hull. Moreover, there was an immense market for modern fishing vessels in developing countries and while Norwegian fishermen always kept an eye on the price, in developing countries, where they could barely afford the fuel, the cost of the vessel itself was of prime importance. Mass production was the key if this venture were to be successful, and soon a new factory was established in Harstad in northern Norway with assembly line production of modern fishing vessels.
The first and basic model for this market was the Viksund 31 Sjark and the market could not get enough of them. The vessels were adapted to various types of fishing and were equipped with a stronger engine – a 100 hp SABB as standard. It also had extra thick laminates and a mizzen for added stability. This 31 foot sjark established an entirely new standard for the coastal fishermen; onboard safety was significantly improved as were the living conditions. Maintenance was, of course, radically simplified compared with the old wooden boats. Thousands of boats were sold in Norway and abroad, and the facilities in Harstad were taxed to capacity; when a smaller 27’ version was introduced, it had to be produced in Strusshamn outside Bergen.
Predictably, the trend for fishing vessels was toward larger and faster boats. The increased speed saved money on the trip to and from the fishing banks and increased size allowed for larger catches and enhanced onboard comfort. To meet this need, Viksund developed the “Speedsjark” in the early seventies and the vessel went through speed trials off Røst in 1974. The trend was accelerated when the authorities started favouring larger, more efficient ships with a bigger crew. Viksund took the challenge, brought a nautical engineer into the firm and developed still larger “sjarks”.
In the pleasure boat market, many boat builders focussed on larger and faster models, while Viksund supplied models in a variety of sizes and price classes. For instance, the Viksund 660 (a small boat that soon came to be called “the largest twenty-two footer in the world”) had an all weather hardtop and simple, practical internal furnishings, all combined with a comfortable price. It became known as a safe and seaworthy little vessel and although more than 300 of them were produced annually for a period, it was not enough to meet demand.
Similarly, there were only a few motor sailors on the market, and while Fjord in 1978 had its MS 33 at a price of NOK 280 000, Viksund had its Goldfish at about NOK 170 000. Moreover, the Goldfish had an entrenched image as a tough motor sailor and the yellow/orange hull was identified with seaworthiness. In fact, the distinctive colour was soon being copied by competitors. When the oil crisis hit, many boat fairs were cancelled and for a while even “The Sea for All” in Oslo was in doubt, but it eventually was held as planned. Sales were generally low – except at the Viksund stand where potential buyers were milling about. A motor sailor with a small diesel engine was exactly what the market wanted. The queues were long and Erling Viksund signed many contracts.
It is typical that at this low point in the market, Viksund introduced a new 25 footer structured on the Colombi concept. It was initially offered at a price of NOK 95 000 including a small rig and a 25 hp VP Diesel in the engine room. The strategy paid off. When the market finally normalised, a number of producers of hydroplaning boats had serious economic problems, while at Viksund the situation was better. In fact, at the end of the seventies Viksund was the largest producer of small craft in Norway. However, the public wanted larger, faster boats with increased comfort onboard and it would take some time before Viksund found the right concept for its future boats. Viksund 900 Futura was one of the popular models in the early eighties. It had a radically new hull design with a bow bulb – an unusual concept for small boats. It was followed by the 1000 Alfa model and eventually by the 800 Futura. With the Futura models together with the 750 series, Viksund’s new look was finally established. Sales were good and around 1985 there were 60 employees at the yard in Strusshamn.
The good times lasted a few years more, but when the financial bubble of the late eighties finally burst in 1988/89, the pleasure boat market dried up. The entire industry struggled to survive and also Viksund had problems. The concern had to go through a restructuring and several group companies were wound up. The very existence of the enterprise was threatened and the number of employees had to be reduced from 60 to 30. As if all this was not enough, the market for small fishing vessels declined markedly and the production in northern Norway was discontinued in 1990/91.
Development pays off.
A new company with the name Viksund AS was established, and the 350 model was soon a reality. It was a large, modern boat with excellent speed properties and it was marketed as the Fjord Model for export. !990 turned out to be a good year and new models soon followed. The 270 model was similar to the 350 but was smaller and intended for the domestic market. From 1997 the 350 model was marketed under the “St. Cruz” label, and later also the 270 and its offspring the 290 in 1999. The series was further developed and especially the 340 model sold very well. The last innovation, the 320 model, was introduced in the spring of 2007. It accommodates an average family, is structured along modern lines and comes equipped with a deck salon and a fly bridge.
Although Viksund for several decades had sold boats in most corners of the world, the production facilities had been located in Norway. Eventually, however, globalisation combined with assistance from the Norwegian Foreign Development Agency (NORAD), inspired Viksund to establish production facilities in Sri Lanka, and in 1997 Jostein Viksund (Erling’s son) established a separate company there called Viksund Asia. In 2000 Viksund acquired the rights to the well known “With” hulls and set several “With” models into production. Interestingly, the smallest boat – the With 10’ – became the most popular dingy in Scandinavia. Also the remainder of the fishing vessel production was moved to Sri Lanka and Viksund Asia now produces Sjarks from 43 to 50 feet in addition to the small boat series and new model development.
Handing over the rudder
Erling’s son Rune Viksund took over as general manager of the company several years ago, and in a deliberate effort to keep his fingers off the tiller, the founder himself rigged a Sjark and sailed north along the coast as he had done so many times before. This time though, the purpose was fishing and seeing old friends from the time when he listened to advice from old fishermen, or demonstrated the new models developed in part upon the local wisdom he had obtained on the previous trip. This was basic marketing and it worked – along the entire Norwegian coast Viksund is now an established concept and Erling Viksund knows a good portion of the boat owners personally.
40 years old and floating well
This year (2007) the company is 40 years old and can look back upon a fantastic history. Without Erling Viksund’s personality, however, much would have been different. On the one hand there is the insistence on safety, seaworthiness and functionality, and on the other there is the experimenter, the willingness to test new ideas and make them work. Now Erling’s Grandson Daniel is active in the firm. The new 320 model is just launched and the sale of its predecessor the 340 model has been excellent for several years. As the market starts to ask for boats of 40 feet or more, Viksund is well positioned to give the competitors a good fight.
Well over 40 and floating well
As for Erling Viksund himself, being retired was, naturally, too tedious and so he established a factory outlet in his childhood village north of Bergen. And now that the outlet is running well he has bought Magnus, an upgraded 1973 31’ Viksund Goldfish, from Canadian author Silver Donald Cameron. Silver Donald had already sailed Magnus down the entire east US coast to the Bahamas (and back), with his wife and dog as crew. His entertaining book about the trip, Sailing Away from Winter, inspired Erling Viksund to undertake a similar adventure. In the spring of 2008 Erling and his wife will sail Magnus up the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi, with the Bahamas as their ultimate goal – “if my health allows”, he adds. But if the past is any indication, Erling Viksund will complete the trip as planned, in the certainty that his sons and grandchildren are carrying on the art of boat building in Strusshamn and Sri Lanka.