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Norway's Pioneering Ship Tunnel – Can It Be On Time And In Budget?

4th November 2021
This is not a Set Proposal for the next James Bond movie…On the contrary, the Stad Ship Tunnel in Norway is for real, and construction starts next year.
This is not a Set Proposal for the next James Bond movie…On the contrary, the Stad Ship Tunnel in Norway is for real, and construction starts next year.

Alex Blackwell of Clew Bay is always buzzing with ideas, and his latest notion is that the destination for a future Cruise-in-Company by some seagoing club or other (he's involved in several) should be the pioneering Ship Tunnel that the Norwegian Government is gong to build through the isthmus of the Stad Peninsula. This rugged headland of ill-repute is around 200 kilometres north of the ancient Hanseatic port of Bergen, and juts stubbornly out from the most westerly part of Norway's much-indented Atlantic coast. As it's on the same latitude as the Faroe Islands - where the sailing is plagued by the wayward winds and weather of the Arctic Convergence - the west point of the Stad reputedly has a hundred gale days every year, not to mention the added turmoil of opposing tides fighting to dominate each other.

Its foul reputation is such that in times past, frustrated Viking voyagers were reputed occasionally to haul their ships across a slight dip in the mile or so of the steep isthmus in order to make progress north or south. That is a very much more formidable challenge than the early mediaeval habit in Ireland – still part of folk memory in Baldoyle - of hauling Viking longships on tree-trunk rollers across the tombolo at Sutton in order to by-pass Howth from Dublin Bay without having to face the winter weather off The Baily.

The Stad Peninsula with the line of the Ship Tunnel. The island of Selje, directly linked to the 11th Century Irish missionary St Sunniva, is at the centre of map.   The Stad Peninsula with the line of the Ship Tunnel. The island of Selje, directly linked to the 11th Century Irish missionary St Sunniva, is at the centre of map.  

The Stad Ship Tunnel will be an engineering project of international interest. It is said that in prolonged periods of bad weather, the Vikings sometimes resorted to portaging their longships across the dip in the foreground on the isthmus ridgeThe Stad Ship Tunnel will be an engineering project of international interest. It is said that in prolonged periods of bad weather, the Vikings sometimes resorted to portaging their longships across the dip in the foreground on the isthmus ridge

Nowadays, even the able ships of the famous Norwegian Hurtigruten coast-hopping express can find the Stad means trouble, for the name simply means Stop, and it can do what it says on the
tin. Yet much of the pain could be taken out of it if only one could by-pass with a neat little slice through the peninsula's neck at its narrowest part, where the distance is just 1.7 kilometres, or near
enough a mile.

That location has been much debated, as a longer tunnel nearer the open sea would mean less diversion for vessels bound along the coast. But as a cruising destination, a tunnel further inland is all to the good, as it brings you well into the real Norway, and the fascinating neighbourhood of Stadlandet. It's not quite Norway's Dingle Peninsula, but as the local holy woman was St Sunniva, a Christian missionary from some royal family in Ireland, then it's only right and proper the Irish Cruising Club should someday head that way and make a ceremonial transit – under sail of course – through the new tunnel.

The remains of St Sunniva's Abbey on Selje is in the western approaches to the Ship Tunnel

To access the tunnel from the southwest, the final bit of local mini-fjord takes you past Selje Island and its 11th Century abbey, which was Sunniva's centre of operations, and is her burial place. There's many a cruise from Ireland which has had Santiago de Compostela in Galicia as one of its objectives, and in cruising the coasts of Cornwall and Brittany, you find yourself off harbourside villages which were name to venerate Irish missionaries. But in heading for Norway, you might expect to find yourself at Kirkwall in Orkney and its cathedral of St Magnus the Martyr.

He was the first and last Viking saint. He persuaded his comrades to give up their more anti-social habits, thereby contributing significantly to the ending of Vikingism, but he had his head cut off for his troubles. Be that as it may, the dominance of Magnus-veneration in the Orkneys might lead to the assumption that Norwegian Christian missionaries were making all the running. But by sailing a few hundred miles further northeast to Selje, you'll find confirmation that it was an Irish persuader who started it all.

And now, with preparations well advanced such that work on the tunnel is on target to start in 2022 with a completion in 2025, the focus is once again on the waters in and around Selje. The tunnel idea is not at all new – it must have occurred to the Viking boat-haulers as they cursed their longships across the dip in the ridge – but since 1874, the proposals have become increasingly realistic as tunnelling technology has advanced, and since 2011 it has been steadily moving up the agenda of the Norwegian National Transport Development Plan, until now it is just a matter of time.

The relatively little-known area inland of Stad will offer fresh yet convenient cruising possibilities once the Tunnel is openedThe relatively little-known area inland of Stad will offer fresh yet convenient cruising possibilities once the Tunnel is opened

It is also increasingly a matter of international interest to the point of fascination, for this is a major public expenditure flagship project. Thus everyone is intrigued to see how well the notoriously serious but also extremely resource-rich Norwegians manage to stay within budget, when other schemes like the "new" airport at Berlin, the high-speed railway in England, and the National Children's Hospital in Ireland appear to have gone out of and well beyond any controlled financial orbit.

Admittedly an every-which-way-technologically-complex project like an airport or a hospital is in a different category from the basically straightforward concept of a tunnel. But nevertheless, the removal of billions of tons of best Norwegian rock puts the Stad tunnel in a league of its own, for even the steep-sided Corinth Canal inside the Peloponnese in Greece maybe all of four miles long, yet it is but an open-topped ditch by comparison.

The Stad Tunnel will be a showpiece project, and wherein times past civil engineers seemed to prefer to be left in peace to get on with their more challenging projects, the construction of the Tunnel will be a must-see on the tourist circuit, as too in the future will be the sight of ships suddenly popping out of a hole in the Norwegian coast.

Built to accommodate ships up to the Hurtigruten Coastal Express size, it should be possible to sail through the Stad Ship Tunnel with a fair wind. Whether it will be permissible is another matter……Built to accommodate ships up to the Hurtigruten Coastal Express size, it should be possible to sail through the Stad Ship Tunnel with a fair wind. Whether it will be permissible is another matter……

Whether or not in 2027 or thereabouts the Irish Cruising Club will be allowed to have a fleet sail-through of the Tunnel as the culmination of their St Sunniva Cruise-in-Company is something else altogether, but there is a precedent of sorts.

Way back in September 1968, the ICC had one of their few truly all-Ireland Rallies, staged in Newry at the head of the Newry Ship Canal, and boats came from every coastline. One was Stan Roche's hefty big ketch Nancy Bet from Crosshaven, and once they'd passed through the sea lock from Carlingford Lough, Stan and his merry men realised the brisk and freshening southeaster was a direct fair wind along the canal to the Albert Basin. So they sent up the spinnaker, and other boats set some sail as well.

There were only two cars moving along the little canal-side road, but in observing this rather amazing spectacle, they managed to crash into each other. Yet - miraculously - the sail-setting boats avoided doing something similar as they arrived with a mighty flourish in Newry.

Can something similar be arranged for the Stad Tunnel, with its air draft of 161ft and width of 118ft? Unlike Newry, if you can just make it through with spinnaker set, there'll be oodles of room to take it in as you ping out into open water at the far end………

After you….CGI of ships taking it in turn to enter the Stad Ship TunnelAfter you….CGI of ships taking it in turn to enter the Stad Ship Tunnel

It can be a difficult coastline, and the Stad (at top) is the most difficult bit of all for smaller craftIt can be a difficult coastline, and the Stad (at top) is the most difficult bit of all for smaller craft

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

Email The Author

William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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