Boat burning festival in Sayville mimics age-old Viking ceremony

By Margaret Osborne and Danielle Tomlinson

The crowd watched mesmerized as flames engulfed a boat called ‘“About Time,” as it slowly disintegrated from vessel to ash.

The annual Boat Burning Festival at the Long Island Maritime Museum took place on Oct. 26 as a fundraiser for the museum and a day for the community to come together.

While boat-burning traditionally happens at Viking funerals, Terry Blitman, LIMM executive director said she doesn’t know exactly why this started on Long Island.  Locals have heard a few different stories: one man says it was the result of a boat accidentally catching on fire, which turned into a tradition. Another said it was for tax purposes in the disposal of old vessels.

Still for a few, the boat-burning has cultural and religious significance.

Donning a Viking horned-hat and traditional Norwegian sweater, Fritz Rasenberger, a Huntington native, chatted merrily with the ticket sellers as he entered the event.

Rasenberger attends the annual fundraiser to honor his Scandinavian heritage. “This is our thing.” he told them. “We invented this! “Mange takk,” he said as he took his ticket, “thank you, in Norwegian.”

Before Christianity took over Europe, the Vikings worshipped pagan gods. While the exact rituals of a Norse funeral are not known, most Vikings were either cremated or buried in the belief that the smoke would help carry the dead into the afterlife.

“There’s not much left of original Indo-European religion,” Rasenberger, who learned a lot of history from his grandparents and research, said. “But a lot of those traditions are a part of things like Christmas and Easter for us.”

Fire, in particular, is used in summer solstice celebrations and Christmas celebrations.

“Fire is a transformational element. In other words, it purifies things,” Rasenberger said.   

Boats historically symbolize a safe passage, however few Vikings were actually burned in them because of their high building cost. This honor was usually reserved for only the highest-ranking chieftains, the title given to clan leaders.

Rasenberger’s grandparents are native Norwegians. Around 1902, his grandparents found a ship burial on their property in Haugesund, Norway. They brought their heritage with them to the United States, raising Rasenberger to speak Norwegian.

“I feel connected to this event,” he explained, saying it’s symbolic of his family history. “If anyone comes to this event, it should be us [Norwegians],” Rasenberger said.

The museum celebrates boat-burning annually around Halloween, which has its origins from fall festivals of Ancient Romans and Irish Druids. The Ancient Romans celebrated the harvest by roasting nuts and apples over a bonfire, while the Druids believed that lighting fires would keep away spirits of the dead, explained the museum’s flier.  

But LIMM celebrates their own version of the ancient rites. Flyers advertise, “Instead of a real skeleton, we burn the ‘bones’ of a boat…a boat whose time has come.”

Volunteers for the museum even build a boat to be raffled off each year as part of celebrating the “harvest.”

While some attended for the event’s maritime significance. Patrick Scotto, accompanied by a few of his classmates from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, came carrying three flags: The United States flag, their school flag and the coast guard flag.

“It’s a tradition, sadly I don’t understand, especially with our heritage with the maritime industry,” Scotto said. But he compares boat burning to burning American flags after they’re retired.

“These things aren’t sail-worthy anymore,” he said, referring to the boats that are burned yearly. “It’s a nice thing. It’s good for the museum.”