Delaware’s Tall Ship and Her Identity Crisis

by Dave on August 16, 2010

by Michael Short

Most Delawareans have seen the Kalmar Nyckel. The replica 17th-century sailing vessel and tall ship has been visited by thousands of Delawareans and its’ role in Delaware’s history is well known to many locals.

But that doesn’t mean the ship doesn’t have a bit of an identity crisis. Called “Delaware’s Mayflower,” some say the ship was nearly as important to America’s history as the Mayflower.

“Yet, her remarkable story has never been widely told,” according to the ship’s website. “We seem to be the best kept secret in Delaware,” said Captain Sharon Litcofsky.

The original Kalmar Nyckel sailed to the New World in 1638 from Sweden to bring the first permanent settlers to the Delaware Valley. Those first settlers were of Swedish, German, Dutch and Finnish descent and they founded the colony of New Sweden in what is now Wilmington.

It was the first of four round-trip crossings of the Atlantic for the Kalmar Nyckel.
From such small beginnings, Delaware was born.

So, when the replica ship was built in 1997, it was made authentic in almost every way.  Litcofsky estimates that the ship is 85 percent authentic and says almost the only things a 17th century sailor wouldn’t recognize are the life rings and safety equipment. “When you come aboard the Kalmar Nyckel, it’s like you’ve stepped back in time.”

There are a few  necessary concessions to modern sailing, like the ship’s engines (typically used by sailing vessels to enter and leave port). But the engines are used as little as possible and once open water is reached, the sails are hoisted and the newfangled ways are put aside.

The Kalmar Nyckel is manned by a volunteer crew who undergo training classes. Volunteers from age 14 to 75 take the classes, perform maintenance and other chores and are then allowed to volunteer on sails when their schedules permit.
Litcofsky said that means the Kalmar Nyckel never has the same crew twice. “It’s never the same combination of people . . . It’s always new and exciting.”

Litcofsky is one of two captains of the ship and she was bitten by the sailing bug after volunteering in 2000. Eventually, she found herself “volunteering 40 hours a week and doing a full-time job as well.”

So, she quit her regular job and became a licensed captain. Lauren Morgens is the other Kalmar Nyckel captain.

If you’re interested in volunteering to crew the Kalmar Nyckel, contact Litcofsky at The next volunteer training session will be in Wilmington in January and it usually attracts about 80 potential volunteers.

But if you don’t want to put in quite that much time, you can simply come aboard and take a sail. The crew invites those on board to lend a hand with the ropes as they hoist and manueuver the sails to catch the wind. It’s hard, physical work. Some passengers just want to watch. Others, of all ages, are eager to travel back in time for a few minutes.

“We get everyone involved,” she said.
The Kalmar Nyckel offers both day and pirate cruises for a $60 fee. Those 17 and under pay $40. There are also an abundance of educational programs offered to schools aboard this floating classroom in an effort to educate students about the ship and its’ place in history. For more information about educational opportunities, contact

“We like to think we’re raising awareness,” Litcofsky said.

Pirate sails are done in costume and kids have a chance to raise the dreaded pirate flag and go on scavenger hunts. The extra emphasis on young sailors  is the difference between the pirate and the regular day sails.

The ship will leave Lewes after August 14 for other ports of call, but it will be back in our local waters briefly for cruises beginnng Sept. 18.

It’s a full season of sailing from Lewes, Wilmington, Martha’s Vineyard, Hampton, Yorktown and other ports of call up and down the East Coast for Delaware’s “tall ship ambassador.”

“Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said. “It’s very different from anything you’re going to see anywhere else or any ship you’ve ever sailed on.”

For a complete schedule or to book a cruise, check the Kalmar Nyckel website or call 429-7447.

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