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Living by the wadden sea - before


14th century fresco of a cog (typical medieval trading vessel) in Hviding church. The Danish Wadden Sea is situated by the south­ west Jutlandic coast just south of the dangerous Horns Rev, which in the past was a feared place to navigate. The Wadden Sea offered natural harbors in the lee of the islands with deep chan­ nels between the islands securing access to the mainland, where during the Middle Ages Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town, was established.

Trading hubs and seafaring in the Wadden Sea

Seafaring, and with it the exchange of goods and culture, has played a huge role in the Wadden Sea region. Streams and rivers pulled the seaward access inland and where a ford was available it often developed into a pivotal center of trade. Archaeological artifacts bear witness to early trade and international contacts. Dankirke near Vester Vedsted is known to have traded with the Anglo Saxons and the Frisians from around 200 BC to ca. 750 AD. Many of the later area towns were originally established as trading posts. The oldest is from 710 when the Vikings made the international trading post in Ribe permanent.

Church building

Seafaring made it easier to transport large and heavy materials from far away. Inland transport often had to be hauled either by foot or by heavy, lumbering wagons pulled by animals, while ships could

Experience navigation & ships in ... SPRING




Loading and unloading The local flat-bottomed barges could get close to land during the high tide simply by anchoring on the sea bed at low tide where they were could be serviced with horse-drawn wagons that could drive all the way out to the ship across the dry ocean floor.

The evert The evert is a typical Wadden Sea vessel, a flatbottomed barge with leeboard to compensate for the missing keel. To avoid drifting, the leeboard could be deployed on the side that turned away from the wind. There are only a few of these vessels in Denmark.

transport a bigger load further and faster, which influenced church building in the region. A great many of the 12th and 13th century churches in the Wadden Sea region are built in the Romanesque style from tufa stone shipped from the area around the Rhine.

Mette Guldberg, Fiskeri- og Søfartsmuseet & Mikkel Kirkedahl, Sydvestjyske Museer Translation: Nanna Mercer, Sirius Translation

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Living by the wadden sea - before

The harbour in Ribe (Skibbroen) with the evert Johanne Dan in the foreground In Hviding church there is a 14th century fresco of a cog, which was a typical medieval trading vessel. In the regional cemeteries many tombstones bear witness to trade and seafaring activities through the centuries.

Market towns

During the Middle Ages, the King conferred on several of the larger trading hubs monopolies on trade, crafts and seafaring and thus, they became market towns. The most important of these were Ribe that in 948 became a bishopric and also a residence for the country’s traveling Kings. In the 12th century, the impressive Cathedral was built. During the Middle Ages, especially export of oxen provided Ribe with revenue, and in the 16th century, Ribe was one of Denmark’s biggest towns. The other market towns in the region were Tønder (1243) and Varde (1442). All the market towns were situated by rivers with access to the Wadden Sea. The larger vessels could not put into port close to the market towns, so the goods had to be reloaded at staple-rights. Smaller vessels, the so-called barges or horse wagons took care of the transport between staple- right and town. Around 20 smaller or larger staple-rights or out-ports were situated along the coast. The largest of these were Højer and Ballum, that belonged to Tønder; Rømø, Hviding Nakke and Sønderho that serviced Ribe, plus Janderup and Hjerting that were the staplerights for Varde.

Export and import In the 18th century, Hjerting was the hub for agricultural products as well as fish plus roughly processed goods such a horse blankets and blackpots. When the ships returned from Norway, they bought wood and iron, and from Holland, they bought salt and lime plus a long list of colonial goods and luxury items.

The disaster in 1777 The year 1777 was an epoch-making year for the whalers on Rømø. In August and September, 14 whaling ships foundered on the pack ice opposite south eastern Greenland. We know of 51 seamen, 5 of these captains from Rømø, onboard the 14 vessels, and of the 51 men 30 survived. Among the survivors were men from Fanø and Mandø. After this disaster, the whaling islanders increased their participation in the maritime trade.

Seafarers and whalers

The islanders were especially involved in the many seafaring activities while also occupied with agriculture and fishing. Up until 1644, when the Swedes burned the main part of the Rømø fleet, the people on Rømø played a big role in Ribe town’s maritime activities. Instead, the islanders took part in the maritime activities from German and Dutch harbors and the Rømø islanders developed a special expertise in whaling and sealing. Rømø is well-known for its

Mette Guldberg, Fiskeri- og Søfartsmuseet & Mikkel Kirkedahl, Sydvestjyske Museer Translation: Nanna Mercer, Sirius Translation

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Living by the wadden sea - before

In 2007, the Ministry of Culture selected the dock harbor in Esbjerg and also the lighthouse system as 2 of the 25 most important national industrial heritage sites. many captains of whale and sealing ships. When the number of captains topped in 1770, there were 30 and they comprised ca. 10 percent of the islands’ active seamen.

Sailing ships

In the 18th century, the maritime central point in the Wadden Sea moved towards the north. Ribe had since the 17th century experienced a downturn in trade and shipping. Instead, Varde’s staple-right Hjerting took the lead as the busiest harbor in the Wadden Sea. From there, traffic moved up and down the Norwegian, German and Dutch coasts importing goods to large parts of Jutland. Fanø island developed a fleet of sailing ships that became one of Denmark’s biggest regional fleets, and sailed to the Mediterranean Sea and later, to the whole world. The many fine captains’ homes in Sønderho and Nordby derive from this era.

Steamships and new harbors

In the middle of the 19th century, steamships made their entry and from 1848 -1850, Hjerting was, aside from Copenhagen, the only Danish port with steamship service to England. In 1855, Højer, too, established steamship service to England. Meanwhile, the Danish Parliament decided in 1868 that a new harbor should be constructed in Esbjerg as compensation for the harbors Denmark had lost in the defeat of 1864. The commissioning of Esbjerg harbor

in 1873 completely changed the infrastructure in the Wadden Sea region. Not only did Esbjerg now have a harbor where bigger vessels could call into port, but it also had railway connections to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. The harbor and the railroad represented substantial competition to the maritime activities in the remaining part of the Wadden Sea, and Esbjerg harbor reigned supreme, while the smaller harbors and staple-rights lost all their traffic.


Esbjerg was constructed as a point of transport, especially with an eye to exporting agricultural products to England. The fishermen on the West coast soon discovered that the city’s harbor and railway presented an effective connection to the attractive markets. Many fishermen moved to Esbjerg, which developed into Denmark’s biggest fishery town, a position it maintained until the end of the 20th century. Today, there are only a few cutters left, but Esbjerg is still one of Denmark’s biggest harbors, not least because of the off-shore industry both as regards oil and wind power. The only other fishery harbor in the area is found on Rømø where the harbor in Havneby was established in 1964. From Havneby, there is shrimp fishing and a ferry connection to the German island of Sylt.

Mette Guldberg, Fiskeri- og Søfartsmuseet & Mikkel Kirkedahl, Sydvestjyske Museer Translation: Nanna Mercer, Sirius Translation

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Living by the wadden sea - before

Things to do

Learn more about navigation and ships

You can learn more about navigation, ships and trade in the visitor center.


Gl. Skovfogedbolig Roustvej 111 DK-6800 Varde T: +45 75 22 22 50 E: W:

Varde Museum Kirkepladsen 1 DK-6800 Varde

T: +45 75 22 08 77 E: W:

Danmarks Ravmuseum Vestergade 25 DK-6840 Oksbøl

T: +45 75 27 07 03 E: W: www.

The Fisheries and Maritime Museum Tarphagevej 2-6 DK-6710 Esbjerg V. T: +45 76 12 20 00 E: W:

Esbjerg Museum

Torvegade 45 DK-6700 Esbjerg T: +45 76 16 39 39 E: W:

Museet Ribes Vikinger Odins Plads 1 DK-6760 Ribe

About Vadehavets Formidlerforum... Vadehavets Formidlerforum is a partnership of visitor centers that mediate the Wadden Sea’s natural and cultural heritage. VFF’s main activity is to coordinate projects that highlight the nature and culture heritage of the Wadden Sea.. Learn more at

T: +45 76 16 39 60 E: W:

Ribe VikingeCenter Lustrupholm Lustrupholmvej 4 DK-6760 Ribe

T: +45 75 41 16 11 E: W:

Museum Sønderjylland - Højer Mølle Møllegade 13 DK-6280 Højer

T: +45 75 44 61 61 E: W:

Tips for further reading ... The archaeology of the Wadden Sea The Atlantic Wall by the Wadden Sea Buildings and architecture The marsh - its use, nature & culture Life on the Wadden Sea islands

Mette Guldberg, Fiskeri- og Søfartsmuseet & Mikkel Kirkedahl, Sydvestjyske Museer Translation: Nanna Mercer, Sirius Translation

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Navigation, ships and trade in the Wadden sea  

The Danish Wadden Sea is situated by the southwest Jutlandic coast just south of the dangerous Horns Rev, which in the past was a feared pla...