The Norse peoples built many different kinds of ships, from small fishing boats and ferries to their famous longships. Used both for trading and for Viking Raids, the Longship was the most advanced vehicle of its time, tracing their origin back to around 400BC, when the Danish Hjortspring boat was built.
The reconstructed remains of the Hjortspring boat at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The ship is 20m (65 feet) long was only 2m (6 feet) wide
Most Viking ships form the Viking Age bear in similar their long narrow shape with shallow draughts. This allowed the ships to navigate waters as shallow as one meter deep, making it possible to perform a seamless transition from seafaring voyages to shallow river estuaries, also making beach landings possible.
The combination of sea and river capability with beach landing created the most advanced vehicle of its time. When needed, warriors could secure a beachhead during an assault almost instantly, allowing the lightning fast attacks that made the Viking raids (in)famous by raining down the very fires of Muspelheim onto their enemies.
Long, check. Narrow, check. Shallow draught, check. Beach landing, check. Full of warriors, check. 1.000 year later, ships with the same characteristics of the Longship are still taking warriors to battle
The type of construction of the Viking ships is nowadays called “clinker”. Planks of wood, usually oak, overlapped and nailed together, made watertight by filling every tiny space between the planks with tarred wool or animal hair. Often, the prow (front) of the ship was decorated with a carving of an animal head – usually a dragon or a snake.
The ships were powered by oars or by the wind, and had one large, square or rectangular sail, most probably made from wool mounted on a single mast on the middle of the ship. Leather strips could be criss-crossed to the wool, in order to keep the sail’s shape when it was wet. Longship oars facilitated maneuvers in cramped conditions and provided an additional means of mobility when the wind died or even when the extra speed was essential. A steering oar or 'steerboard' was used to steer the ships, fastened to the right-hand side of the ship at the stern (back).
The Longship had a symmetrical bow and stern design, which allowed them to swiftly reverse without having to turn around, a particularly handy feature when navigating icy conditions or narrow rivers.
Under very favorable conditions, it is estimated that the fastest Longships could achieve speeds of up to impressive 17 knots (31.4km/h), making the Longship one of the fastest ships of its time.
The Gokstad ship is a 9th-century Viking ship found in a burial mound at Gokstad in Sandar, Sandefjord, Vestfold, Norway. From the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy, Oslo, Norway.
Longships can be classified into a number of different types, depending on size, construction details and prestige. The most common way - today - to classify Longships is by the number of rowing positions on board. Bear in mind that this classification is somehow loose and does not comprehend all the classes of ships used by the Norse people. Also, according to the sagas, sometimes a ship could fall into more than category, being described as a Drakkar in one source and as a Busse in another, such as Harald Fairhair’s ship.
The smaller class of ships that the 10th-century Gulating Law “allowed” for military use was the Karvi, a ship with 6 to 16 rowing positions. These ships were considered to be "general purpose" ships, mainly used for fishing and trade, but occasionally commissioned for military use. Next in size there is the Snekkja, typically the smallest Longship used in warfare and was classified as a ship with at least 20 rowing benches. The Skeid were fast ships with more than 30 rowing benches. Finally, the most famous and one of the largest ship categories was called Drakkar, with at least 30 rowing benches. The God Freyr's ship, Skíðblaðnir, is said to be the best of ships, and is sometimes characterized as a Drakkar.
There were several other classes of ships, such as the Busse and the Sud, alongside ships more suited for merchant porpoises, such as the Knarr, which had a relatively bulky hull with fewer pairs of oars than the Longships, positioned towards each end, leaving the space midship for cargo. Smaller ships included the Skute, the Ferje and the Skipsbåt, which was basically a smaller boat towed after a larger ship.
Construction of the 35 m long Skeid longship Draken Harald Hårfagre
Life at sea could be rough, for there was no shelter on these vessels. If the crew was far out to sea they’d sleep on deck under blankets made from animal skin, enduring the elements. Some of the larger ships could sometimes have a tarpaulin covering the midship, helping protect crew and ship from heavy rain, as all the water that gets inside the ship, be it by rain or waves, has to be removed to prevent the ship from sinking.
Food would have been dried or salted meat or fish, with water, beer or sour milk to wash it down.
Regardless of the hardships, the Norse peoples were able to travel far and wide, even reaching the New World some five hundred years before Columbus, a testament to their ingenuity and skills.
In this post we focused on the Longships created during the Viking Age (793–1066 AD). This is an incredibly vast subject, and there are a lot more information that could not fit in a simple blog post, so there is a very distinct possibility that we will have more posts about it in the near future.
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"Heimskringla" by Snorri Sturlason
Småhefte "Sjøfart", Bergen Sjøfartsmuseum
"Vestnorske båter", Bernhard Færøyvik
"De skjulte skipene", Sverre Marstrander
Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy, Oslo, Norway