Viking Ships

The sagas provide little information about the ships the Vikings used to cross the Atlantic or to sail east. These ships were known at the time to be silent, swift, and light enough to be pulled ashore and carried over land. They also could maneuver in large rivers due to the shallow draft of their construction. Large Viking fleets were recorded in England in 835 A.D. With Viking crews rowing hard, Swedish ships could maneuver through rivers and emerge into the open waters of the Black Sea or the Caspian. Granted access to trade in ports with local merchants, Vikings would load their ships with fine eastern textiles, jewels, and coins.


What we know of Viking ships today comes from the pagan burial rituals of the time. Viking warriors and rich families were buried with their worldly goods, including their ships. Buried ships were placed deep in the earth with large mounds marking their places. Many such ships were found 100 years ago in Norway. One ship found in 1880 was known as the Gokstad ship.

Dating back to 990 A.D. it was probably used by warriors. It was 76 feet long, 17 feet wide, and 7 feet high from the bottom of the keel to the gunwale. The solid keel was the backbone of the ship. The oak tree it was made from must have stood 80 feet high. The keel was slightly curved fore and aft and was tapered at the ends to help it glide through the water. Its thickest part was amidships where the greatest weight on the ship would be placed.

The Gokstad most likely could sustain 20 tons fully loaded. The ship had 16 pairs of oars. Its skin was constructed with overlapping planking called strakes. This method of construction is known as clinker or lapstrake. A clinker-built ship was watertight with thin planking compared to later construction methods. The rudder was large and out at the side of the ship near the stern. The deck consisted of loose planking to allow for quick access to the storage hold below. Weapons were stored near the crew's rowing position.

Since there are no surviving sails, it is difficult to say how the sail worked. It most likely was a single sail known as a beiti-ass possibly made of wool and reinforced with strips. It is not known what the method was for half sails or quarter sails in high winds. There were most likely ropes at the bottom of the sail, and when the center rope was pulled it bunched the sail cloth in between. The mast could have been 40 feet high held by stays and firmly constructed at the base to avoid considerable strain with the wind-filled sail.


Another ship found during the excavations in Norway 100 years ago was the Viking knarr or heavy cargo ship. This ship was 54 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 6 feet, 3 inches high from keel to gunwale. Eric the Red most likely used a ship of this construction to survive the beating waves of the long Atlantic journeys. The merchant knarr would haul cargo long distances during voyages for the purposes of trade. The bigger the cargo, the less room for passengers and crew. Animals, people, food, and cargo shared space in the middle of the ship under tarpaulins. The knarr had triangular spaces fore and aft of the deck. These spaces would be wet and dark, but passengers probably preferred them as sleeping areas rather than sharing space with the animals. The crew baled water from the center area. There was no means of cooking on the ship, so food brought aboard spoiled quickly or was dried. The ship was of similar construction to the warrior longship, but was shorter and of deeper draft. It was also constructed in the clinker planking method and had one mast and sail.

The Oseberg

A Viking ship with a beautifully carved keel was discovered in Norway in 1903 and was probably built around 800 A.D. Known as the Oseberg, this ship was approximately 71 feet long and 16 feet wide with 15 pairs of oars and a nailed-down deck. This ship was not well suited to the open ocean due to the nature of its construction and was more than likely used as a pleasure ship or yacht.

Evolution of the Viking Ship

Through the ages, the Viking ship changed shape. Cargo ships' sides were made high to hold more cargo. This posed disadvantages in high seas because the extra weight made the ship lie low in the water. Trade between Scandinavia and Germany increased as more cargo was demanded. German ships called cogs evolved from the clinker-built ships. These ships also had a square sail and a stern rudder, which were better suited for heavy, deep-drafted vessels. They were fitted with high points in the bow, stern, and masthead on which the sailors could stand to defend the ship during battle. Carvel planking replaced the thinner clinker style. The carvel-built ship could endure more weight and strain and therefore had larger and heavier masts. Bigger ships meant longer and more profitable voyages. It is not known when carvel-built ships first appeared in northern Europe. Historians estimate they were most likely used during the first part of the fifteenth century.

Viking Crews

Viking crews were often prepared for violence and gained their wealth through theft, trickery, or murder. These fierce warriors would undertake voyages without provisions and go ashore to steal food and animals. The Viking Jarl or earl was master of his district and had to feed men and have the largest ship, or be at the mercy of his neighbors. Crews consisted of freeborn men rather than slaves, because slave crews might rebel against the Jarl. Free men lived with the Jarl and protected him when he was attacked. Vikings were very proud of their freeborn status and would not bow to any man.

Methods of Navigation

While voyaging on the seas, how did the Vikings know where they were going? They didn't necessarily take the shortest routes between Norway and Greenland to avoid pack ice. Vikings did not have compasses to show direction, or instruments to tell them how far west they were sailing. They tended to stay close to land, making their way around coasts from island to island. When the men began to take the risk on the open sea, they had to know how far north or south they were from home by noting the position of the North Star, or using a notched stick or mast of the ship to look past the star and note how far up the upright on the stick the star appeared.

Later at sea, the experienced pilot could see that he was at the same latitude if the star was seen against the same mark. A higher notch meant the ship was at a higher latitude, nearer the North Pole. This method was fairly accurate on land, but how accurate was it on the rolling sea? Vikings may have used a bearing dial to determine the position of the sun and moon. Because the Pole Star was not always visible, the sun would have definitely been used during the constant daylight of the midsummer that takes place in the high latitudes of the earth. The Vikings were known to produce latitude tables for certain stars including the sun.

During days of cloud cover, the crewmen could release ravens after setting sail and losing sight of land. The birds would fly to land if the ship was not too far away from shore. The Vikings would sail after birds that flew over the horizon. These seafarers would often share information with each other about what landmarks to look for and at what latitude the land could be found. In clear weather, Vikings would be able to see familiar land for 100 miles on the open sea.

Another method for navigating was to observe migrating animals. The experienced sailor would use sightings of whales known to be half a day's sail south of Iceland or migrating birds such as geese to help locate land. Things could go wrong for even the most experienced pilot, however, and strong storms could blow Viking ships off course.

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