Viking Ships

Viking Ships

The most essential aspect regarding the Vikings' progress for their conquest all over Europe and other continents are the ultra-efficient ships they built from day one. The majority of the credit goes to their naval or so to say, aquatic unmatched discipline, otherwise, we wouldn't be sitting here and writing about the compelling ex-nation. The shipbuilding doesn't overshadow other of their key qualities, however, it's reasonable that the foundation of ships is what's most helped them pillage and loot, simply put, how they economically grew as people.

Viking Ship

Like I wrote on our previous articles, the first targets were monasteries of England, where monks and churchpeople resided and rested. Nobody would have had in their head that their valuable monuments and stashes were attracted by a flock of seeming highlanders on little and swift ships. The element of surprise was present all the time. Shallow and fast streams of water - no one would actually think that there are tribes crazy enough to cross those waters to steal chunks of precious metals. Truly mesmerizing. And I'm referring to the ships!

The architecture and realization of the concerned is unbelievable, especially having in consideration the state of mind people had back in the day. These ships are used to transport warriors, goods, for trading purposes, carrying huge loads and exploring the oceans and rivers of course. The impact of shipbuilding didn't emerge from nothing, jewelry, coins, and other pieces had resemblances of ships engraved.

The biggest notable remainings of the legendary ships are the replicas found in big cities such as Oslo, where tourists could visit and see the 1:1 scaling of what was feared 10 centuries ago!

Main Differentiation - Two Classes

Ships for warfare purposes were called warships or langskip, and the other serving not to kill infidels are merchant ships or knörr.

Basically, the difference is that the warships were narrower and were more packed in length, shallower. Rowing was the power train for this ship, opposing to the merchant ships and sails were put to use the power of wind as turbines on car manifolds of today. It was open-built, uncovered and it relied on speed and maneuverability. On the other hand, the merchant ships were powered exclusively by a sail, particularly closed and it relied on cargo carrying capacity.

Viking Ship Sketch

The Warships

Despite the Oseberg and Gokstad ships which are the most commonly displayed as replicas in museums across Scandinavia, other warships such as Skuldelev were more "athletic" for fair use of maneuvering. In length, its dimensions were around 17.5 meters and in width about 2.5m. The vessel these ships had and the judging by the more convenient ratio between dimensions tell us that Skuldelevs were used frequently for raids.

Sixteen rowers were aligned on each side, with their shield out the deck arrayed, hanging on a rack outside of the ship. This way they could shield themselves from winds and waves and probably potential attacks in the specific circumstance, however, the logical thing was to put them away from use since they're rowing. That border/outline parts of the ship are called gunwales. You know, the pirates fixed their cannons there!

Arguments regarding the shield holders could be found on the ancient coins, however, there is evidence that this style of carrying shields was rather worse than it was considered good. While they were sailing, if they were to hang their shields on those oars, fastened by racks, it would clog the hole from use, plus the racks weren't that strong and big enough to grip the shields during storms and rough waves. Wedges were the objects holding the shield racks fixed.

Gokstad warship

Nevertheless, let's say a word or two about the Gokstad ship. The oars, or for those having trouble with the English vocabulary, the spoon thingy for rowing which rowers flip and pull to move through the water, spanned in length from 5.3m to 5.85m. Since the ship was curvy shaped, like a banana on the water, the distance between each of the oarholes and the water line was different. The reason for uneven spacing is so that the blades hit the water with the same angle. The blades were thin and narrow, the entire oar is made from wood and it was very light to maneuver so that the rowers increase their pace when necessary.

The slots for the oars punctured through the ship is a full circle with a slice on top was made this way so that the oars could be placed in a working stance from within the ship, without disembarking the oar at first away the ship by any chance, which is a smooth touch so that the passengers could hide from potential threats and deploy oars while covering. A convenient gadget regarding the slot for oar deployment was the lid, which could be closed if the certain slot isn't used so that it prevents water from entering the ship. Smart move, isn't it?

Gokstad Ship

The decking of the ship was removable, the planks could be extracted and replaced easily as the fixating was minimal. So the planks where the rowers were treading and sitting on while in position to row, planks could sometimes be wobbly due to its resilience.

Resuming the story on Warfare Ships in General

Aspired by quickness and lightweight the one single sail manifested sailing by the wind. In addition to the wind power, oars and rowing managed to ensure that they'll attack the enemy on shores and after a Hit'n'Run method (which was also covered in previous articles) it gave them the possibility to quickly sail off away from counter-attack dangers.

The replica in Denmark is a modern representation of Skuldelev warships. The crafting enabled them to estimate the speed of the ship at full throttle so to say. Sail speed plus the rowing speed allowed the ship to go at a full speed of 4 knots, which is around 7.5 km/h. That's pretty quick for water cruising, especially a man-powered ship, plus the agility was unparalleled during those centuries. However, the top speed could be maintained for no longer than 15 minutes since the rowers could get exhausted and wind up fainting forcing themselves to endure longer. So, the average speed was 2-3 knots. Oh yeah, and the stream of water isn't included in the compound.

Method for recruiting rowers is what we call today tug-of-war, however, they used different motions in contrast of today. The motions mimicked the movement while at sea, so it was like a tentative program to find suitable, muscular men to power the warships.

The Naval Battles

Naval combat had a unique procedure. Once the conflict was engaged, the ships ceased moving and the battle was stationary. The conducted battle was more or less like it's on two or more islands stranded on the seas and oceans. The crew assigned to steer the ship gathered in superior positions, all relative to the opposing side. Bows and arrows are the first triggered weapons, where rains of darts flew in the sky to influx the enemy. The sails and masts were taken off before engaging into battle and hid somewhere safe so that they don't get torn apart.

Ships fighting on the same side, the Viking ships, were linked together to create a feeling of those floating islands I mentioned earlier, fighting side to side.

After a few Viking ships linked together, hostile forces tried to board in the outermost ship and clear the deck. Melee combat on the deck confined the result of the battle mostly, disregarding the ranged attacks prior to the migration from ship to ship. Once the outer ship's deck was cleared in this particular case, it would be cut from the link, let loose. For the warriors that tried to escape and flee from the battle by going overboard, small ships were circulating the ship islands to kill any deserters spotted.

Viking Battle

The main goal of naval battles was just to clear the ship decks from enemies, not to harm and damage the opposing ship since it might carry valuable items or it may be possible that it's made out of solid material. That's why the Vikings tried to avoid battle styles which were too destructive.

According to some sources, the Vikings had catapults embarked on ships to attack from a substantial distance if necessary, but it was mostly used to attack personnel on land. They loaded the catapults with rocks and slung at them, allegedly. The reckless hurling like this is totally absurd to the theory that they attempted not to damage the enemy ships, attacking crew members instead.

Exiting the Ship

Since the vessel was made to suppress water surface tension, the boat could've gone too shallow waters without touching the bottom, the seamen were sure that if they jumped out of the boat that they'd land on their feet softly and unawkwardly since the depth was just enough to cushion their fall. Other methods involved gangplanks like found on the Oseberg ship.

Merchant ships - knörr

In compliance with the warships, there are no significant aspects which they had in common. The merchant ships were almost 14m long, 3.4m in width and that notable increase in size exponentially lowered the speed of travel for these ships. And these were the average merchant ships. They could carry loads up to 4.6 tons.

For instance, a larger cargo ship from Skuldelev was 16.3m long with an unbelievable width of 4.6m! It could carry more than three times the capacity of the average ship (15 tons) and it was used to carry luxury items or regular items in mass quantities. The average speed of this ship was from 3 to 6 knots in normal conditions.

Knorr Ship

In legends and stories, according to the sagas, these ships could've gone for higher speed, because it took them 2 weeks to complete a route from Norway to Iceland, tirelessly sailing for the trade.

The knorr had half decks lying along with a few oar holes. The installation of these few was an endeavor to enable the ship to maneuver while landing to a harbor. The cargo was concentrated in the middle of the ship, an open-like space which planks were covered with grass, straws or brushwood to cushion the cargo and protect it from damage. The knorr had about 12 men as crew members.

Just like the warships, the knorrs could easily mount up on coasts thanks to their draft to efficiently unload their cargo and move quickly away from the coast. At confluence with high tides, they sailed into shallow waters carefully until the tides run out. After that, they're tenderly placed to commence loading and unloading of the ship.

Smaller ships were used for commuting to Russia, the trade routes were longer and larger crew were at sea then. It was necessary because it was upstream so that they could portage the ship and cargo, which means that the entire crew carried the ship and cargo through navigable waters.

Harbors were not uniformly developed. For instance, bigger cities had harbors where they could anchor and dock the ship, while other harbors were basically pontons where the ship just grounded to it.

Longships aside to the Gokstad

Longships are unique by criteria that they were made amid the areas of Scandinavia and Iceland. They were multi-purpose, for trading, commerce and ultimately - warfare - not strictly utilized for one single thing. These longships could travel at an imposing top speed of 15 knots, with average speed composing in the range from 5 to 10 knots.

The boat was also a long and narrow boat made from wood with shallow drafts for speed, obviously. It was symmetrical, both the front end and back end of the boat was the same, so it could easily change the direction it's heading without actually spinning 180 degrees for making a U-turn. This method proved it's worthiness in seas filled with icebergs.

Earlier versions of the ship lacked the sail, and it was filled with oarholes the entire length, and once the sail was found and established it made the rowers' efforts way more efficient. Longships class had numerous instances the way it's made and the purpose of the longship. The classic way of arranging them in groups was judging by the number of oars used to power the ship.


The Karve longships were the one with the least resistance as it was small and with a wide hull like in a Knarr. In contrast to the Knarr's fair use only for trading, the Karves had been used to transport livestock, people, cargo, and in warfare on top.

Construction and a few words from the author

Come to think of the construction, I mentioned earlier that the boats were made from wood. It depended on the contemporary technology they used over the centuries, but what's found as the best deal for plank-making is if they construct it out of oaks. The edges of the hull planks overlap each other and that way they could strengthen the thinly-sawed plank they cut. As a result, you had a waterproof hull where tiers of planks overlapped each other so that the water can't end up inside the boat through direct contact.

Over the course of centuries, they developed better tactics of creating worthy ships to travel faster and carry more loads, but it mostly relied on wood and the areas they colonized for them to exploit resources. Later on, when they introduced iron in their economy, they used the supply of iron to mint it and create wrought iron to keep planks intact and the hull ends maintained.

All in all, shipbuilding was one of the greatest feats the Vikings had. They probably influenced the boating industry of today and we owe them a huge thanks. Without their knowledge and superiority regarding the boats, they couldn't even reach for England to start colonizing. Due to their boats, they were effective, had stable connections and communications with their overseas colonies. That enabled them to establish trading posts and line trading routes all across their settlements. They could've reached as far as North America, for the Vikings who set assail to a completely new continent.

However, crediting only one thing regardlessly to their other prominent traits and values is tainting their culture and existence. The Vikings are more than just good shipbuilders, they wouldn't be so smart in investing into ships if they hadn't had the intelligence to do so.


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