Dragon Figurehead, Unknown Maker, The Mariners’ Museum (1937.0491).

Viking Ships

The Norsemen’s home was a land of great mountains and deep inlets called fjords. Because their land was ill suited for farming, most of them turned to the sea as a way of making a living. Raiding the villages and towns of other lands became the hallmark of the Viking warrior. The rich farmlands of England, and the continent as far as Russia, were tempting targets for the sea rovers. The lands to the west in what would become America were also in the path of the Norsemen as they ventured farther from home.

A Viking ship spent a great deal of time at sea and had to weather the storm-tossed waters of the North Sea, the coast of Norway, and North Atlantic. In order to survive the demands of this kind of life, a Viking ship had to be sturdy and fast, and Vikings were the best ship designers of their time.

There were two types of Viking ships, the “longship” which was used in warfare and by raiding parties, and the “knorr or knarr” which was used as a merchant ship. The ships were long, shallow-draft and double-ended. The curved stem and sternposts were decorated with carvings of animals. Oak was used for the keel, and oak or pine was used for the planks that covered the sides.

The “longship” prow was typically decorated with carved dragon heads, horse heads or swans. They carried a single mast of about thirty- five feet or half the length of the ship, and the lone sail could harness the wind to move the ship at about 6 knots of speed. The mast was removable for storage during the winter. The ship also carried a single bank of oars to move it through the water in the event there was no wind. They were steered with a deep oar fastened to the starboard quarter, and manned by a helmsman with a forty-inch tiller. The Viking marauders mounted their shields along the side of the vessel to have them ready in the event of an attack. The decks were often open, but tents were mounted to provide shelter on long voyages. Sailors slept in leather sleeping bags and bronze cooking pots were taken on board for meals, although they preferred cooking onshore to avoid the possibility of fire.

The placement of the oars depended on how the deck was designed. If the ship had half-decks, there would be oars at only at the prow and stern ends. If there was no deck, the oarlocks were evenly spaced along both sides of the mid-section. This created a place for about 12 to 15 oarsmen on each side, giving a Viking ship a crew of about 30 men. There was no crow’s nest, but lookouts were sent up the mast to watch for land. The “longships” were clinker-built with overlapping planks forming the hull. This meant more caulking could be tamped into the joints and openings making the hulls more watertight. Notches were left in the planks to allow a light rib to be inserted and lashed in. This and other construction techniques helped to create a strong but flexible hull that moved and twisted slightly in response to the movement of the waves, but remained watertight. The “longship” usually towed a smaller boat called an “after-boat,” suitable for going ashore in shallow water.

Vikings used their ships with care. They followed the seasons, venturing out to sea in spring and returning to the safety of home at the end of autumn. They gave their ships names such as Snake of the Sea, Raven of the Wind and Lion of the Waves. They were even known to name the sails, and Viking women spent a great deal of time sewing and decorating these sails, which were made from wool or linen and stitched together in a cross-hatched pattern.

The “knorr or knarr” was a merchant ship used for carrying cargo. It was a bulkier vessel with a wider and deeper hull than the longship, holding between 70 and 100 people. Trading voyages would commence with “knorrs” gathering together in fleets. The “knorrs” were typically decorated with carvings of characters from myths and legends. They carried cargo such as cattle, wool, timber and wheat. They averaged about 52 feet in length, 16.5 feet wide and over 6.5 feet in height from keel to gunwale. They had a draft of about 1.3 feet and could not navigate the shallow waters as well as the longship. Like the longship, the knorr was constructed of oak and pine in the clinker method, but unlike the longship the mast could not be removed and stored. It was permanently attached to the ship’s keel.

The knorr carried fewer oarsmen than the longship. They were employed in rowing when the ship was entering or leaving port and when docking the ship. Since the ship had a deeper hull and the deck was higher above the water, the rowers stood up to work the oars. Because it was better suited for ocean travel, this is the kind of ship used by Leif Eirikson and other Vikings in their voyages to North America. Under the deck at the bow and stern were spaces that offered passengers protection from the weather. There were no pumps for removing water, so the inside of the vessels stayed wet. It was the job of any children on board to constantly bail water out of the boat.