Viking Ships

The prow of the Oseberg ship in the Viking Ship Museum in Olso, Norway (photo by Grzegorz Wysocki)

Even before the Viking Age, ships were an indispensable part of the Scandinavians’ lifestyle. Their homeland’s numerous waterways, its sheer amount of land abutting the sea, and its effective separation by water from the rest of the Eurasian continent meant that the Scandinavians had to travel over water if they wanted to get very far. Happily, their land was also rich in shipbuilding materials such as wood, iron, and wool. The Norse were thus well-positioned to develop powerful maritime capabilities more quickly and more effectively than most other Eurasian peoples.[1]

Before the eighth century AD, the Scandinavians only built rowing ships, and none with sails. This is a puzzling omission, because the technology not only existed at the time, but was being used by nearby peoples like the Germans and the English.[2]

Once Norse shipwrights started building ships with sails, however, the Viking Age roared into being almost immediately.[3] Fast, flexible sailing ships that could transport large numbers of warriors were at the center of the Vikings’ dominant military strategy, which consisted of showing up without warning, raiding or extracting a ransom, and then leaving before any real army could be mustered against them. Without their ships, “there would have been no Vikings and no Viking Age.”[4]

These ships depended on the wind to propel them toward their destination. When the winds blew against them, they could still move in the Vikings’ intended direction, but they were slowed to a crawl.[5]

But when the winds were favorable, the speed of the Vikings’ warships was a marvel. Modern reconstructions of Viking ships have sailed at speeds of over fifteen knots (over seventeen miles per hour or twenty-seven kilometers per hour). When rowed rather than sailed, they cruised along at just short of six knots – much slower, yes, but still exceptionally fast for such a large vessel. These reconstructed ships have also ridden out North Atlantic gales, proving their consummate seaworthiness.[6]

Viking warships were often called “longships” because of – you guessed it – how long they were, a feature that enabled them to hold many, many warriors and goods. When the Old Norse sagas describe massive ships with room for sixty or more rowers, they’re not exaggerating. Archaeological finds corroborate those claims. However, the norm was probably smaller ships that could fit about twenty-six rowers – still a great number by the standards of the time. Such smaller ships would have been more maneuverable, and therefore more useful in lightning-fast Viking raids.[7]

While the ship’s sails were hoisted and propelling it along, the men on board entertained themselves by telling stories and playing games. When the ships had to be rowed, the rowers sat on chests filled with their belongings – including, of course, the spoils of raids.[8]

For the Viking chieftains who owned these ships, they were a major source of pride. Chieftains competed with one another to have the biggest and most lavish ships.[9] When two or more chieftains fought one another, their ships were among the most valuable plunder that the other side could acquire. After a sea battle, if the losing side’s ships were still in usable condition, they were taken by the happy victor.[10]

How Viking Ships Were Made

A 21st-century reconstruction of a Viking longship (photo by William Murphy)

The construction of a longship was a colossal undertaking that required tens of thousands of hours of labor to complete when you count all of the various components of the process together. Those components included cutting the wood and transporting it to the building site, building the main body of the ship, forging the nails and other iron elements, fastening them in place, burning the tar, making the ropes, and weaving and sewing the sail. A great number of both men and women had to be working toward this common goal to bring it to fruition.[11]

Shipbuilding required a huge amount of top-quality timber. Wood wasn’t only used for the planks of the main body of the ship; it was also used for “treenails and wedges, oars, rudders, rigging blocks, gangplanks and bailers; for clamps, battens, stakes, shores and the stocks on which the vessels were built; and for skids and launching ways.”[12]

Oak, which grows in the south of Scandinavia, was the most highly-prized wood for building ships, due to its exceptional strength and flexibility. In fact, in Viking poetry, the word “oak” was frequently used as a metaphor for “ship.” When oak wasn’t available, pine, maple, or birch were made to suffice.[13]

The planks of Viking-Age ships weren’t sawed, but were instead cut along the natural grain of the wood with axes and wedges. This made them more flexible and easier to bend. They were then arranged to form the hull of the ship by means of the “clinker” or “lap-strake” method, which involved placing the planks with a slight overlap with each other – producing an effect that visually resembles steps – then fastening the planks together with nails, and then installing frames and ribs to ensure that the ship would hold its shape.[14]

Wool was the most common material used for caulking between the planks to seal any gaps, and the whole hull was then covered with a coating of pine tar to make it waterproof.[15]

Viking ships that participated in any significant degree of fighting and traveling (rather than just being trophies displayed by their owners) required constant repairs, and had a lifespan of a few decades at most before they were no longer seaworthy and had to be replaced.[16] They were much like our cars in this regard.

Other Kinds of Viking Ships and Boats

When Vikings traveled up rivers to trade and raid, they did so in a succession of different kinds of boats built for the different stages of the river. Their longships were lightweight enough that they could be rowed remarkably far upriver,[17] but eventually the Vikings would have to get into smaller, shallower boats when the river became too narrow and shallow for the longships. And if they ventured far enough inland that even those boats were too wide and deep, they’d switch to dugout canoes made from a single tree trunk.[18] Any of these lighter boats could be carried overland by the Vikings to get from one river to another, or to avoid dangerous sections of a river.[19]

Beginning in the tenth century, the Vikings also built specialized cargo ships that were much bigger than their longships. Unlike the slender longships that were built to maximize speed, these newer cargo ships were broader, and therefore slower due to increased wind resistance, in order to be able to carry heavier loads.[20]

Viking cargo ships could carry no less than five to sixty tons of goods. Since they could transport more goods than their predecessors, they could do so for a lower cost, and were therefore highly advantageous for trade and transportation, the latter especially including ferrying people, livestock and supplies to and from the Viking settlements in the North Atlantic islands.[21]

Norse cargo ships were dependent their sails; they may have had a few oars for maneuvering, but not enough to really propel the ship. They were designed to be manned by a small crew, which left more room to carry cargo.[22] As if to emphasize this purpose, the cargo was covered by water-resistant skins, while the crew was exposed to the elements – but then again, this was also the case for people and goods aboard Viking longships.[23]

Want to learn more about Viking ships, and the Vikings in general? My list of The 10 Best Books on the Vikings will surely prove helpful to you.


[1] Bill, Jan. 2012. “Viking Ships and the Sea.” In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 170.

[2] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 72-73.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 71-72.

[5] Ibid. p. 77.

[6] Ibid. p. 72.

[7] Ibid. p. 74-75.

[8] Ibid. p. 83-84.

[9] Ibid. p. 77.

[10] Ibid. p. 87.

[11] Ibid. p. 78-79.

[12] McGrail, Seàn. 2013. “Ships, Shipwrights, and Seamen.” In The Viking World. Edited by James Graham-Campbell. p. 48.

[13] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 75-76.

[14] Ibid.

[15] McGrail, Seàn. 2013. “Ships, Shipwrights, and Seamen.” In The Viking World. Edited by James Graham-Campbell. p. 48.

[16] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 79-80.

[17] McGrail, Seàn. 2013. “Ships, Shipwrights, and Seamen.” In The Viking World. Edited by James Graham-Campbell. p. 54.

[18] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 80-81.

[19] Ibid. p. 115.

[20] McGrail, Seàn. 2013. “Ships, Shipwrights, and Seamen.” In The Viking World. Edited by James Graham-Campbell. p. 46.

[21] Bill, Jan. 2012. “Viking Ships and the Sea.” In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 176-177.

[22] Ibid.

[23] McGrail, Seàn. 2013. “Ships, Shipwrights, and Seamen.” In The Viking World. Edited by James Graham-Campbell. p. 46.

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