Longships were sea vessels made and used by the Vikings from the Nordic countries for trade, commerce, exploration, and warfare during the Viking Age. The longship’s design evolved over many years, beginning in the Stone Age with the invention of the umiak and continuing up to the 9th century with the Nydam and Kvalsund ships. The longship appeared in its complete form between the 9th and 13th centuries. The character and appearance of these ships have been reflected in Scandinavian boat-building traditions until today.
The longship is characterized as a graceful, long, narrow, light, wooden boat with a shallow-draft hull designed for speed. The ship's shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only one metre deep and permitted beach landings, while its light weight enabled it to be carried over portages. Longships were also double-ended, the symmetrical bow and stern allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without having to turn around; this trait proved particularly useful in northern latitudes where icebergs and sea ice posed hazards to navigation. Longships were fitted with oars along almost the entire length of the boat itself. Later versions sported a rectangular sail on a single mast which was used to replace or augment the effort of the rowers, particularly during long journeys. The average speed of Viking ships varied from ship to ship but lay in the range of 5–10 knots and the maximum speed of a longship under favorable conditions was around 15 knots.
Longships were the epitome of Scandinavian naval power at the time, and were highly valued possessions. They were often owned by coastal farmers and commissioned by the king in times of conflict, in order to build a powerful naval force. While longships were used by the Norse in warfare, they were troop transports, not warships. In the tenth century, these boats would sometimes be tied together in battle to form a steady platform for infantry warfare. They were called "dragonships" by enemies such as the English because they had a dragon-shaped bow. The Norse had a strong sense of naval architecture, and during the 8th–11th centuries they were advanced for their time,[says who?] compared to other European nations (earlier shipbuilding techniques, for example those of Mediterranean peoples, such as ancient Greece and Rome, were far more sophisticated and varied, especially in terms of joinery).
Types of longships
Longships can be classified into a number of different types, depending on size, construction details, and prestige. The most common way to classify longships is by the number of rowing positions on board.
The Karvi are the smallest vessel that is considered a longship. According to the 10th century Gulating Law, a ship with 13 rowing benches is the smallest ship suitable for military use. A ship with between 6 and 16 benches would be classified as a Karvi. These ships were considered to be “general purpose” ships, mainly used for fishing and trade, but occasionally were commissioned for military use. While most longships held a length to width ratio of 7:1, the Karvi ships were closer to 4.5:1. The Gokstad Ship is a famous Karvi ship, built around the end of the 9th century, excavated in 1880 by Nicolay Nicolyasen. It was approximately 23 metres (75 ft) long with 16 rowing positions. It is believed that while its main purpose was coastal voyages, it was capable of safely crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
The snekkja, meaning 'thin and projecting,' was typically the smallest longship used in warfare and was classified as a ship with at least 20 rowing benches. A typical snekkja might have a length of 17 metres (56 ft), a width of 2.5 metres (8.2 ft), and a draught of only 0.5 metres (1.6 ft). It would carry a crew of around 41 men (40 oarsmen and one cox).
Snekkjas were one of the most common types of ship. According to Viking lore, Canute the Great used 1400 in Norway in 1028, and William the Conqueror used about 600 for the invasion of Britain in 1066.
The Norwegian snekkjas, designed for deep fjords and Atlantic weather, typically had more draught than the Danish model designed for low coasts and beaches. Snekkjas were so light that they had no need of ports – they could simply be beached, and potentially even carried across a portage.
The snekkjas continued to evolve after the end of the Viking age, with later Norwegian examples becoming larger and heavier than Viking age ships.
Skei, meaning ‘that which cuts through water,’ ships were larger warships, consisting of more than 30 rowing benches. Ships of this classification are some of the largest (see Busse) longships ever discovered. A group of these ships was discovered by Danish archaeologists in Roskilde during development in the harbor-area in 1962 and 1996/7. The ship discovered in 1962, Skuldelev 2 is an oak-built Skei longship. It is believe to be built in the Dublin area around 1042. Skuldelev 2 could carry a crew of some 70–80 and measures just fewer than 30 metres (98 ft) in length. In 1996/7 archaeologists discovered the remains of another ship in the harbor. This ship, called the Roskilde 6, has not yet been fully investigated and full details are not available. It is however thought to be around 36 metres (118 ft) long, and has been dated to the mid-11th century
See article Drekar
Drekar are known from historical sources, such as the 13th century Göngu-Hrólfs Saga (the Saga of Rollo). Here, the ships are described as elegant and ornately decorated, and used by those who went raiding and plundering. According to the historical sources the ships' prows carried carvings of menacing beasts, such as dragons and snakes, allegedly to protect the ship and crew, and to ward off the terrible sea monsters of Norse mythology. It is however likely that the carvings, like those on the Oseberg ship, might have had a ritual purpose, or that the purported effect was to frighten enemies and townspeople. No true dragon ship, as defined by the sagas, has been found by archaeological excavation.
Busse ships were large longships, capable of carrying more cargo and passengers than Skei ships. The Ormen Lange is an example of a Busse Ship. It was the most famous ship of King Olaf Tryggvason. It is believed to be 45 metres (148 ft) long with 34 rowing positions.
On September 10, 2007, Professor Stephen Harding, University of Nottingham, used ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipment to pinpoint the location of a 1,000-year-old Viking transport longship (Nordic clinker design) beneath 6–10 feet (2–3 meters) of clay in Meols, Wirral, (a well-known settling place of Vikings). The ship had been previously uncovered in 1938 during excavation of a car park. Workers at the time covered the ship over again so as not to delay construction.
After several centuries of evolution, the fully developed longship emerged some time in the middle of the ninth century. Its long, graceful, menacing head figure carved in the stern echoed the designs of its predecessors. The mast was now squared and located toward the middle of the ship, and could be lowered and raised. The hull’s sides were fastened together to allow it to flex with the waves, ensuring stability and integrity. The ships were large enough to carry cargo and passengers on long ocean voyages but still maintained speed and agility, making the longship a versatile warship and cargo carrier.
Keel, stems and hull
The Viking shipbuilders had no written diagrams or standard written design plan. The shipbuilder pictured the longship before its construction, and the ship was then built from the ground up. The keel and stems were made first. The shape of the stem was based on segments of circles of varying sizes. The next step was building the strakes – the lines of planks joined endwise from stern to stern. Nearly all longships were clinker built, meaning that each hull plank overlapped the next
As the strakes reached the desired height, the interior frame and cross beams were added. The parts were held together with iron rivets, as well as spruce strips that were fastened to the ribs inside of the keel. Longships had about five rivets for each yard of plank.
The longships’ wider hulls provided strength beneath the waterline which gave more stability, making the longship less likely to tip or bring in water. The hull was waterproofed with moss drenched in tar. In the autumn the ships would be tarred and then left in a boathouse over the winter to allow time for the tar to dry. To keep the sea out, wooden disks were put into the oar holes. These could be shut from the inside when the oars were not in use.
Sail and mast
Even though no longship sail has been found, accounts verify that longships had square sails. Sails measured perhaps 35 to 40 feet (12 m) across, and were made of rough wool cloth. Unlike the knarrs, the longship sail was not stitched.
The sail was held in place by the mast. The mast was supported by a large block of wood called kerling ("Old Woman" in Old Norse). (Trent) The kerling was made of oak, and was as tall as a Viking man. The kerling lay across the two ribs and ran width-wise along the keel. The kerling also had a companion: the "mast fish," a wooden piece above the kerling that provided extra help in keeping the mast erect.
The Vikings were experts in judging speed and wind direction, and in knowing the current and when to expect high and low tides. Viking navigational techniques are not well understood, but historians postulate that the Vikings probably had some sort of primitive astrolabe and used the stars to plot their course.
The Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou suggested in 1967 that the "sun-stones" referred to in some sagas might have been natural crystals capable of polarizing skylight. The mineral cordierite occurring in Norway has the local name "Viking's Compass." Its changes in colour would allow determining the sun's position (azimuth) even through an overcast or foggy horizon. See here.
An ingenious navigation method is detailed in Viking Navigation Using the Sunstone, Polarized Light and the Horizon Board by Leif K. Karlsen. To derive a course to steer relative to the sun direction, he uses a sun-stone (Solarsteinn) made of Iceland spar (optical calcite or Silfurberg), and a "horizon-board." The author constructed the latter from an Icelandic saga source, and describes an experiment performed to determine its accuracy. Karlsen also discusses why on North Atlantic trips the Vikings might have preferred to navigate by the sun rather than by stars. (Think high latitudes in summer: long days, short to no nights.)
A Viking named Stjerner Oddi compiled a chart showing the direction of sunrise and sunset, which enabled navigators to sail longships from place to place with ease. Almgren, an earlier Viking, told of another method: "All the measurements of angles were made with what was called a 'half wheel' (a kind of half sun-diameter which corresponds to about sixteen minutes of arc). This was something that was known to every skipper at that time, or to the long-voyage pilot or kendtmand ('man who knows the way') who sometimes went along on voyages... When the sun was in the sky, it was not, therefore, difficult to find the four points of the compass, and determining latitude did not cause any problems either." (Algrem)
Birds provided a helpful guide to finding land. A Viking legend states that Vikings used to take caged crows aboard ships and let them loose if they got lost. The crows would instinctively head for land, giving the sailors a course to steer. Little is known about Viking compasses, but remains have been found of Viking sun compasses. which use the direction of the sun to find which direction is North.
The longships had two methods of propulsion: oars and sail. At sea, the sail enabled longships to travel faster than by oar and to cover long distances overseas. Sails could be raised or lowered quickly. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river, to gain speed quickly, and when there was an adverse (or insufficient) wind. In combat, the variability of wind power made rowing the chief means of propulsion.
Longships were not fitted with benches. When rowing, the crew sat on sea chests (chests containing their personal possessions) that would otherwise take up space. The chests were made the same size and were the perfect height for a Viking to sit on and row. Longships had hooks for oars to fit into, but smaller oars were also used, with crooks or bends to be used as oarlocks. If there were no holes then a loop of rope kept the oars in place.
An innovation that improved the sail's performance was the beitass, or stretching pole – a wooden spar stiffening the sail.
The Vikings were major contributors to the shipbuilding technology of their day. Their shipbuilding methods spread through extensive contact with other cultures, and ships from the 11th and 12th centuries are known to borrow many of the longships’ design features, despite the passing of many centuries. The Lancha Poveira, a boat from Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal is one of the last remnants from the longship, keeping all the longboat features but without a long stern and bow, and with a Mediterranean sail. It was used until the 1950s. Today there is just one boat: Fé em Deus.
Many historians, archaeologists and adventurers have reconstructed longships in an attempt to understand how they worked. These re-creators have been able to identify many of the advances that the Vikings implemented in order to make the longship a superior vessel. One replica longship covered 223 nautical miles (413 km) in a single day, and another re-creator was able to go faster than 8 knots (15 km/h) in his longship.
The longship was a master of all trades. It was wide and stable, yet light, fast, and nimble. With all these qualities combined in one ship, the longship was unrivaled for centuries, until the arrival of the great Cog.
In Scandinavia, the longship was the usual vessel for war even with the introduction of cogs in the 12th–13th centuries. Leidang fleet-levy laws remained in place for most of the Middle Ages, demanding that the freemen should build, man and furnish ships for war if demanded by the king—ships with at least 20 or 25 oar-pairs (40–50+ rowers). However, by the late 14th century, these low-boarded vessels were at a disadvantage against newer, taller vessels – when the Victual Brothers, in the employee of the Hansa, attacked Bergen in the autumn of 1393, the "great ships" of the pirates could not be boarded by the Norwegian levy ships called out by Margaret I of Denmark and the raiders were able to sack the town with impunity. While earlier times had seen larger and taller longships in service, by this time the authorities had also gone over to other types of ships for warfare. The last Viking longship was defeated in 1429.
- The Oseberg ship and the Gokstad ship – both from Vestfold in Norway.
- The Ormen Lange ("The Long Serpent") was the most famous longship of Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason.
- The Mora was the ship given to William the Conqueror by his wife, Matilda, and used as the flagship in the Norman conquest of England.
- The Sea Stallion, the largest Viking ship replica ever made, is a new 30 metres (98 ft) replica of the Skuldelev 2, and sailed from Roskilde, Denmark to Dublin in summer 2007 to commemorate the voyage of the original. In the winter 2007/2008 The Sea Stallion has been exhibited outside the National Museum in Dublin. In the summer 2008 the Sea Stallion returned to Roskilde on a route going south of England.
- The Nydam ship (c. 350–400) is a burial ship from Denmark. This vessel is 80 feet (24 m) long and may have had its mast and sail removed for burial. The ship shows a combination of building styles and was propelled by oars.
See also the listing of Viking ship replicas.
- Dragon Harald Fairhair (ship)
- Hugin (longship)
- Nordland (boat)
- Viking ship
- Medieval ships
Germanic peoples Languages Prehistory Roman Iron Age Migration Period Society and culture Religion Dress Warfare Burial practicesList of Germanic peoples · Portal:Ancient Germanic culture Types of sailing vessels and rigs
- Bermuda rig
- Bermuda sloop
- Dutch clipper
- East Indiaman
- Fore-and-aft rig
- Full rigged pinnace
- Full rigged ship
- Gaff rig
- Gunter rig
- Hermaphrodite brig
- Herring buss
- Mast aft rig
- Mersey Flat
- Norfolk punt
- Norfolk wherry
- Pilot cutter
- Pinnace (ship's boat)
- Pocket cruiser
- Sailing barge
- Sailing hydrofoil
- Ship of the line
- Square rig
- Tall ship
- Thames sailing barge
- Trailer sailer
- Treasure ship
- Well smack
- The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde
- The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo
- The Ormen Friske disaster – a warning against construction errors in Viking ship replicas
- The Ormen Friske disaster in 1950 investigated
- Viking ships and traditional Norse wooden boats
- W. Fitzhugh and E. Ward, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 2000.
- A. W. Brøgger, The Viking ships, their ancestry and evolution. Oslo, Dreyer. 1951.
- K. McCone, 'Zisalpinisch-gallisch uenia und lokan' in Festschrift Untermann, ed Heidermans et al., Innsbruck, 1993.1.
- L. Trent, The Viking Longship. 1st ed. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1999.
- A. Forte, R. Oram, and F. Pederson. Viking Empires. 1st. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 ISBN 0-521-82992-5.
- D. Dersin, ed., What Life Was Like When Longships Sailed. 1st ed. Richmond: Time Life Books, 1998.
- A. W. Brøgger and H. Shetelig, The Viking Ships. Twayne Publishers, New York, 1971, and C. Hurst, London, 1971.
- J. R. Hale, 'The Viking Longship'. Scientific American February 1998: 58–66.
- Chartrand, Rene, Mark Harrison, Ian Heath, and Keith Durham. The Vikings: voyagers of discovery and plunder. Osprey Publishing, 2006. 142–190.
- Durham, Keith. Viking Longship. Osprey Publishing, 2002. 5–45.
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.