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by Nokki Nollason July 19, 2020 6 min read

If we look at nowadays transportation, there is not much challenge. You could travel by car, train, boat or an airplane. 

Now imagine the world without any of that stuff. 

Every travel longer than 10 kilometers becomes an effort. 

Now imagine all those challenges, but being at war at the same time.

Through generations, people improved means of transportation, and ships became one of the primary means of travel, trade, and warfare.

When it comes to Vikings, they perfected this craft. 

Shipbuilding became one of the most prestigious professions, and their ships were a thing of pride for every Viking. Some say that it could be the greatest achievement of the medieval period. Their ability to navigate narrow passages and sail over the ocean was incredibly ahead of their time.

Let's take a closer look at those magnificent ships.

Different Types of Viking Ships

Viking ships can practically be divided into two classes – merchant ships called knorr and warships called langskip.

Langskip

Viking warship Drakkar in Oslo museum

Drakkar in Oslo museum

We will start with warships.

The warships are known mostly today as longships. They were smaller, narrower, and their primary source of movement power were men using oars. 

They had a small sail that helped them, and they were much shallower than trade ships because in this case, the primary concerns were maneuverability and speed.

Their existence was proven by archaeologists. Langskips were always made of wood, and the sail was made of wool. Their construction was so advanced that many of the techniques are still used in the shipbuilding today, in modern form, though.

The ship had a very shallow draft, which meant that it could move in the waters, which were only one meter deep. The ships could've been used to move on both the seas and rivers, which was a significant tactical advantage for Vikings during their raids.

The average speed of warships was between 5 and 10 knots, and the maximum speed went to approximately 15 knots.

We can divide longships into four types – karvi, snekkja, skeid, and, the most famous one, drakkar.

Karvi was the smallest ship in the Viking navy. It was primarily used for fishing and trade but was sometimes used for military purposes. 

Snekkja was probably the most used type of Viking ships. The main advantage of snekkjas was that it didn't need harbor or port, it could've just been beached anywhere.

Skeids are large Norse ships. Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship that has ever been discovered (37 meters), is thought to be skeid.

Drakkar is the largest ship in the Viking fleet, but so far, none were found by the archaeologists. They are mentioned in many sagas, and it is considered that drakkars are actually skeids but with much more ornaments and paintings of terrifying beasts on it. 

The most famous ship mentioned in the sources is Olav Tryggvason's Ormrinn Langi (meaning the giant serpent). It had 34 rooms (rowing benches) for its crew on it. 

Knorr

Viking Trade ship Knorr

Viking Ships for Trade - Knorr

Knorr ships were primarily used for trade

When it comes to knorr, they were much larger, and they were almost entirely propelled by wind strength through one large sail. 

The main concern on these ships was a cargo, and because of this, they had a lot of space on the ship for it.

They were built to sustain up to 24 tons of cargo. Usual cargo found on knorr ships were slaves, furs, pelts, walrus ivory, timber, weapons, etc. 

They also carried supplies for the crew, which included food, drink, weapons, and armor. 

There are two well-preserved knorr ships today. 

The first one is called Skudelev 1, and it was found in Roskilde fjord in Denmark as part of 5 ships called Skudelev ships. 

The second one is the Askekarr ship, which was found in 1933 in Sweden.

Viking Ship Names

Like modern ships, Viking ships, both mythological and real, had names. 

The names were symbolic, and their purpose was usually to cause fear among enemies and respect for the one who commands it.

When it comes to mythological ships, the best of ships was called Skidbladnir, which belonged to Freyr, and its name meant wood blade. Even though it doesn't sound terrifying, it doesn't mean that it wasn't.

The next mythological ship is Hringhorni, meaning the ring horn. This boat was burial ship of Baldr, and on it, he was sent to the afterlife.

Viking ship burial

Viking Ship Burial

Last but not least important mythological ship is Naglfar, meaning nail farer. 

It is said that this is the largest ship ever built, which will have its role in Ragnarok as a vessel that will carry the army of the dead to the battlefield. Its weird name comes from the fact that it was made from the toenails and fingernails of the dead.

When it comes to real ship names, we have already mentioned Olav Tryggvason's Ormurinn Langi. He had at least two ships before that one. One was named Trana, and the other one was Ormen Skamme, meaning the short serpent.

The next one is the ship of Norwegian earl Eirik, who had a ship called Barden, meaning the beard. It is important to note that for Vikings, a beard was a sign of strength and dominant masculinity, so naming a ship after it insinuated the strength of the ship commander.

Saint Olav, also known as Norwegian king Olav Haraldson had a ship called Visund, meaning the bison. Some could be confused by this since most of the people connect bison with North America. Still, there is also European bison, which was almost brought to extinction in the early 20th century, but nowadays, it is conserved, and its numbers are slowly rising.

In the end, ship names may show some abilities of the ship. Because of that, King Sigurd Munn's ship, which was considered to be the fastest in the world, according to sagas, was called Reinen, meaning reindeer.

How did Vikings Sleep on Ships?

As we could assume, Viking ships, being light and small, did not have any shelter for the rowers.

Sleeping outdoors is always a challenge, especially in specific conditions such are those on a ship. For Vikings, there were three primary solutions for sleeping.

The first one is to simply land somewhere, raise small woolen tents, and sleep in them. This had its advantages since land provides good shelter and food and water sources, but, when on the open sea or enemy waters, the land is not always a solution.

The second option is to take down the small mainsail and use it as a sort of blanket to cover those who sleep on a ship.

The third one is sleeping under blankets made of animal fur and skin. This method was mostly used when the crew was on the open sea, and there was no other solution.

Of course, in order to make these things easier, Vikings seldom set sail during the winter because all of these problems became ten times more difficult.

How Many Men Could a Viking Ship Hold?

The number of men on Viking ships largely depended on the size of the ship. 

We have already talked about types of Viking ships. In accordance with their size, we know how many men approximately had each ship.

Karvihad between 6 and 16 roving benches (meaning between 12 and 32 rowers and one cox, so between 13 and 33 crew members) and, since Viking law said that the smallest warship could have 13 rovers, karvis entered this category.

Snekkja ships had around 20 rowing benches, meaning that they had about 40 crew members.

Skeidcontained 30 roving benches and were some of the largest ships in the Viking fleet. The number of people on board would then be around 61 with the cox.

When it comes to drakkar, they were even larger. We have already mentioned ship Ormrinn Langi, which is believed to had around 70 crew members.

Interesting Facts About Viking Ships

Decoration of a Viking ship

Viking Ship Decoration

Let's take a look at some interesting facts regarding Viking ships:

  • We already said that Viking ships were very light. What we didn't say is that they were so light that they were often carried by its crew while on land, which made them very maneuverable on both the land and water. 
  • This carrying of ships across the land is called portage.
  • Viking men showed their bravery by jumping from one oar to another while the ship was stationary.
  • Sailors kept all their belonging in a chest. A chest was often used as a seat while the oarsmen were rowing.
  • Food on a Viking ship was made of dried fruit, preserved fish and stale bread. 
  • Since Viking ships had no toilets, the sea was used for that.
  • Navigation on Viking ships was done using the position of the stars, moon, and sun. They also followed the tidal waves and knew which birds were native to which area and used all of this to navigate.

Conclusion

When you read and learn about Viking ships, you can basically understand why did they become a seafaring force to be afraid of. 

Their shipbuilding techniques allowed them to show up anywhere. Nothing was an obstacle for them. They could go over a river in no time. They could go over the sea. And, if you think about that, boats powered by rowers provide strong men for fighting, which comes after the rowing.

There you have it! 

Sometimes a small thing such as a construction of a ship can make a difference between northern barbarians and some of the most feared and respected warriors in the history of the world which are always going to be remembered and respected by us, true descendants of Vikings!

Skål!


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