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Sailing to Valhalla: Viking Ship and Boat History

Written By: Peter Whiting

The Viking Age lasted from about 790 C.E. through 1100 C.E. and was largely known due to the Vikings' seafaring innovations. Scandinavians built their ships as a means to engage in both warfare and trade. Their goal was to expand their reach, and the ships they built made that possible. When most people think of Viking ships they picture a longboat. However, the Vikings made many different types of ships. Most of these ships were made of wood which means there aren't many intact specimens of early Viking ships left, save a few buried ships.

Types of Viking Ships and Boats

Fierce Viking warriors in their longships are the most enduring image of these seafaring people. However, the Vikings built a variety of ship types, each with its own specific purpose in mind. The ships all do have some things in common, though. Viking ships were made of wood planks that were nailed together. Some sort of filler, often wood or moss, was inserted between the planks and then covered with either tallow or tar to make the ships watertight. Almost all ships were long and narrow. The Vikings made this design choice so that their ships could function in shallow water. Longships were designed to carry warriors. Cargo ships were wider and slower and designed with an empty middle section so that the ships could safely move goods around. Ferries were built to move citizens around Scandinavia and small boats were built for fishing.

Viking Ship Construction

Vikings used the clinker method to build all of their ships, both large and small. Clinker-built boats start with the exterior of the boat. Planks are overlapped and then nailed together. The frame is then built inside the already-finished exterior. Clinker boats must be made of very fine wood. The exterior strengthens the boat and makes it sturdier, so clinker boats have lighter frames. These boats don't require very many tools to make. However, by crafting the boats carefully the result can be sophisticated and seaworthy. One trick the Vikings used was to increase the flexibility and strength of each piece of wood used on their boats by always sanding and cutting along the wood's grain. By using the clinker method, the Vikings built boats that were lightweight yet durable and able to be used in a variety of different waterways.

Ocean Navigation

The Vikings traveled astonishingly long distances across the world's waterways without the benefits of sea logs, charts, or compasses. Instead, the Vikings navigated using their observations of wave and cloud patterns along with their shared cultural knowledge about the positions of the sun and the stars. One tool the Vikings did use in navigation was sundials so they would always know which way the North Pole lay. Additionally, many scholars have found evidence that Vikings used sunstones to navigate through bad weather. Sunstones are a crystal that when pointed toward the sun shines very brightly. This happens even on overcast or cloudy days.

Viking Lifestyle at Sea

Viking ships weren't built for comfort. Sometimes Vikings would pull up on land at night, remove the sail, and make a tent over the boat to provide shelter for sleeping sailors. Some boats carried wooden tents that sailors could use on shore. If sailors had to sleep on the boat, they had animal skins to use for blankets and bunked down on the ship's deck. Ships carried food stores of dried or salted fish, along with beer and fresh water. Sailing on a Viking ship was a hard life.

Viking Sea Legacy

The Viking's creation of the flexible, lightweight longship changed the history of the world. With their ship, they were able to travel further and longer than any other European people had ever traveled. The Vikings visited North America a thousand years ago, centuries before Christopher Columbus "discovered" the continent. As the Vikings went on expeditions and established trade routes they also established the sharing of inventions and cultures between various groups.

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