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Viking Ship
Viking Ships

Viking Long ShipViking longships were fast and sleek, powered by sail or oars, they were ideally suited for raiding because their shallow draught meant that they could travel up estuaries and rivers.

The long, narrow ships packed with warriors helped to make the Vikings the dominant power in Europe for nearly five centuries. Two of the most common Viking ships were the knarr and the longboat. The longboat was the biggest ship and was used for raiding. It could be up to 100 feet long and 20 feet wide. The smaller, wider and heavier knarr was used by farmers and merchants to carry a heavy cargo. The knarr had a front and rear deck. Shipbuilders took pride in building beautiful ships and usually decorated the front with a fierce looking carving.

The longboat was built to survive the stormy seas and to sail on shallow rivers. They were also built light enough to be carried over land. When the wind was behind a longboat, the Vikings used large sails. If there wasn't any wind, or it was blowing in the wrong direction, up to 80 warriors could use oars to power the boat.

The tactical advantage of the Viking ships

Viking Long ShipShipbuilding in Scandinavia contributed to the tactical superiority of the Vikings. A wellknown Swedish archaeologist has written that the Viking ships are the only seaworthy amphibious landing vessels ever to be used by invasion forces. Even though this is an exaggeration, it explains much of the secret of the Vikings' military superiority. Many of the accounts of Viking attacks appear to support this theory. The element of surprise was essential. A swift onslaught from the sea with light ships, which were independent of harbours - and could thus approach a coast where they were least expected - and beating a quick retreat before a counteroffensive could be launched; this was the tactic.

Spheres of interest developed between Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian Vikings - even though groups from all three nations often participated together when the most renowned chieftains set sail. The Swedes sailed mainly to the east, and they controlled the eastern trade routes via the waterways leading into Russia. Large amounts of Arabian silver coins in Swedish archaeological diggings testify to intensive trading. The Danes sailed to the south, to Friesland, France and Southern England, while the Norwegians headedto the west and northwest, to Northern England, Scotland, Ireland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Faroes.

The ships were not only necessary for raids and trade, but also a prerequisite for successful colonization, when entire families with all their possessions and livestock sailed away to new lands. The perilous voyages across the North Atlantic to the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes, Iceland and Greenland testify that the shipbuilders of the Viking age not only could build ships which were swiftsailing and capable of attacks in the North Sea area, but extremely seaworthy vessels as well. Colonization followed when seafarers discovered new land, or men returned from trading or raids and spread news of bountiful conditions abroad.

In certain areas, the Vikings appear to have displaced the original inhabitants. In others, such as Northern England, it seems that the Norsemen's main enterprise was cattle breeding and they utilized land of little use to the indigenous graincultivating farmers.

Those who journeyed to Iceland and Greenland found virgin soil. With the possible exception of a few Irish monks on Iceland - who soon "left because they did not want to have heathens as neighbours" - Iceland and the parts of Greenland colonized by the Vikings appear to have been uninhabited when the Norsemen arrived.

1000 years of development

Viking Long ShipThe Viking ships were clinchbuilt. The ships used for travelling to distant shores were a result of a thousand years of experience in the Nordic area. Shipbuilders strove to construct lightweight and flexible vessels, pliant to the forces of sea and wind - working with the elements instead of against them. The hull of the Viking ships is built on a solid keel, which together with a finely curved bow, forms the backbone of the vessel. Strafe after strafe was fitted to keel and stem and these were bolted to each other with iron rivets. This hull shell provided strength and flexibility. After the shipbuilder had given the shell its desired shape, ribs made from naturallycurved trees were fitted and these gave additional strength. To increase flexibility, strafes and ribs were bound together. Cross supports at the waterline supplied lateral support, and extra solid logs braced the mast.

The ships sailed were squarerigged on a midship mast. In a calm, or against a strong headwind, the crew could man the oars.

As the Viking period progressed, different types of ships were developed. There were ships intended for battle which were built for speed and a large crew. There were also ships built for commercial trade, where speed was less important. These had a greater girth to permit more cargo. Trade ships did not have a large crew, and they were better suited for sailing than for rowing.
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