10 Facts About Viking Longships

Harry Atkins

3 mins

11 May 2018

The Vikings are best remembered as fearsome warriors, but their longlasting legacy owes just as much to their seafaring aptitude. Both the Vikings’ ships and the skill with which they utilised them were key to the success of many of their exploits, from fishing and exploring the oceans to raiding.

Though Viking boats came in many shapes and sizes, the most iconic and effective Viking vessel was undoubtedly the longship. Long, narrow and flat, longships were fast, durable and capable of navigating both choppy seas and shallow rivers. They were also light enough to be carried over land.

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It’s easy to characterise the Vikings as bloodthirsty reprobates rampaging across Europe, but the craft and innovation of the shipbuilding that enabled their conquests deserves recognition.

The fact that Leif Erikson led a Viking crew to North America in around 1,000 — 500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot on the New World — makes clear the Vikings’ remarkable maritime prowess and showcases the robustness of their boats. 

Here are 10 things you may not have known about the impressive longships.

1. Their design evolved over many years

The longships were motored by a combination of manpower and wind.

The design principles that led to the Viking longship can be traced back to the beginning of the Stone Age and the umiak, a large open skin boat used by Yupik and Inuit people as long as 2,500 years ago. 

2. Viking ships were clinker built

The so-called “clinker” method of ship construction is based on planks of timber, usually oak, being overlapped and nailed together. Spaces between planks were then filled with tarred wool and animal hair, ensuring a watertight ship.  

3. Longships were able to navigate in shallow waters

A shallow draft allowed navigation in waters as shallow as one metre and made beach landings possible. 

4. Their top speed was around 17 knots

Speed was variable from ship to ship but it’s thought that the quickest longships could achieve speeds of up to 17 knots in favourable conditions.

5. The boats were typically embellished with decorative head pieces

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Skilfully carved animal heads often featured as figureheads at the front of longships. These heads – those of dragons and snakes were popular – were designed to provoke fear in the spirits of whichever land the Vikings were raiding.

6. Longships combined rowing power with wind propulsion

Typically equipped with rowing positions along their entire length, longships also utilised one big square sail, woven from wool. Steering came courtesy of a single steering oar at the back of the ship.

7. They were double-ended

Their symmetrical bow and stern design allowed longships to swiftly reverse without having to turn around. This was particularly handy when navigating icy conditions. 

8. Longship classifications were linked to rowing capacity

The Karvi had 13 rowing benches while the Busse had up to 34 rowing positions.

9. The vessels were instrumental in enabling the Vikings to explore the globe

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The breadth of the Vikings’ explorations was remarkable. From North America in the west to Central Asia in the east, the Viking Age is defined by geographically expansive exploration that wouldn’t have been possible without such advanced shipbuilding.

10. The longship design was hugely influential

The Vikings’ shipbuilding skills accompanied their extensive travels. Many of the longship’s characteristics were adopted by other cultures and continued to influence shipbuilding for centuries.