How the Vikings Became Masters of the Seas

Dan Snow

4 mins

09 Oct 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Vikings Uncovered Part 1 on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 29 April 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

At the Viking Ship Museum, in Roskilde, Denmark, they’ve raised several original Viking ships from the fjord but it’s also home to a fantastic living history project. They make the most extraordinary vessels, including a beautiful longship, a warship and shorter cargo ships.

I was privileged enough to go out on one of these very special vessels, a replica trading ship called Ottar.

She dates from around the 1030s and would have carried around 20 tons of cargo, whereas a larger warship could just carry 8 or 10 tons. Boats like Ottar would bring up the rear, keeping in company with the warships and supplying them when required.

You could sail a Viking ship off into the wilderness, pretty much shipwreck it, then go ashore and build another one. They carried all the skills and tools they needed to do that.

The crews were very small. You could sail Ottar with a crew of perhaps, only three, but a few more is helpful.

What I really learned on the Otter was the incredible flexibility and resilience of Viking sailing.

They had everything they needed to make a new ship. You could sail a Viking ship off into the wilderness, pretty much shipwreck it, then go ashore and build another one. They carried all the skills and tools they needed to do that.

They could navigate with what they had, their food source was very reliable and they could either fish and catch food along the way or take food with them. They did have food that was capable of transportation over a long distance.

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Viking navigation

Navigation was the key thing I learned about aboard Ottar. First of all, Vikings had all the time in the world. They waited for the weather window.

The main thing is to go with the weather, adapt to the natural rhythm of the world.We could do about 150 miles a day with a following wind, so we could cover serious distance.

At sea, we started to navigate in the way the Vikings navigated. You don’t need to see land to know where you are. You need to see things called reflecting waves, which is when waves come around an island and then crash into each other on the far side of the island.

Vikings, and in fact Polynesians in the South Pacific, learned to look for those waves. They could tell they were in the lee of an island. They learned to look for the seabirds that fish on the sea but nest on land. They knew that in the evening, these birds will take off and fly back to land, so that’s the direction of land.

At sea, we started to navigate in the way the Vikings navigated. You don’t need to see land to know where you are.

They learned from the smell of the fir trees and from the color of the water that land was nearby.

And of course, they knew from the fluffy clouds that form above land. We could see where Sweden was even though we couldn’t see where the land of Sweden was.

It’s possible to kind of bounce using the clouds and the seabirds. You could sail out of sight of land but know where you are all the time.

Ottar is a reconstruction of the oceangoing cargo ship Skuldelev 1.

Another invaluable navigational trick makes use of the sun. At 12pm, the sun is due south and at 6pm the sun is directly in the west. At 6am it’s directly in the east, no matter what time of year it is. So your compass points are always set like that.

The food was also fascinating. Onboard Ottar we had pickled herring and dried cod, which can be stored for months, fermented salmon, which is buried underground, and smoked lamb, which was smoked using reindeer droppings.

We got off the ship at one point and walked into a forest where we found a young birch tree and twisted it out of the ground. If you twist it, you give it enormous flexibility, but you maintain its strength.

We carried it back to the boat, leaving the roots on this sapling, which effectively forms a nut and then the sapling forms a bolt. And you put it through a hole in the side, through a hole in the rudder, through a hole in the side of the hull, and you lash it down, giving you a very basic way of bolting the rudder onto the side of the ship.

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The Vikings’ unique skillset

All of this fascinating insight really taught me how incredibly self-sustaining the Vikings were. They called on a unique combination of skills, including metallurgy, spinning – because obviously, their sails were made of spun wool – and carpentry, together with their brilliant navigational ability and seamanship.

All this, added to those archetypal Viking qualities – toughness, martial prowess and ambition – enabled these ingenious people to project themselves and their commerce right the way across the Atlantic.