How the Vikings Built Their Longships and Sailed Them to Far Away Lands

HistoryHit Podcast

5 mins

11 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Vikings of Lofoten on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 16 April 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The Vikings are well known for their boat-building skills – without which they wouldn’t have been able to create the famed longships that helped them to reach far away lands. The largest preserved Viking boat to be found in Norway is the 9th century Gokstad longship, which was discovered in a burial mound in 1880. Today, it sits in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, but replicas continue to sail the seas.

In April 2016, Dan Snow visited one such replica in the Norwegian archipelago of Lofoten and discovered some of the secrets behind the Vikings’ extraordinary maritime capabilities.

The Gokstad

An earlier Viking boat, the Gokstad was a combination boat, meaning that she could be used as both a warship and a trading ship. Measuring 23.5 metres long and 5.5m wide, the replica that Dan visited in Lofoten can take around 8 tonnes of ballast (heavy material placed in the bilge – lowest compartment – of a ship to ensure her stability).

The Gokstad on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / CommonsThe Gokstad on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / Commons

With the Gokstad capable of taking such a large amount of ballast, she could be used for journeys to the big markets in Europe. But if she was needed for a war, then there was enough room on board for her to be rowed by 32 men, while a large sail measuring 120 square metres could also be used to ensure good speed. A sail of that size would have allowed the Gokstad to sail at a speed of up to 50 knots.

Rowing a boat like the Gokstad for several hours would have been difficult and so crew members would have tried to sail her whenever possible.

But they would have also had two sets of rowers on board so that the men could switch every hour or two and rest a little bit in between.

If a boat like the Gokstad was just being sailed, then only around 13 crew members would have been needed for short journeys – eight people to put up the sail and a few others to handle the ship. For long journeys, meanwhile, more crew members would have been preferable.

For example, it is thought that a boat like the Gokstad would have held around 20 people when being used for journeys up to the White Sea, a southern inlet of the Barents Sea located off the north-west coast of Russia.

To the White Sea and beyond

How far did the Vikings’ voyages take them? Dan Snow tracks their expansion west in the documentary The Vikings Uncovered on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

Journeys to the White Sea would have been taken in the spring when Norwegian Vikings – including those from the Lofoten archipelago – traded with the Sami people who lived there. These hunters killed whales, seals and walruses, and the Vikings bought the skins of these animals from the Sami people and made oil from the fat.

The Vikings of Lofoten would then sail south to the island group where they would catch cod to be dried.

Even today, if you drive around the Lofoten Islands during springtime then you will see cod hung up everywhere, drying in the sun.

The Lofoten Vikings would then load up their boats with this dried cod and head south to the big markets in Europe – to England and possibly Ireland, and to Denmark, Norway and North Germany. In May or June, it would have taken the Vikings of Lofoten around a week to travel to Scotland in a boat like the Gokstad.

Codfish heads hung up to dry in Lofoten in April 2015. Credit: Ximonic (Simo Räsänen) / Commons

The Vikings of Lofoten had very good connections with the rest of the world. Archaeological discoveries made in the archipelago, such as drinking glass and certain types of jewellery, show that the islands’ residents had good connections with both England and France.Sagas about the Viking kings and lords in the northern part of Norway (Lofoten is located off Norway’s north-west coast) tell of these Nordic warriors and seafarers travelling all over.

One tells of them sailing directly to England from Lofoten and asking King Cnut for help in fighting King Olaf II of Norway in the Battle of Stiklestad.

These Vikings were powerful men in the Kingdom of Norway and had their own kind of parliament in Lofoten. The northern Vikings made decisions at this gathering, which was held once or twice a year, or more often if they were experiencing problems that needed to be discussed.

Navigating a Viking ship

A model of a longship is set on fire at the annual Viking festival held on the Shetland island of Lerwick. From the documentary The Vikings Uncovered on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

Capable of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean and making accurate landfalls as far back as 1,000 years ago, the Vikings were one of the most remarkable maritime civilisations in history. The Vikings of Lofoten were sailing to Iceland to hunt for seals and whales as early as the start of the 800s, an extraordinary feat in itself given that Iceland is relatively small and not very easy to find. 

Much of the Vikings’ maritime achievements rested on their navigating abilities. They could use clouds as navigational aids – if they saw clouds then they would know that land was over the horizon; they wouldn’t even need to see the land itself to know which direction to sail in.

They also used the sun, following its shadows, and were experts on ocean currents.

They would look at seagrass to see whether it was old or fresh; which way the birds were flying in the morning and afternoon; and also look at the stars. 

Constructing a Viking ship

Viking Age mariners were not only phenomenal sailors and navigators but also phenomenal boat-builders; they had to know how to create their own vessels, as well as how to repair them. And each generation learnt new secrets of boat-building which they passed down to their children.

The excavation of the Gokstad in 1880.

Ships like the Gokstad would have been relatively easy for the Vikings to make (so long as they had the right skills) and could be made with materials that were more or less ready to hand. The Vikings of Lofoten, however, would have had to travel to the mainland to find wood to build such a ship. 

The sides of the replica that Dan visited are made of pine, while the ribs and keel are made of oak. The ropes, meanwhile, are made of hemp and horsetail, and oil, salt and paint are used to keep the sail from tearing in the wind.