The Viking ship was perhaps the greatest technical and artistic achievement of the European dark ages. These fast ships had the strength to survive ocean crossings while having a draft of as little as 50cm (20 inches), allowing navigation in very shallow water.
Ships were an important part of Viking society, not only as a means of transportation, but also for the prestige that it conferred on her owner and skipper. Their ships permitted the Vikings to embark on their voyages of trading, of raiding, and of exploration.
Images of ships show up on jewelry, on memorial stones, and on coins from the Viking age. Some people were buried in ships, or ship-like settings made of stones, during the Viking age.
The picture to the left shows a sketch of the side view and hull section, and a photo of a 9th century ship that was recovered early in the 20th century in Oseberg. The ship was part of a very rich burial and is now on display near Oslo.
The Oseberg ship was once thought to be more representative of a royal yacht, rather than a true war ship, but more recent research suggests she was quite capable of sailing in open ocean.
In the 1970's, five 11th century ships were found and recovered from the Skuldelev narrows in Denmark, giving us more examples of the variety of ships used in the Viking age. These ships had been intentionally scuttled, probably to block the channel during a raid.
Two different classes of Viking era ships were found: warships called langskip and merchant ships called knörr.
Typically, a warship is narrower, longer, and shallower than a knörr, and is powered by oars, supplanted by sail. The warship is completely open and is built for speed and maneuverability. In contrast, a knörr is partially enclosed and powered primarily by sail. Cargo carrying capability is the primary concern.
The two Skuldelev warships are narrower and less spacious than the Oseberg ship. A sketch of the smaller of the two ships is shown to the right. She is 17.4m long (57 ft) and 2.6m broad (8.5 ft). These ships are probably more typical of the kind of vessel that was used by the Vikings on their raids.
A typical warship might have had 16 rowers on each side.
The crew's shields may have been arrayed along the gunwales, held in place by a shield rack outboard of the ship. This kept them out of the way, but also provided some slight additional protection against wind and waves.
The photos show the Íslendingur, a replica ship that sailed from Iceland to North America in the year 2000.
Both coins and pictures stones from the Viking age depict shields arrayed along the gunwale of a Viking ship. Additionally, the sagas say that shields were displayed. In Brennu-Njáls saga, Kári and his ten ships rowed hard to join a sea battle, with row after row of shields on display along the sides of the ships.
Several pieces of evidence suggest that shields were not routinely displayed while underway. On some ships, the shields interfere with the oarholes, preventing the oars from being used. Shield racks, to which the shields were fastened, were not robust, and probably were incapable of holding the shields securely in rough seas. Last, modern sailors of replica ships say they are very impractical.
The inboard side of the shield rack on the replica Viking ship Vésteinn is shown to the left. In this interpretation, wedges hold the shield in place in the rack.
Perhaps shields were displayed only for battle, or to make the ship look especially fine when approaching land. Landnámabók tells of Hella-Björn Herfinnsson who sailed into Bjarnarfjörður with his ship lined with shields. Afterwards, he was called Skjalda-Björn (Shield-Björn).
The oars of the Gokstad ship varied in length from 5.3 to 5.85 meters (about 17 to 19ft) according to where they were used on the ship. The oarholes were not a uniform distance above the waterline, and so the length of each oar was chosen so that the blades all hit the water in unison.
The oars were made of pine with a narrow blade, which makes for an efficient, lightweight oar. The photos show the oars for the Íslendingur, which was no longer afloat when the photos were taken.
The ship has been on display at an open air museum for several years, but in the fall of 2008, she was moved indoors to a new museum, Víkingaheimar at Reykjanesbær in Iceland.
The oarholes of the Gokstad ship were only 40cm (16 inches) above the deck. Most likely, each crewman's sea chest doubled as a rowing bench.
Oarholes were sealed when not in use by covers that rotated in place to keep out water.
The slot cut into the oarhole that is visible in the upper photo to the left allowed the blade of the oar to pass through the oarhole so oars could be deployed entirely inboard of the ship The slot was located in a position that received minimal stress while rowing, reducing the chance for wear or damage to the strakes or to the oars from the force of the stroke.
Warships typically had minimal decking, with removable planks under the rowers laid on the crossbeams, and small raised platforms at the bow and stern. When anchored or in harbor, an awning was arrayed overhead to provide some protection from the elements.
The single square rigged sail allowed sailing close to the wind. This ability, combined with the capability to row during adverse wind conditions, allowed Norse sailors to run in to shore, engage the enemy on land, and escape retribution at will.
The Helge Ask is a modern replica of the smaller of the two Skuldelev warships. She is based at the Roskilde Ship Museum in Denmark. They report that with a full crew of 24 at the oars, she is capable of a speed of 4 knots. But only for about 15 minutes, which is when the crew collapses from exhaustion. For longer stretches, 2-3 knots is probably her top speed when being rowed.
Another clue to the speed capabilities of these ships comes from linguistic studies. The term víka sjóvar is the distance a man should work the oars before he should be released. The distance was set to 1000 strokes, about two hours work. The modern term is equivalent to about 4 nautical miles, implying that a speed of 2 knots was typical. The pace works out to one stroke every 5 to 7 seconds, depending on how one interprets the ancient texts.