The Vikings and Ships

For over 250 years, between about 800 and 1070, the wonderful longships of Scandinavia carried Viking warriors and traders to every country in northwest Europe, into the Mediterranean, down the great rivers of Russia to the Black Sea, and west across the Atlantic Ocean to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and, briefly, to the northern shore of the American continent.

Longships preserved in Viking graves have revealed what magnificent sea boats they were, with tough but flexible overlapping planking able to take the pounding of heavy seas, yet slim and shallow in draft for venturing far up creeks and rivers under oars.

The Viking ship found at Gokstad has places for 16 oars a side. As there are no benched, the men must have rowed sitting on their sea chests. the word “starboard” ( from “steering board”) comes from the position of the single steering oar on the right-hand stern of the ship. Like all Viking ships, the Gokstad ship was “clinker-build”, of over-lapping planks, 16 a side. It measures 23 meters (76.5 feet) long.

Not all Viking ships were warships. For voyages of trade and settlement the foremost ship was the broad-beamed knorr, designed to carry trade goods and livestock. Distant viking colonies such as Greenland depended heavily on the regular sailing of knorrs from Scandinavia, bringing vital supplies in exchange from furs and walrus ivory. Knorrs could be decked in the harbor, or loaded and unloaded on an open beach.