Viking ships & sailors

Ships and the sailors – the secret of Viking success

The origins of Scandinavian ships and seamanship go back many centuries. Transport by sea was by far the easiest and in some places, the only possible method of moving goods and people. In the case of Sweden, travel over land through vast tracts of forest was slow and laborious. Almost all settlements were on the coasts, by the lakes or on islands. In Norway the sea gave access to the communities up its deeply indented coastline. Denmark was mainly a patchwork of islands which could only be reached by water. Pic 12 Small Viking ship

Through time, shipwright’s skills were perfected to produce strongly-built clinker hulls; that is hulls with the planks overlapping. These vessels had fine, sleek, flowing lines which gave them great stability at sea, yet they had sufficiently little draught to allow them to operate in shallow waters, even when heavily laden. By the 9th century, ships had sturdy keels which allowed them to take to the ground and sailors had learnt the use of sails. They could now propel their vessels by wind power or by rowing and the introduction of a steering oar on the starboard side of the ships gave greater control. But the ships were not all the same. Archaeological evidence shows that Viking ships ranged from small rowing vessels for inshore and fishing use, to warships which were over 30 metres long. Good examples of the different kinds of ship have been found in various places. One of the most spectacular finds was the discovery of six ships near Roskilde in Denmark. It appears that all three of the ships had been deliberately sunk for defensive purposes, to blockade an access channel to the harbour. The ships, known as Skuldelev 1 to 6, are good examples of the differing types of ship used by the Vikings. Skuldelev 1 was built in Norway and is a cargo ship, often referred to as a knar. The most impressive find was Skuldelev 2. This was a 30 metre long war ship. Tests on its timbers have shown that it was built in Ireland, though probably by Viking shipwrights. Reconstructions of both of these vessels have been made in Roskilde.

A reconstruction of Skulelev 2, the Sea Stallion, was sailed to Ireland where it was originally built by Viking shipwrights.

A reconstruction of Skulelev 2, the Sea Stallion, was sailed to Ireland where it was originally built by Viking shipwrights.

The replica of Skuldelev 2 was launched in 2004. It was the records of the builders of this ship which led me to believe that the scale of the Viking ship-building industry has, to my knowledge, never been properly recognised. It must have been very far removed from the image of a cottage industry which is often portrayed by history books. The modern ship-builders at Roskilde who made the replica were experienced shipwrights and yet it took 10,000 hours to build the basic ship. It has been calculated from this that it would have taken a team of a master ship- builder and ten shipwrights, ten months to build the craft. But this is the minor part of the story. It took 14,000 hours to shape, trim and transport the 150 cubic metres of timber required for the construction. In addition, starting from basics; 400 kg of iron had to be produced for the 7,000 nails; 18 cubic metres of pinewood tar was needed to seal the hull; 2,000 metres of handmade rope was required for the rigging and 120 square metres of cloth for the sail. Roskilde adThis was for one warship, albeit a big one. When one considers that fleets of around ninety ships set out on some Viking raids, and indeed it is said that at the Battle of Stamford, the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada had three hundred ships to transport fifteen thousand troops, it is clear that the ship building industry must have been huge. It must have employed an army of slaves to produce the raw materials and a considerable number of skilled craftsmen. So where were the ships built? Clearly, logistics dictated that in a country where transport over land is difficult, ships would be built on a waterside site which is as close as possible to the sources of the raw materials needed in construction. In my book I have chosen Sigtuna, in Sweden, as a site for a ship yard. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, there was the administrative infrastructure to organise construction on a large scale. Secondly, there was good access to the timber needed for charcoal production and shipbuilding. Thirdly, there was a supply of iron ore not far away to the west. And finally, there was a demand for ships. King Erik had given his dead brother’s son, Styrbjorn, a fleet of ninety ships to persuade him to relinquish his claim to the throne. In order for Erik to maintain and extend his control over the country he needed to replace these ships. This would have required a mammoth ship building programme.

Reproduction tools, based on discoveries by archaeologists, were used the building of the replica ships.

Reproduction tools, based on discoveries by archaeologists, were used the building of the replica ships.

The Viking sailors themselves had the benefit of theaccumulated experience and knowledge of generations of seafarers. It is often debated whether they had any instruments to help them on their voyages. In my book I describe an implement which, it is said, was used to find the direction of the sun through fog. There is, however, no doubt that the Viking sailors relied mainly on natural phenomena to navigate. They used the sun and the Pole star, but also cloud formations, wave patterns and the presence of sea birds. While the Viking sailors preferred to hug the coastline they and their ships were capable of long ocean voyages. But life onboard was very physically demanding. The crew ate, lived and slept at their oar place. There was very little shelter in bad weather, though it is suggested by some historians that when anchored or beached, the sailors could have taken the sail from the mast and used it for cover. Food was very basic; the most common dish was porridge and this was varied with dried or salted fish. Opinions differ about whether or not the Vikings lit cooking fires on their ships. The inherent danger in doing so would present a great risk. Hence, whenever possible, the sailors would pull into the coast at night so that they could light cooking fires on the beach. When the time came to raid a shore settlement, the shallow draft of the vessels allowed the captain to bring his ship very close inshore or even beach it. The sailors would then grab their weapons and wade ashore, often with the element of surprise on their side, and transform from seamen into warriors. But who were the Vikings? Unfortunately, these men did not leave any written record of their lives or adventures. All the accounts we have of them are written by those who suffered at their hands or who wanted to try convert them to Christianity. It seems certain that although there were some trained warriors in their number, many of the Vikings were ordinary men, mainly farmers, who took time off from their normal lives to “go a viking”.


Iron production in Viking times

To produce 400 kgs of iron for just one Viking warship, such as Sea Stallion, was a massive task. In addition to the metal required for the ship, the crew would have to be armed with iron weapons. It is probable that at about the middle of the Viking period iron ore was mined in some areas, but until that time and indeed after then in places remote from iron ore supply, the metal was produced from bog iron. As described in Finn’s Fate, lumps of iron bearing mineral were hunted for in marshes and bogs. This was hard and unpleasant work, and because each lump only contained a small quantity of iron, large amounts of the mineral were needed to produce useful quantities of metal. [box type=”shadow”]


Once he had the raw iron, the blacksmith then hand produced every nail for the ship, the tools for the shipwrights and also the weapons for the crew. By the use of double bellows the smith could keep a near constant air flow through the charcoal hearth.


 Find out more about Viking Ships & Sailors in Finn’s Fate

                                Available on Kindle at £1.99 or $3.16


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *