Alongside the Spartans and the Gladiators, the Vikings are known as one of history’s greatest warrior cultures. The Vikings worshipped strength and this was reflected in everything they did, especially in their ships. In fact, shipbuilding was one of the Vikings’ greatest achievements.
Though they were not the first culture to build warships, they did manage to take shipbuilding to a new level never before seen. Their advanced shipbuilding techniques enabled the Vikings to become a dominant force in medieval politics, trade and warfare. For three hundred years, the sight of a Viking longship off on the horizon struck terror into the hearts of countless medieval Europeans.
The Vikings actually built a number of different types of ships, with each one varying depending on the purpose.
The Drekkar, Snekke and Skeid were all longships, which were stealthy warships primarily used to carry troops.
The ships were about 30 meters long and had room for up to about 18 pairs of oarsmen.
The ships could quickly cross the ocean using their sail power and then once closer to shore, they would switch to oars to run attacks on undefended towns and monasteries.
The Viking warships far surpassed other countries’ ships in both lightness and efficiency, quickly carrying Viking warriors to destinations as far away as North Africa.
The Knarr was another type of vessel built by the Vikings. The Knarr was a merchant ship. It was shorter than the warships—typically up to no more than 17 meters long—and was built for carrying cargo. Though based on similar design principles, unlike the longships, the Knarr had a wider and deeper hull for cargo and were more dependent on sail power than oar power. Seaworthiness and capacity were more important than speed. Oars would have only been used to maneuver the ships in and out of harbors.
The Vikings also built other types of small vessels that were used to facilitate trade and for day-to-day life. The Byrding was a small freight-carrying vessel that could navigate rivers and if necessary, even be carried over land or over obstacles. Other ships didn’t have a particular name—these were primarily used by individuals and families to carry on their daily activities.
Regardless of their primary use, most Viking ships were built using the same basic concept. The hull was made of overlapping wood planks held together with iron rivets. This not only provided strength, but flexibility too. The Viking ships were pointed at both ends and wide in the middle. Because of this design the ships could navigate through shallow waters. Though none have actually been encountered intact, there is sufficient historical evidence indicating that the Vikings used a square or rectangular sail to power their ships. It appears that they liked to color their sails blood red—probably to instill fear in their adversaries.
The shape of the sail favored by the Vikings would have limited the maneuverability of the ship—particularly against a headwind—but this is where the oarsmen would have taken over, powering the ship and deftly maneuvering it as necessary.