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Viking Ships

October 21, 2023 7 min read

Viking ships

Viking Ships | The Tool of Sea Conquerors!

The Viking Age marks the expansion of the greatest civilization in Europe. Within 3 centuries, the Vikings conquered the seven seas and colonized all lands. Despite their reputation as fierce warriors, the Scandinavian people would not have achieved this glory without their greatest asset: Viking boats.

True masterpieces of naval architecture, Viking boats or drakkars are the result of ancestral knowledge spanning thousands of years. Without them, the Scandinavian people would not have been able to navigate to the most remote corners of the world, and would never have gained a reputation as born explorers and travelers.

What is the secret of Viking craftsmanship? What are the different types of Viking boats? How were these drakkars built? Discover in this article the story of the astonishing Viking boats!

The Fascinating History of Viking Boats: 6000 Years of Nordic Expertise!

Without Viking ships, the glorious Viking Age would never have occurred. Whether in Scandinavian sagas, skaldic poems, or sources from other cultures: Viking boats are all described as conquerors of the seas.

Being both a means of transport, trade, and also a formidable weapon of war: Viking ships sailed wonderfully at sea. They split it in two even during the fiercest storms, regardless of their type. This allowed, among other things, the massive expansion of the Vikings from the 9th century onwards.

One of the most striking images of the Vikings is when they landed with a long ship with a dragon head and a red and white striped sail. This boat, improperly called drakkar (we will explain why later), quickly became the symbol of Viking domination.

How did a boat become the emblem of an entire civilization? Why was the construction of Viking boats a necessity for this people? Where did their talent and unique expertise come from? To answer all these questions, we will try to trace the history of this ancient civilization!

Origins and History of the Viking Boat

 

 

Scandinavia, as well as all the Nordic countries, is a very harsh region. Between the icy climate, arid lands, and expanses of water that border it on all sides, the Viking's life was never kind. It is largely this difficulty that shaped the character of the Nordic man and sharpened his survival instinct.

The Scandinavians became aware very early of their disadvantage against the elements. Instead of fleeing this region, they made this challenge their greatest asset!

The vast sea, rivers, and various lakes and straits represent a significant source of food and livelihood, especially given the poverty of the land. In addition to this, all these water territories made any movement from one region to another extremely difficult for the Viking people. As you might have guessed, it is from the need to meet these vital necessities that the first Viking ships were born.

The First Scandinavian Boats: The Origin of Nordic Expertise

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Dating back well before the Viking Age, the first representations of boats and ships, found in burials, are dated more than 4000 years before our era. The Nordic expertise being in its infancy, they illustrate the use of simple wooden canoes during the Bronze Age.

Subsequently, Scandinavian boats evolved significantly in a very short time. The first remains of Nordic ships found are war canoes called "Hjortspring" dating back to 350 BC. The second major discovery is that of the "Nydam" ships in a sacrificial tomb in Denmark.

Although still very basic, these ships lay the foundations for the construction of Viking boats. Indeed, they already incorporate two main characteristics that will be retained in the Viking Age:

  1. To propel these shuttles, instead of integrating paddles as was customary, they used oars. More efficient for propelling boats, this is what allowed them, among other things, to go upstream against the current in rivers;
  2. They are built following the clinker planking technique. According to this method, the boards of the boat's hull are arranged to overlap and superimpose. It increases the resistance of the structure and consequently facilitates its navigation.

The last central element of Viking boat manufacturing to appear is iron rivets. Indeed, before the Viking era, the boat planks were all tied together. It was only in the year 3 AD that pioneers of Scandinavian shipbuilding began to use this fundamental component. Historians consider it a reliable indicator of Scandinavian constructions.

Characteristics of the Viking Boat

Viking Boats | The Pride of the Viking Age! | Viking Heritage

 

Thanks to thousands of years of shipbuilding expertise, Nordic boats were already very sophisticated in the Viking era. Unlike other European countries, which favored the solidity and resistance of their boats, Nordic ships were all made following the same principle: combining flexibility with lightness.

Facing a merciless sea, the Scandinavians couldn't afford to have flaws in the robustness of their ship hulls. Fortunately, their ancestors passed down a construction method unique to the Vikings: the clinker planking!

Indeed, all models of Viking ships were made using the clinker planking technique. This method provides strong hull resistance while maintaining a certain flexibility that ensured harmonious direction changes. This allowed these boats to truly glide over the waves, making the sea their domain, even in windy conditions.

This way of building ships became the universal method in all Nordic countries and persisted until the end of the Middle Ages. Thus, regardless of the type of Viking boat, they all had similar characteristics:

  • They have a symmetrical structure at the front and back, allowing them to steer in either direction without distinction. This made it easy to turn around and navigate rivers;
  • Their robustness allowed them to carry very heavy loads without sinking, a significant advantage for merchant ships;
  • They could navigate in shallow waters without running aground or touching the bottom. They were as practical at sea as they were on rivers and lakes.

That's why Viking ships could easily land on beaches, navigate up rivers, and even the narrowest streams. It's also one of the reasons they were dubbed lords of the seas, a nickname rightly earned at that time.

The Origin of the Name "Drakkar"

Viking Boats | The Pride of the Viking Age! | Viking Heritage

 

Interestingly, the term "drakkar" commonly given to Viking boats is a relatively recent term. Introduced in 1840, it was coined by a French historian named Augustin Jal.

After noticing that many Viking ships had dragon or serpent figures carved at their ends, he decided to name these ships "drakkar." It was from this point that the name became popularized among historians.

In reality, this term is inspired by the word "Drake", the plural for dragon in Swedish. It's also important to note that only one type of Nordic boat had a dragon sculpture, or "Dreki", at its end. This was the langskip.

This confusion arises because this type of ship was the most widespread of the Viking Age and the most represented in the modern works that have come down to us. Becoming iconic of Viking raids and pillages, the langskip is associated with the stereotypical image of the barbaric and bloodthirsty Nordic man.

Now you know that drakkars are Viking boats, but not all Viking boats are drakkars! We will introduce you to other types of boats to clear up any confusion you might have on this topic.

The Different Types of Viking Boats

Regardless of their shapes, types, or the functions they performed, Viking boats occupy a central place in this civilization. True conquerors of the sea, their legacy comes to us in waves, and each historical discovery is more fascinating than the last.

The Nordic sagas attest to the existence of numerous Viking ships, each named differently based on its features and the tasks it performed. However, for clarity and for academic purposes, historians have classified the vessels of the Viking Age into three main categories:

  • The langskip or herskips: these are the famous Viking warships. There are different variants depending on the nature of the mission: whether intended for pillaging or for conducting assaults and raids, etc.
  • The kaupskips or byrðingr: these are merchant ships or cargo ships designed for transporting heavy goods over long distances. Their function requires them to have significantly larger storage capacities.
  • Other Nordic boats: there are several other types of naval units, less popular because their use was less essential. The most notable are fishing boats, or even small boats and dinghies for short distances.

The Viking Warships "The herskips"

Viking Boats | The Pride of the Viking Age! | Viking Heritage

These are ships equipped with many oars that allow them to navigate even against the current using manpower. According to the sagas, between one and four Vikings could propel each oar, depending on the size of the ship and the crew on board. Some boats were so fast that they gave the impression of skimming the sea.

What makes herskips formidable Viking boats is the addition of sails. This simple component transformed them into fast and lethal machines. Soon, the Viking raid and pillage strategy relied entirely on maritime assault, as they were so practical.

The best Viking warships bore intricate carvings of iconic mythical creatures. Dragons, birds, and sea serpents were engraved: species that animated Viking mythology, and whose hidden meaning was laden with mysticism. These majestic symbols of nature testified to the power and dominance of these Viking constructions.

Throughout the Viking Age, several types of warships emerged:

  • Langskip: literally means "long ship". This term comes from Old Icelandic used to describe these slender naval constructions whose length was almost 10 times their width.
  • Snekkar: this is the most efficient Viking ship of its time. Designed for both travel and war, this versatile design became the timeless symbol of the Viking empire;
  • Skeid: this is a Danish warship. Most often described as a long ship, capable of carrying up to 200 men, it belonged to the great jarls. It is believed that such boats were reserved for the upper social classes.

The Viking Merchant or Transport Ships "The kaupskips"

Viking Boats | The Pride of the Viking Age! | Viking Heritage

 

These ships, unlike the warships, were primarily designed for trade and transportation. Their design was more focused on cargo capacity than speed or maneuverability in battle.

The most iconic of these merchant ships is the Knarr. It is cited in numerous sagas as the ship used by the Vikings to travel to Vinland (North America) and Greenland. The Scandinavian people relied on it for most of their maritime trade. Thus, in addition to being the greatest warriors to tread Europe, their civilization, culture, and mythology reached all continents thanks to their Viking ships.


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