When we think of Vikings then we usually also think of their ships, especially the famous longships. And there is a good reason for that. As naval adventurers, traders, and raiders Vikings were heavily dependent on the quality of their ships which in return produced a highly versatile and useful type of ship – the longship. But what were the advantages of these longships, how fast could they travel, and how much did it cost to build such a ship?
All of these questions will be answered in the following!
The shallow draft allowed longships to sail open oceans as well as rivers. In combination with the long, canoe-like hull shape the shallow draft allowed Viking ships to sail at a speed of up to 14 knots (16 mph / 25 km/h) although a more realistic long-range traveling speed was 5-10 knots. The construction of a clinker-built longship took up to 40,000 hours of work and cost as much as 4,000 cows.
Let`s take a closer look.
Advantages of the Viking longships
The longship had several advantages that made them ideal for the Vikings.
Since the longships had a shallow draft they could be used in extremely shallow water while their construction still allowed them to be sailed on the open sea. Additionally, the shallow draft also increased the sailing speed of these vessels, but more on that at the end of this article.
Speaking of sailing.
While longships were equipped with large sails ever since the 8th century they could also be rowed. For that purpose, holes were cut into the upper planks of the longboats.
The ability to be propelled by either sail or oars in combination with the shallow draft allowed the Vikings to navigate on oceans as well as rivers which gave the longships greater versatility and mobility than any other medieval ship had. Additionally, the ability to sail on both oceans and rivers also increased the reach of the Vikings since they could row their longships up rivers and deep into Europe or modern-day Russia.
By the way, both the size of the longships as well as the number of oars and warriors on board varied. You can find out more about that in my article here.
Unlike many ships, the Viking longships lacked any sort of superstructure which gave them a low profile but limited the storage space onboard. So the crews had to use their sea chests (since longships weren`t fitted with benches the crew also sat on their sea chests when rowing the ship) as storage. For additional storage space, some of the planks that made up the decking of the longship were kept loose so that supplies or plunder could be stored beneath them.
So while Viking longships could navigate the open ocean their shallow draft and the oars also allowed these ships to navigate on rivers.
Being able to go upstream rivers and advance further inland drastically increased the range of the Vikings. Additionally, the shallow draft also allowed landing on beaches which made the longship the perfect raiding vessel.
A good example of the versatility of the Viking longship can be found in the years 859 and 860 when Danish Vikings sailed along the French Atlantic coast, through the Strait of Gibraltar, into the Mediterranean sea, and then up the Rhone river to the French city of Valence (which is roughly 250 km/156 miles inland).
The ability of these highly mobile and robust ships to navigate both rivers and the open ocean and their high speed allowed Viking raiders to use the element of surprise to their full advantage. Here you can find out more about that and what early medieval sources mean when they describe a Viking attack as „in the usual way“.
However, the reason for these advantages that made longships such formidable vessels can be found in the innovative way they were built.
How were Viking longships built?
Not only did Viking ships perform differently than other early medieval ships, but they were also built in a different way (that is still used to this day although the materials are updated).
Viking longships were clinker-built. First, the keel that was often carved from a single piece of wood was laid. Then the boatbuilders built up the sides by adding overlapping planks on both sides of the keel which were then secured with iron nails. Floor timbers across the lower planks were added to support the shape of the hull. The keelson that held the mast was then added as well as the bites (crossbeams that locked the sides together).
To finish the longship holes for the oars were added to the upper planks. These holes could be closed from the inside with round wooden disks to prevent water from coming in when sailing rough seas but could also serve to fix the rigging. After the holes for the oars, the mast and the boards that made up the deck were added.
Last, the steering oar was added on the right side of the stern of the Viking longship.
The timber that was used to build a Viking longship varied depending on the ship’s origin although oak seemed to have been preferred since the acid in it prevented the planks from rotting. But there were also Viking ships made from pine wood.
By the way, the timber for the Viking ships was not sawn. Instead, the trunks were cleaved so that the wood split along its fibers which preserved the natural strength of the wood. Then axes were used to give the planks their final shape.
That procedure produced longships that were strong, agile, and versatile. However, it also made longships quite expensive to build.
So let`s look at how much it cost to build a longship in the Middle Ages.
The price of building a Viking ship
Building a Viking ship was not easy. First, suitable trees had to be found, cut down, and transported to the shipyard. Then the trunks had to be split and worked with axes until they had gotten their final shape. But that was only the work necessary for gathering the material, then the ship had to be built and a (usually woolen) sail had to be woven.
Depending on the size of the ship historians estimate that it took up to 40,000 hours of work to build one Viking longship.
Here you can find out more about how many longships made up a Viking fleet, how the size of the longships changed over time, and how many warriors were on a Viking longship.
Based on references in early medieval English sources historians estimate that building a Viking longship might have cost as much as 4,000 cows. So Viking ships were extremely expensive, especially when considering that Norwegian farmers at that time might have only had around 12 cows. That shows that an early medieval Scandinavian warlord needed substantial tributary income to commission even just the build of one longship.
However, Viking fleets did usually not consist of only one ship. Instead, these fleets could be comprised of hundreds of ships (or just a hand full). For more information on the size of Viking fleets and the number of warriors involved in famous Viking battles, I would like to recommend you my article here.
The speed of Viking ships?
One of the already mentioned advantages of the Viking longships was their shallow draft which allowed the crews to quickly land on beaches and use the element of surprise to their advantage.
But not only did the ability to land on a beach allow for the element of surprise but so did the speed of the Viking longships.
The shallow draft in combination with the long, canoe-like hull shape allowed Viking ships to sail at a speed of up to 14 knots (16 mph / 25 km/h). A more realistic long-range traveling speed lay in a range of 5-10 knots depending on whether or not the ship was sailed or rowed.
The high speed guaranteed the element of surprise in case the longship was used as a vessel for raiding. But longships were also used as fighting platforms in sea battles. For more information on that and an example of a huge sea battle between two fleets of Viking longships, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Maurice Keen: Medieval Warfare. A History (1999 Oxford).