Viking ships represented one of the highest expressions of northern European naval technology between the 9th and 13th centuries. Built to be fast, light and durable, they possessed characteristics that made them vessels suitable for both the open sea and for navigation in the shallow waters of coasts and rivers.
The Norse peoples mainly used two types of ships: warships and vessels for the transport of goods. The former were long, light and fast, while the latter were built focusing on strength and cargo capacity.
The vessels used for wartime expeditions were not true warships in the modern sense of the word, but ships for the transport of troops. Not having heavy weapons or rostrums capable of damaging enemy ships, they often became true floating platforms that allowed the Norse infantry to attack the enemy hand-to-hand.
The Viking ships used in warfare were characterized by a long hull, thin and light, with a draft often less than a meter that allowed not only to overcome a shallow and treacherous, but also to land on any beach simply by dragging the boat on the shore. The ratio of length to width was generally 7 to 1.
One of the characteristics of many Viking ships (with the exception of those used for the transport of goods or for long sea voyages) was the symmetrical structure: the bow and stern were almost identical and allowed the boat to maneuver in an agile and fast, making quick changes of course without having to make circular maneuvers.
This feature was very useful when navigating between icebergs and sea ice, a situation in which fast maneuvers and sudden changes of direction are required.
Warships had two methods of propulsion: sail and oars. On the open sea, sails made it possible to travel much faster than oars and to cover long distances without tiring the crew unnecessarily.
The sails could be hoisted or lowered very quickly: according to some tests carried out on modern reproductions of Norse boats, in just 90 seconds it was possible to install the mast and unfurl the sail.
The ships were not equipped with benches for rowers: to save space, the crew sat on crates that contained their personal belongings, crates large enough to allow an oarsman to sit at the right height to maneuver his oar.
The structure of the hull of a warship allowed to reach incredible speeds for a boat of the time: the average speed of navigation was about 9-18 km / h, but in favorable conditions a Viking ship could reach the maximum speed of almost 30 km / h.
Types of Viking ships
Viking ships can be classified according to the characteristics of the hull or construction details, but the most common classification is based on the number of positions for rowers.
The karvi (or karve) vessel is the smallest of the Viking ships: to be suitable for military use it had to have at least 13 oarsmen’s seats, although any vessel with 6 or more seats (up to 16) was generally classified as a karvi.
These ships had a length-to-width ratio of 4:5:1 and were “multi-purpose” vessels, used for trade as well as troop transport in war. The evolution of karvi ships, the knarr, allowed for long ocean voyages during the era of Viking expansion.
Knarr-type ships were employed for long sea voyages and the transport of goods. The wide, deep and shorter hull than that of the battleships (with a length/width ratio very similar to that of the karvi) made these vessels capacious and maneuverable by a small crew.
Knarrs were generally 16 meters long, 5 meters wide, and could carry up to 24 tons of cargo. Using the knarr, the Norse peoples explored the entire Mediterranean, traded goods along the Baltic and transported supplies to colonies as far away as the Atlantic, such as Iceland and Greenland.
The snekkja was a thin military ship equipped with at least 20 places for rowers and capable of carrying 41 men. It was generally 17 meters long, 2-3 meters wide and had a draught of only half a meter.
This ship was the most common military vessel. The Norwegians built snekkja with a deeper draught than the Danes, in order to be able to cross the fjords easily and to overcome the Atlantic climate without too many problems.
These ships did not need ports to dock: they were simply transported to the shore or beached. Their low weight also allowed them to be carried “by hand” over small stretches of land.
Warships larger than snekkja and equipped with at least 30 seats for rowers. A skeid could carry 70-80 men and could exceed 30 meters in length. The Roskilde 6, a Viking skeid discovered in 1996 and dating back to the year 1052, was an impressive 37 meters long.
A new type of boat was designed, extraordinarily fast for those times, and made of solid oak, which represented a real advancement in nautical engineering, the “drakkar” (also called “Dragon Ship”), which soon became a fearsome weapon of war. The drakkar became the Vikings’ strong point; a vessel, with its bow-shaped like a dragon or snake, so fast and strong that it could sail up rivers and face the ocean.
Thanks to these Drakkar, the pagans from the northern lands were able to plunder and plunder England, a land that had always been protected by the sea. Thus began the Viking Age, which led the “people of the dragon” to push throughout the West, conquering Paris, the Russian steppe, the Roman Empire and Moorish Africa. No people were saved from the ferocity of their assaults so that soon the whole Europe had to succumb to the attacks of these mysterious people of the north.
The information we have about Viking drakkars comes primarily from historical sources and sagas. Apparently, the only difference between a skeid and a drakkar was the type of decoration on the hull: drakkars had carved bows, shaped like threatening beasts such as snakes or dragons.
According to one of the interpretations provided by archaeology, these decorations served to keep at bay the sea monsters that, according to Norse mythology, populated the sea; the decorations of the Oseberg drakkar instead seem to have been performed as part of the funeral ritual of the two women buried in the boat.
Famous Viking Ships
Made in oak wood discovered in the Nydam peat bog and dating back to 310-320 AD. Of the boats found the largest, more than twenty-three meters long and four wide, was able to carry up to forty warriors, was pushed by fifteen pairs of oars to confirm that these populations operated in a coastal and limited range of action.
The Viking successors, centuries later, widened their range of action having improved the technique of construction and thanks to the sails woven and made impermeable by grease and tar. The ship of Nydam, the only one still entirely preserved, is considered among the most ancient Nordic rowing boats.
The drakkar of Oseberg
Not exactly a drakkar but a karvi, it is 21 meters long and 5 meters wide, with a 10 meters high mast. It is estimated that the sail had a surface of 90 square meters and allowed the boat to reach a speed of 10 knots. It is one of the three best preserved Viking ships in the world, along with those of Gokstad and Østfold: if you go to visit it, it will seem as if just built. The ship should date back to 834 AD, and was found together with two skeletons of women, and is currently kept, along with another dozen of the time, in the museum of Viking ships in Oslo. This ship is one of the most important finds ever from the Viking Age, and is also a great artistic, as well as technical, masterpiece.
It is built almost entirely of oak wood, In the boat, there are 15 pairs of holes for oars, a wide rudder and an iron anchor. The bow and the stern are decorated with complex engravings in the characteristic zoomorphic style, called Oseberg style. It is believed that the ship, though intended for navigation at sea, was used exclusively to travel along the coast. The skeletons found buried with the ship must have belonged to two women, one old, the other young, of high rank, probably related to royal Vikings. To strengthen the hypothesis of the noble lineage of the women, in addition to the two skeletons, were also found 14 horses, an ox and 3 dogs. Probably there were also precious metals inside the tomb, but it is likely that it was stolen in past centuries. This does not detract from the fact that 4 finely decorated sleighs and a four-wheeled cart richly inlaid were found. Among the objects of common life were found woollen clothes, imported silk fabrics and small tapestries.
Ninth-century vessel discovered in Gokstad, Norway. It is currently the largest Norwegian Viking ship ever unearthed: it is 23.80 meters long, 5 meters wide and was probably capable of housing 32 oarsmen and a 110-square-meter sail, capable of propelling the ship at a speed of about 12 knots. The remains of the ship of Gokstad were together with the skeleton of a man, certainly the owner of this precious tomb, which circumstantial evidence indicates in Olaf Gudrødsson, a Viking king minor who died a violent death around 50 years, following a dagger wound in the right thigh. In addition to the ship and its owner were found three other small boats, a tent, a sled and horse harnesses needed to ride. No weapons or valuables were found, which clearly indicated the passage, before the archaeologists, of unknown grave robbers.
The largest Viking ship ever discovered: an impressive 36 meters long, it was discovered in Roskilde, Denmark. In the year 1070 the ship was deliberately sunk, along with four other boats, to block the sea access to the city of Roskilde. Eera a boat designed and equipped for war that could carry up to one hundred warriors perfectly armed and ready for any kind of raid along the coasts of Europe. It is thought that was part of a royal fleet.
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