Viking Longships

Viking Longships

Viking Longships were specialized warships that have been in use in Scandinavia since the fourth century BC. They were used by the Vikings for commerce, exploration, and warfare during the Viking Age. The longship’s design evolved over many centuries and appeared in its complete form between the 9th and 13th centuries.  The skills and methods used in making longships are still in use today. They were made of wood, with cloth sails, and carvings on the hull.

The longships were graceful vessels, long, wide and light, and were designed for speed. The ship’s shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only three feet deep and allowed deep penetration into the Eurasian river systems. Their light weight enabled them to be carried overland or flipped to be used for shelter in camp. Longships were double-ended, allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without turning around; this trait was useful in the northern oceans against icebergs and sea ice as well as in small river navigation.

They were built from local forest stock which could be pine or oak. They also had individual decorations that varied by region. Longships were fitted with oars along almost the entire length of the boat. Later versions had a rectangular sail on a single mast. The average speed of Viking ships was  5–10 knots, and the maximum speed could reach 15 knots or approx. 18 miles per hour.

History of the Viking Longships

The Viking Longships were often communally owned and were commissioned by kings in times of conflict. In this way, kings could quickly gather a large and powerful fleet. They were used in warfare, and troop transport. They were called “Dragonships” by enemies like the English due to their dragon-shaped prow. The Norse had a strong sense of navigation. during the early medieval era, they were much more advanced than their Eurasian counterparts. During the peak of the Viking expansion, large fleets set out to attack the Frankish empire by navigating the river systems. They also raided south and into the Mediterranean and Harald Hardrada actually raided and sacked cities in Sicily.
Types of Viking longships
Longships have various classifications based on size, construction details, and prestige. The most common way to classify longships is by the number of rowing positions on board.

The Karvi is the smallest vessel to be considered a longship. A ship with 13 rowing benches is the minimum suitable for military use. A ship with 6 to 16 benches would be classified as a Karvi. They were general-purpose ships, mainly used for fishing and trade.

The Snekkja or snake were typically the smallest longships used in warfare and had at least 20 rowing benches and were very common.  It would carry a crew of around 41 men. Snekkjas were so light that they needed no ports and could simply be beached, and even carried across a portage. The Snekkjas continued to evolve and became larger after the end of the Viking age, 

Skeid, meaning speeder were larger warships, having more than 30 rowing benches. These are some of the largest longships ever discovered. The Roskilde 6, at121 feet is the longest Viking ship ever discovered.

The Drakkar, or Dragon was a type of ship containing at least thirty rowing benches and are only known from historical sources, The ships are described as the most unusual, elegant, and ornately decorated. They were used for raiding and plundering. Fearful beasts, such as dragons and snakes, were carved on the prow of the ship. These carvings protected the ship and crew, by warding off the terrible sea monsters of Norse mythology. They also struck fear in the people who saw them approaching. No actual dragon ship, as defined by the sagas, has ever been found.



The Viking longship design provided both strength, agility, and versatility. Longships could navigate the open ocean, coastal waters, fjords, and many rivers. They could be landed on a beach.

The Viking longships were powered by oars and sail. At sea, the sail enabled longships to travel faster than by oar and to cover long distances overseas with far less manual effort. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river. Longships had hooks or rope loops for oars to fit into. Shields were hung along the ship’s sides.The ship was steered by a vertical flat blade with a short round handle.

Longships were not fitted with benches. The crew sat on chests containing their personal possessions.  The chests were the same size and were the perfect height for a Viking to sit on and row.

There were no written plans or diagrams for the Viking Longships. The builders imagined what they needed and based on previous builds they sought to improve or adapt the new ship to the needs of the community. Built from the keel up the ship was then built od green wood overlapping the previous plank. Overlapping planks were joined with iron rivets. To waterproof the ship the space between planks was filled with wool or animal hair soaked in pine tar. Using green wood allowed the builders to shape the planks then as they dried they retained the bend they were forced into. Timber samples from Viking longboats show that a variety of timbers were used, but there was a strong preference for oak, a tree associated with Thor.

Accounts and depictions verify that longships had square sails even though one has never been found. Sails measured 35 to 40 feet across and were made of rough wool cloth. The sail was held in place by the mast which was up to 52 feet tall.

Between 900-1200 AD Vikings dominated the North Atlantic. One of the keys to their success was able to navigate skillfully across the open waters. The Vikings were experts in judging speed, wind direction and knew the currents and tides. Their technology is a mystery but could possibly be partially due to the Viking Sundials.

Viking Sundial

Early on the Vikings followed the coastline while exploring. They never lost sight of land and believed that the deeper waters were riddled with sea monsters and creatures like Jormundgand. Eventually, they began to move out into deeper waters away from the coastline. Why the change? There is a theory that the Vikings used a tool called the Viking Sundial. It was a rudimentary compass that could be used along the 61st degree north latitude. This was the latitude most Norsemen would have sailed to go to England, Greenland, Iceland, and then on to North America. They were carved of wood or stone. There were marks to indicate the equinox and solstice and compass points. Artifacts like these were found in Greenland and Scandinavia.

Two devices have been found that are probably navigation instruments. Both seem to be sundials with curves etched on a flat surface to indicate the time of day. The devices are small enough to be held flat in the hand. They were about three inches across.

Birds also provided a helpful guide to finding land. A Viking legend states that Vikings used to take caged crows aboard ships and let them loose if they got lost. The crows would instinctively head for land, giving the sailors a course to steer.


The Vikings were major contributors to the shipbuilding technology of their day. Their shipbuilding methods spread through extensive contact with other cultures, and ships from the 11th and 12th centuries are known to borrow many of the longships’ design features.

The longship was a master of all trades. It was wide and stable, yet light, fast, and nimble. With all these qualities combined in one ship, the longship was unrivaled for centuries, until the arrival of the great cog.

The last Viking longship was defeated in 1429.

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