The Tradition of Viking Ships and Rowers

Long before Christopher Columbus ever set foot in the Americas, Viking ships made their way across the Atlantic to scout out new land and trade routes. The Vikings were a seafaring people from Scandinavia well-known for their excellent seamanship, exploration, and metalwork. Modern analysis of Viking culture is rich with controversy over the question of whether Vikings were violent raiders or nomadic tradesmen, but the proficiency of Vikings as sailors and adventurers is universally agreed upon. Fragments of these ships survived into modernity, and it is from these splinters that archeologists pieced together a picture of Viking fleets.

There were several different types of boats used by Viking sailors and settlers. The smallest of these was a faering, a small rowboat that could be used for local fishing. When it came to long voyages on the open ocean, Vikings turned to knarrs. A knarr was specifically designed for trade and settlement use, with a wide, short hull capable of carrying up to 24 tons of people and cargo.

Longships, arguably the most famous of Viking ships, were built to be fast, sturdy, and easily maneuverable. These boats were outfitted with a large, square sail made from wool that allowed the boat to move as quickly as 16 miles per hour. However, longships also had up to 72 oars. Thanks to their streamlined, double-ended design, longships could quickly reverse direction by rowing when necessary.

Modern recovery of Viking ships begins with the story of two brothers in Sandefjord, Norway, in 1880. Bored and looking for something to do, the brothers began digging into the burial mound on their farm land. Inside, buried below ground, was the Gokstad ship. The Gokstad ship was 78 feet long and made of overlapping oak planks in a style called clinker-built. The Vikings were not the only people to create clinker-built ships, but they did take full advantage of the lighter weight and added flexibility of the style in their trade and exploration routes.

The best-preserved Viking ship on record today is known as the Oseberg ship. It was uncovered in 1904 in Norway and was used as a burial tomb for two high-ranking Viking women. The Oseberg likely functioned as a private yacht rather than a warship, as indicated by ornate carvings of animals and an iconic spiraled snake's head on the bow. Thirty oars were included with the ship's burial but showed no wear from rowing, leading archeologists to suspect that they may have been specially commissioned for the burial.

In 1962, another find expanded the modern understanding of Viking ships with the remains of five different vessels in Skuldelev, Denmark. The discovery included two cargo ships, a smaller general-purpose boat, and two warships. The longship, known as Skuldelev 2, is one of the largest ever recovered, with room for a crew of 80 and a length of almost a hundred feet. The second warship, Skuldelev 5, is smaller, with room for only 30 sailors and a length of 56 feet.

Rowing gave Viking ships a great advantage in navigating coastal waterways or precarious ice fields, but it wasn't the most sensible way to cross an ocean. For long journeys, Vikings relied on wind power provided by the large, square sail. When rowing was a necessity, oars could be fitted through oar holes or onto hooks. The rowing crew, composed of sailors or slaves called thralls, sat on uniformly sized chests that held their belongings or cargo. At the back of the ship, a large oar called the steerboard was used to control the vessel's direction.

Recovered Viking ships are only partially preserved, and while several, such as the Gokstad and the Oseberg, have been repaired for display, they will never be seaworthy again. The good news is that the Viking tradition of sailing and rowing lives on in several replicas of these ancient ships. In 1893, a replica of the Gokstad, called the Viking, sailed from Sandefjord to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Another Gokstad replica, the Íslendingur, made the cross-Atlantic voyage from Reykjavík, Iceland, to New York in 2000. Genuine Viking ships may be relegated to museums, but their legacy still carves across the open sea today.