World History

What was special about Viking boats?
Answered by Craig C. Freudenrich and Discovery Channel
  • Craig C. Freudenrich

    Craig C. Freudenrich

  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The Vikings spread throughout Europe and traversed the North Atlantic. They made open sea voyages and traveled up rivers. They were so mobile largely because of the unique designs of their ships. All Viking ships, including their warships, merchant ships and cargo ships, followed the same basic design. The ships had wide, rounded, shallow symmetrical hulls that enabled the Vikings to sail or row into shallow rivers. The boats were fast, maneuverable and lightweight. The men could even carry the ships across impassable portions of rivers. The hull design also made them stable on open-sea voyages.

    Each Viking ship had a solid, single wooden keel that was attached to high, curved bow and stern pieces. On top of the keel was a long piece of heavy wood called a keelson, which helped distribute the weight of the mast and crossbeams. The ship was symmetrical from down the long axis and in cross-section. The symmetry along the long axis enabled the ship to move forward or backward without having to turn around.

    Once the keel was in place, Viking shipbuilders attached crossbeam supports or ribs at intervals along the keel (some ships had two levels of crossbeam supports). Next, they attached long, thin, wooden planks on each side. The rows of planks, called strakes, overlapped; the bottom of one strake was on the outside of the top of the strake below it. The overlapping strakes were attached with iron nails or wooden pegs that were partially split so they would fit snugly. The gaps between the planks were stuffed with tar-soaked animal hair to make them watertight. This style of planking is called the clinker construction, which allowed Viking shipbuilders to give the boats wide shapes but keep them sealed.

    Deck planking was nailed along the crossbeams down the long axis of the ship. The mast was placed in a slot within the keelson and held by another large piece of wood called a mast fish. The mast fish could be removed easily to take down the mast. The ship had a single large square, woolen sail and yard; the sail had a simple rope rigging. At the top of each side were holes for the oars. Rowers sat on benches, boxes or crossbeams, depending on the type of ship.

    The ship was steered with a single rudder called a steering oar attached with rope to the right side of the stern. The steering oar could be raised easily when the ship was navigating shallow waters. Anchors were made of either metal or simple stone-wood combinations.

    Viking ship replica
    Colonizers, merchants, and ruthless raiders, the Vikings swept out of Scandinavia to terrorize Europe in swift vessels like this Danish reproduction. (Ted Spiegel/National Geographic/Getty Images)

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  2. All Viking ships, including their distinctive longships, their merchant boats and their cargo ships, shared the following characteristics:

    • Riveted wood
    • Keels
    • Single masts with large, square-shaped, woolen sails
    • Bows and sterns with double-sided hulls - the hulls were protected from water damage by a coating of tarred animal fur.
    • Side rudders
    • Metal anchors
    • An absence of seats for oarsmen - oarsmen had to sit on the boat's crossbeams or else on their own trunks.


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