Longships: The Vessel of the Vikings

When you think of the Vikings, you might imagine warriors, adventurers, and horned helmets.

But how much do you know about their iconic mode of transportation, the longship?

Building a Longship

Longships, true to their name, ranged in length from 45 to 75 feet long. They were completely symmetrical, with both sides mirroring each other. This served to make the vessels much easier to maneuver, because it enabled them to reverse direction without turning the longship around. At top speed, longships could sail at about 17 knots, or roughly 20 miles per hour.

Archaeologists estimate that it would have taken 100 men approximately a year to build a single longship. These vessels became the true symbols of the Vikings, bringing them around the world on their explorations and raids. They were built using the “clinker” method, which involved overlapping planks of wood being nailed together. The spaces in between the planks were filled with tarred wool, hair, and moss, ensuring that the vessel remained watertight for its long journeys up and down the European coast and across the sea. 

Longships were built with a single sail in the center, and were sailed by a combination of wind power and rowing. Long and low to the ocean, the ships were incredibly sturdy and could be sailed even in shallow water. They generally had large, imposing wooden figureheads at their prow. Carved images of snakes and dragons were particularly popular, as the purpose of these figureheads was to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who saw them.

History of the Longship

This vessel became the quintessential mode of transport for the Vikings. “Viking” was actually the name given to sailors from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, and the Viking Age lasted from 700 to 1100 CE. Longships were used for over 1,500 years, and their primary goal was to carry warriors and bring Vikings to new lands to settle. In fact, it was this iconic ship that brought Norse Viking Leif Erikson to North America in the year 1000 CE, making him perhaps the first European to set foot in America. 

This tale has been passed down for centuries; reportedly, Erikson heard about another Viking having spotted the landmass of eastern North America, and decided to seek it out for himself. He set sail from Greenland in a longship, and when he explored the American coast for the first time he found grapes, leading the Vikings to call North America “Vinland,” which translates to “Wine Land.”

Longships provided no shelter, which makes it even more impressive that Vikings could make such long journeys on these small vessels. If they were out at sea on a longship, the crew would sleep on the deck underneath blankets made of animal skins. 

Viking Raids

When they weren’t sailing to new places, Viking warriors used the longship to raid coastal areas along the European coast. The size of the vessel made it perfect for this kind of attack. Because of its length, it could carry many warriors while still being relatively easy to sail. Its ability to sail in shallow water meant that the longship could quietly make its way inland along rivers and streams, enabling Viking warriors to attack settlements and monasteries without warning. 

While the Vikings didn’t see themselves as thieves, their reputation as raiders and warriors is one of the things that the world remembers most, even centuries after the end of the Viking Age. This is due in large part to the incredible success of Viking raids—and the success of the raids can be attributed to the powerful longships that the warriors built for themselves.