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The Gokstad ship, on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Long-ships were ships made and used by the Vikings to raid coastal and inland settlements during Viking time. The vessels were also used for long distance trade and commerce, and for exploratory voyages to Iceland, Greenland, throughout the mediterranean etc. Longship design evolved over several centuries and was fully developed by about the 9th century. The character and appearance of these ships have been reflected in Scandinavian boat-building traditions until today. The average speed of viking ships varied from ship to ship but lay in the range of 5-10 Knots and the maximal speed of a longship under favorable conditions was around 15 Knots.

The long-ship is characterized as a graceful, long, narrow, light wooden boat with a shallow draft hull designed for speed. The ship's shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only one meter deep and permitted beach landings, while its light weight enabled it to be carried over portages. Longships were also double-ended, the symmetrical bow and stern allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly, without having to turn around. Longships were fitted with oars along almost the entire length of the boat itself. Later versions sported a rectangular sail on a single mast which was used to replace or augment the effort of the rowers, particularly during long journeys.

Longships were the epitome of Scandinavian naval power at the time, and were highly valued possessions. They were often owned by coastal farmers and commissioned by the king in times of conflict, in order to build a powerful naval force. While longships were used by the Norse in warfare, they were troop transports, not warships. In the tenth century, these boats would sometimes be tied together in battle to form a steady platform for infantry warfare. They were called dragonships by enemies such as the English. The Norse had a strong sense of naval architecture, and during the 8th–11th centuries, they were advanced for their time, compared to other European nations (although it should be noted that earlier shipbuilding techniques, for example those of Mediterranean peoples, such as ancient Greece and Rome, were far more sophisticated and varied, especially in terms of joinery).

Types of Longships

Longships can be classified into a number of different types, depending on size, construction details, and prestige.

Snekke (snekkja)

Full-scale replica of a Viking snekkar based in Morąg, Poland

The snekke was the smallest vessel that would still be considered a longship. A typical snekke might have a length of 17 metres (56 ft), a width of 2.5 metres (8.2 ft), and a draught of only 0.5 metres (1.6 ft). It would carry a crew of minimum 25 men (12 pairs of oarsman and one cox).

Snekkes were one of the most common types of ship. According to Viking lore, Canute the Great used 1400 in Norway in 1028, and William the Conqueror used about 600 for the invasion of Britain in 1066.

The Norwegian snekkes, designed for deep fjords and Atlantic weather, typically had more draft than the Danish model designed for low coasts and beaches. Snekkes were so light that they had no need of ports – they could simply be beached, and potentially even carried across a portage.

The snekke continued to evolve after the end of the Viking age, with later Norwegian examples becoming larger and heavier than Viking age ships.

Dragon ships

See article Drekar

Dragon ships are known from historical sources, such as the 13th century Göngu-Hrólfs Saga (the Saga of Rollo). Here, the ships are described as elegant and ornately decorated, and used by those who went raiding and plundering. According to the historical sources the ships' prows carried carvings of menacing beasts, such as dragons and snakes, allegedly to protect the ship and crew, and to ward off the terrible sea monsters of Norse mythology. It is however likely that the carvings, like those on the Oseberg ship, might have had a ritual purpose, or that the purported effect was to frighten enemies and townspeople. No true dragon ship, as defined by the sagas, has been found by archaeological excavation. Therefore, their existence is only supported by the historical sources.

Roskilde ships

The largest longships so far found, were discovered by Danish archaeologists in Roskilde during development in the harbour-area in 1962 and 1996/7. The ship discovered in 1962, Skuldelev 2 is an oak-built vessel possibly of the skeid type. It was built in the Dublin area around 1042. Skuldelev 2 could carry a crew of some 70-80 and measures just under 30 metres (98 ft) in length. In 1996/7 archaeologists discovered the remains of another ship in the harbour. This ship, called the Roskilde 6, has not yet been fully investigated and full details are not available. It is however thought to be around 36 metres (118 ft) long, and has been dated to the mid-11th century.

The discovery of these ships overturned the skepticism of some historians that longships of this size had never been constructed.

Recent Discovery

On September 10, 2007, Professor Stephen Harding, University of Nottingham, used ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipment to pinpoint the location of a 1,000-year-old Viking transport longship ( Nordic clinker design) beneath 6 - 10 feet (3.0 m) of clay in Meols, Wirral, (a well-known settling place of Vikings). The ship had been previously uncovered in 1938 during excavation of a car park. Workers at the time covered the ship over again so as not to delay construction.


After several centuries of evolution, the fully developed longship emerged some time in the middle of the ninth century. Its long, graceful, menacing head figure carved in the stern echoed the designs of its predecessors. The mast was now squared and located toward the middle of the ship, and could be lowered and raised. The hull’s sides were fastened together to allow it to flex with the waves, ensuring stability and integrity. The ships were large enough to carry cargo and passengers on long ocean voyages but still maintained speed and agility, making the longship a versatile warship and cargo carrier.

Keel, stems and hull

The Viking shipbuilders had no written diagrams or standard written design plan. The shipbuilder pictured the longship before its construction, and the ship was then built from the ground up. The keel and stems were made first. The shape of the stem was based on segments of circles of varying sizes. The next step was building the strakes – the lines of planks joined endwise from stern to stern. Nearly all longships were clinker built, meaning that each hull plank overlapped the next.

As the strakes reached the desired height, the interior frame and cross beams were added. The parts were held together with iron rivets, as well as spruce strips that were fastened to the ribs inside of the keel. Longships had about five rivets for each yard of plank.

The longships’ wider hulls provided strength beneath the waterline which gave more stability, making the longship less likely to tip or bring in water. The hull was waterproofed with moss drenched in tar. In the autumn the ships would be tarred and then left in a boathouse over the winter to allow time for the tar to dry. To keep the sea out, wooden disks were put into the oar holes. These could be shut from the inside when the oars were not in use.

Sail and mast

Even though no longship sail has been found, accounts verify that longships had square sails. Sails measured perhaps 35 to 40 feet (12 m) across, and were made of wadmill (rough wool) which was woven by looms. Unlike the knarrs, the longship sail was not stitched.

The sail was held in place by the mast. The mast was supported by a large block of wood called "kerling" ("Old Woman" in Old Norse). (Trent) The kerling was made of oak, and was as tall as a Viking man. The kerling lay across the two ribs and ran width-wise along the keel. The kerling also had a companion: the "mast fish", a wooden piece above the kerling that provided extra help in keeping the mast erect.

Navigation and propulsion


A replica of the Gokstad ship, named Viking was sailed across the Atlantic to the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893

The Vikings were experts in judging speed and wind direction, and in knowing the current and when to expect high and low tides. Viking navigational techniques are not well understood, but historians postulate that the Vikings probably had some sort of primitive astrolabe and used the stars to plot their course.

The Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou suggested in 1967 that the "sun-stones" referred to in some sagas might have been natural crystals capable of polarizing skylight. The mineral cordierite occurring in Norway has the local name "Viking's Compass". Its changes in colour would allow determining the sun's position (azimuth) even through an overcast or foggy horizon. See here

An ingenious navigation method is detailed in "Viking Navigation Using the Sunstone, Polarized Light and the Horizon Board", by Leif K. Karlsen. To derive a course to steer relative to the sun direction, he uses a sun-stone (Solarsteinn) made of Iceland spar (optical calcite or Silfurberg), and a "horizon-board". The author constructed the latter from an Icelandic saga source, and describes an experiment performed to determine its accuracy. Karlsen also discusses why on North Atlantic trips the Vikings might have preferred to navigate by the sun rather than by stars. (Think high latitudes in summer: long days, short to no nights).

A Viking named Stjerner Oddi compiled a chart showing the direction of sunrise and sunset, which enabled navigators to sail longships from place to place with ease. Almgren, an earlier Viking, told of another method: "All the measurements of angles were made with what was called a 'half wheel' (a kind of half sun-diameter which corresponds to about sixteen minutes of arc). This was something that was known to every skipper at that time, or to the long-voyage pilot or kendtmand ('man who knows the way') who sometimes went along on voyages... When the sun was in the sky, it was not, therefore, difficult to find the four points of the compass, and determining latitude did not cause any problems either." (Algrem)

Birds 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. Little is known about viking compasses, but remains have been found of viking sun compasses. which use the direction of the sun to find which direction is North.


The longship had two methods of propulsion: oars and sail. At sea, the sail enabled longships to travel faster than by oar and to cover long distances overseas. Sails could be raised or lowered quickly. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river, to gain speed quickly, and when there was an adverse (or insufficient) wind. In combat, the variability of wind power made rowing the chief means of propulsion.

Longships were not fitted with benches. When rowing, the crew sat on sea chests (chests containing their personal possessions) that would otherwise take up space. The chests were made the same size and were the perfect height for a Viking to sit on and row. Longships had hooks for oars to fit into, but smaller oars were also used, with crooks or bends to be used as oarlocks. If there were no holes then a loop of rope kept the oars in place.

An innovation that improved the sail's performance was the beitass, or stretching pole -- a wooden spar stiffening the sail.


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, despite the passing of many centuries. The 'Lancha Poveira', a boat from Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal is one of the last remnants from the longship, keeping all the longboat features but without a long stern and bow, and with a Mediterranean sail. It was used until the 1950s. Today there is just one boat: Fé em Deus.

Many historians, archaeologists and adventurers have reconstructed longships in an attempt to understand how they worked. These re-creators have been able to identify many of the advances that the Vikings implemented in order to make the longship a superior vessel. One replica longship covered 223 nautical miles (413 km) in a single day, and another re-creator was able to go faster than 8 knots (15 km/h) in his longship.

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.

In Scandinavia, the longship was the usual vessel for war even with the introduction of cogs in the 12th-13th century. Leidang fleet-levy laws remained in place for most of the Middle Ages, demanding that the freemen should build, man and furnish ships for war if it was demanded by the king - ships with at least either 20 or 25 oar-pairs (40-50+ rowers). However, by the late 14th century, these low-boarded vessels were at a disadvantage against newer, taller vessels - when the Victual Brothers, in the employee of the Hansa, attacked Bergen in the autumn of 1393, the "great ships" of the pirates could not be boarded by the Norwegian levy ships called out by Margaret I of Denmark and the raiders were able to sack the town with impunity. While earlier times had seen larger and taller longships in service, by this time the authorities had also gone over to other types of ships for warfare.

Famous longships

  • The Oseberg ship and the Gokstad ship - both from Vestfold in Norway.
  • The Ormen Lange ("The Long Serpent") was the most famous longship of Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason.
  • The Mora was the ship given to William the Conqueror by his wife, Matilda, and used as the flagship in the conquest of England.
  • The Sea Stallion, the largest Viking ship replica ever made, is a new 30 metres (98 ft) replica of the Skuldelev 2, and sailed from Roskilde, Denmark to Dublin in summer 2007 to commemorate the voyage of the original. The Sea Stallion is currently on display at the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks in Dublin.
  • The Nydam ship (c. 350-400) is a burial ship from Denmark. This vessel is 80 feet (24 m) long and may have had its mast and sail removed for burial. The ship shows a combination of building styles and was propelled by oars.
  • The Sigrid Storråda ship - A replica of the Gokstad ship, finished in 1995.
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