7 Amazing Facts About Viking Ship Designs: Engineering Marvels of the Sea

Learn about Viking ship designs: engineering marvels of the sea that enabled the Vikings to navigate, explore, fight, trade, and interact with the world.

Viking ship designs are some of history’s most impressive and influential engineering feats. These ships were used for warfare, exploration, trade, transport, and cultural exchange. They were built with remarkable craftsmanship, using advanced materials and techniques for their time. In this article, we will explore seven amazing facts about Viking ship designs and how they shaped the world of the sea.

What are Viking ship designs?

Viking ship designs are the types of ships used by the Norse people, also known as Vikings, from the 8th to the 11th centuries CE. The term “Viking” comes from the Old Norse word “víkingr,” which means “pirate” or “raider.” The Vikings were seafaring warriors, traders, and explorers who originated from Scandinavia and expanded their influence across Europe, Asia, and North America.

The Vikings built different kinds of ships for various purposes. The most common types were:

  • Longships: These were the fastest and most versatile ships for raiding, warfare, and exploration. They had a long, narrow hull, a single mast with a square sail, and rows of oars along the sides. They could carry up to 60 warriors and had a shallow draft, which allowed them to navigate rivers and coastal waters. Some longships had a dragon’s head or other ornamental figurehead at the bow and stern, which gave them a fearsome appearance.
  • Knarrs: These were the cargo ships used for trade and transport. They had a broader and deeper hull, a single mast with a square sail, and fewer oars than longships. They could carry up to 25 tons of goods and had a deeper draft, allowing them to sail across the open ocean. Knarrs were more stable and comfortable than longships but slower and less maneuverable.
  • Karves: These smaller ships were used for fishing, hunting, and coastal travel. They had a short and broad hull, a single mast with a square sail, and rows of oars along the sides. They could carry up to 16 people and had a shallow draft, which made them suitable for surface waters. Karves were more agile and flexible than longships and knees but also less seaworthy and durable.

How were Viking ship designs made?

Viking ship designs were made using a technique called clinker construction. This involved overlapping wooden planks along the hull and fastening them with iron rivets and roves. The planks were then attached to a wooden frame that consisted of a keel (the backbone of the ship), stems (the fore and aft extensions of the keel), ribs (the curved supports that spanned the hull), crossbeams (the horizontal supports that connected the ribs), knees (the angled joints that reinforced the crossbeams), and thwarts (the seats for the rowers). The planks were also caulked with tar or animal hair to make them waterproof.

The advantage of clinker construction was that it made the ships light, strong, and flexible. The overlapping planks created a smooth surface that reduced drag and increased speed. The wooden frame provided structural support and stability. The flexibility allowed the ships to bend and twist with the waves without breaking or leaking.

The disadvantage of clinker construction was that it required a lot of skill, labor, and resources. The planks had to be carefully shaped, fitted, and riveted together. The frame had to be precisely measured, cut and assembled. The materials had to be sourced from quality timber, iron ore, tar pits, or animal farms.

What were the features of Viking ship designs?

Viking ship designs had several features that made them efficient and effective for their intended functions. Some of these features were:

  • Sail: The sail was made of wool or linen fabric dyed in bright colors or stripes to indicate ownership, identity, or status. The sail was attached to a wooden mast that could be raised or lowered depending on the wind conditions. The sail was also controlled by ropes called sheets tied to wooden spars called yards that extended from the mast. The sail provided propulsion and direction for the ship when there was enough wind.
  • Oars: The oars were long wooden poles with flat blades at one end used to row the ship when there was no wind or more speed or maneuverability was needed. The oars were inserted through holes called oarlocks along the sides of the hull that could be closed with wooden plugs when not in use. The oars were also used as weapons or tools in case of combat or emergency.
  • Rudder: The rudder was a wooden board attached to the stern of the ship by ropes or hinges that allowed it to pivot from side to side. The rudder was used to steer the ship by changing the direction of the water flow around the hull. The rudder was operated by a wooden handle called a tiller held by the helmsman or the ship’s captain.
  • Deck: The deck was the flat surface that covered the ship’s hull and provided space for the crew, cargo, or passengers. The deck was made of wooden planks laid over the crossbeams and secured with wooden pegs or nails. The deck was also divided into sections by wooden partitions called bulkheads that separated the bow (the front part of the ship), the stern (the back part of the ship), and the midship (the middle part of the ship). The deck also had openings called hatches that allowed access to the lower parts of the hull or to the outside.
  • Shields: The shields were round or oval wooden boards covered with leather or metal and had a metal boss or spike in the center. The shields were used as defensive weapons by the warriors who carried them on their arms or hung them on their backs. The shields were also used as decorative elements by tying them with ropes to the ship’s sides. The shields added color and protection to the ship and displayed the warriors’ or their clans’ symbols or emblems.

Why were Viking ship designs important?

Viking ship designs were important because they enabled the Vikings to achieve remarkable feats of navigation, exploration, warfare, trade, and culture. Some of the reasons why Viking ship designs were important are:

  • Navigation: Viking ship designs allowed the Vikings to navigate vast distances and diverse environments, from the icy waters of the Arctic to the warm seas of the Mediterranean. The Vikings used various methods and tools to navigate, such as the sun, the stars, the wind, the waves, the landmarks, the birds, and the sunstones (crystals that polarized light and indicated the sun’s direction). The Vikings also developed a system of oral and written navigation instructions called runic itineraries, which described various voyages’ routes, distances, and landmarks.
  • Exploration: Viking ship designs enabled the Vikings to explore new lands and regions previously unknown or inaccessible. The Vikings were among the first Europeans to discover and colonize Iceland, Greenland, and North America. They also reached Russia, Turkey, Iran, and India. The Vikings were motivated by curiosity, adventure, fame, fortune, or necessity to explore new horizons and expand their knowledge and influence.
  • Warfare: Viking ship designs facilitated the Vikings to conduct raids and battles against their enemies and rivals. The Vikings were feared and respected for their prowess and ferocity in combat. They used their ships as weapons of war, launching surprise attacks from the sea or river banks, ramming or boarding enemy ships, or transporting warriors and equipment to land. The Vikings also used their ships to symbolize power and prestige, displaying their wealth, status, or allegiance with elaborate decorations and carvings.
  • Trade: Viking ship designs helped the Vikings to engage in trade and commerce with other peoples and cultures. The Vikings were active and successful traders who exchanged goods and services with various regions and markets. They traded furs, wool, amber, iron, silver, gold, spices, silk, slaves, and more. They also established trade routes and networks that connected Scandinavia with Europe, Asia, and North America.
  • Culture: Viking ship designs reflected and influenced the culture and identity of the Vikings. The ships were not only functional but also artistic and symbolic. They expressed the Viking people’s values, beliefs, traditions, and stories. They also served as vehicles for cultural exchange and interaction with other peoples and cultures. The ships carried not only goods and warriors but also ideas and innovations that enriched the world of the sea.

What are some examples of Viking ship designs?

Viking ship designs varied in size, shape, style, and function depending on the period, style, and function depending on the time, region, and purpose of the ship. Some of the most famous and well-preserved examples of Viking ship designs are:

  • The Oseberg ship is a 21.5-meter long and 5-meter wide ship found in a burial mound near Tønsberg in Norway. It dates to c. 820 CE and is believed to have been used as a royal yacht or a ceremonial vessel. It has a richly decorated bow and stern, with carvings of animals, humans, and geometric patterns. It also has a large tent-like structure on the deck that may have served as a cabin or a shrine. The Oseberg ship was buried with two women and a large collection of grave goods, including textiles, tools, weapons, sleds, and animal remains. The Oseberg ship is now displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
  • The Gokstad ship is a 23.8-meter long and 5.1-meter wide ship found in a burial mound near Sandefjord in Norway. It dates to c. 890 CE and is considered a typical example of a longship. It has a sleek and sturdy hull, with 16 pairs of oars and a sail that could propel it up to 12 knots. It also has a dragon’s head at the bow and shields along the sides. The Gokstad ship was buried with a man and his personal belongings, including weapons, armor, games, and horses. The Gokstad ship is also displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
  • The Skuldelev ships: Five ships were deliberately sunk in a narrow channel near Roskilde in Denmark to form a defensive barrier against enemy attacks. They date from c. 1030 to c. 1070 CE and represent different types of ships used by the Vikings. They include a small fishing boat (Skuldelev 6), a coastal trader (Skuldelev 3), an ocean-going trader (Skuldelev 1), a warship (Skuldelev 2), and a longship (Skuldelev 5). The Skuldelev ships are now partially reconstructed and exhibited at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
  • The Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever found, measuring 36 meters long and 3.5 meters wide. It was discovered during an excavation in Roskilde harbor in Denmark in 1996-1997 CE. It dates to c. 1025 CE and is thought to have been a royal warship that could carry up to 100 warriors. It has a slender and elegant hull, with a high stem and stern that may have had figureheads. Only about 20% of the original ship has been preserved, but it has been reconstructed using digital technology and displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

How are Viking ship designs relevant today?

Viking ship designs are relevant today because they inspire and inform modern shipbuilding, sailing, and research. Some of the ways that Viking ship designs are relevant today are:

  • Shipbuilding: Modern shipbuilders use some of the principles and techniques of Viking ship designs to create fast, efficient, and durable ships. For example, clinker construction is still used for wooden boats, such as fishing vessels, yachts, and replicas. Some modern ships also incorporate sails, oars, rudders, and shields to enhance their performance or appearance.
  • Sailing: Modern sailors use some of the skills and methods of Viking sailing to navigate and explore the seas. For example, some sailors use traditional tools such as sunstones, runic itineraries, or star charts to orient themselves or plan their routes. Some sailors participate in sailing events or competitions that recreate or simulate Viking voyages or challenges.
  • Research: Modern researchers use some of the sources and evidence of Viking ship designs to study and understand the history, culture, and impact of the Vikings. For example, some researchers use archaeological finds, such as the Oseberg, Gokstad, or Skuldelev, to analyze and reconstruct Viking ship designs and their functions. Some researchers also use historical records, such as sagas, chronicles, or inscriptions, to interpret and contextualize Viking ship designs and their activities.

FAQs about Viking ship designs

Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Viking ship designs and their answers:

  • How fast were Viking ships?

The speed of Viking ships depended on several factors, such as the type of ship, the wind condition, the number of oarsmen, and the weight of the cargo. Generally speaking, longships were faster than knarrs and carves because they had more oars and a sleeker hull. According to some estimates, longships could reach up to 15 knots (28 km/h) under sail and up to 10 knots (19 km/h) under oars. Knarrs could reach up to 10 knots (19 km/h) under sail and up to 6 knots (11 km/h) under oars. Karves could reach up to 8 knots (15 km/h) under sail and up to 5 knots (9 km/h) under oars.

  • How did Viking ships survive storms?

Viking ships survived storms using various strategies, such as avoiding them, riding them out, or seeking shelter. The Vikings were skilled at reading the weather signs and predicting the onset of storms. They would try to avoid sailing into storms by changing their course or waiting for better conditions. If they encountered a storm at sea, they would try to ride it out by lowering their sail, securing their cargo, and rowing against the wind. If they were near land, they would try to seek shelter by anchoring in a bay, a fjord, or a river mouth.

  • How did Viking ships cross oceans?

Viking ships crossed oceans by combining sailing and rowing along coastal or island routes. The Vikings did not have compasses or maps that showed them their destinations’ exact location or distance. They relied on their experience, knowledge, and intuition to travel the oceans. They would sail along the coastlines or between islands they knew or had heard of from other travelers. They would also use landmarks, such as mountains, rocks, or glaciers, to orient themselves or confirm their position. They would row when there was no wind or needed more speed or maneuverability.

  • How did Viking ships carry horses?

Viking ships carried horses using special platforms or stalls on the deck or hull. The Vikings valued horses for their usefulness in warfare, transport, and agriculture. They often brought horses when they colonized new lands or raided enemy territories. To carry horses on their ships, the Vikings would build wooden platforms or stalls raised above the deck or fitted inside the hull. The platforms or stalls would have rails or ropes to secure the horses and prevent them from falling overboard. The horses would also be fed and watered regularly during the voyage.

  • How did Viking ships deal with leaks?

Viking ships dealt with leaks using various methods, such as caulking, pumping, or bailing. The Vikings were careful to maintain their ships and prevent leaks from occurring. They would caulk the gaps between the planks with tar or animal hair to make them waterproof. They would also inspect and repair any cracks or holes in the hull or the frame. If leaks did occur, the Vikings would use pumps or buckets to remove the water from the ship. The pumps were wooden devices that used pistons or valves to suck and push the water out of the ship. The buckets were leather or wooden containers used to scoop and throw the water overboard.

  • How did Viking ships communicate with each other?

Viking ships communicated with each other by using various signals, such as horns, flags, or fires. The Vikings used horns to make loud sounds that could be heard over long distances. The horns were made of animal horns, wood, or metal and had different shapes and sizes. The horns could produce different tones and pitches that convey messages, such as warnings, orders, or greetings. The Vikings also used flags to display visual symbols that could be seen from afar. The flags were made of cloth or leather and had different colors and patterns representing different clans, alliances, or intentions. The flags could be raised or lowered on poles or masts to signal different commands or responses. The Vikings also used fires to create bright lights that could be seen at night. The fires were made of wood or oil and had different sizes and intensities that indicated different situations, such as distress, attack, or celebration.


Viking ship designs are engineering marvels of the sea that demonstrate the Viking people’s ingenuity, skill, and ambition. They are also cultural icons that reflect the Viking society’s values, beliefs, and traditions. They are also historical sources that reveal the Viking era’s achievements, challenges, and legacy. Viking ship designs are fascinating, impressive but also relevant, and influential today.

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