Without the Viking longships, there would be no Viking Age. Norse sagas, skaldic poetry and contemporary foreign sources describe the Viking longships as magnificent sea-going vessels.
It was the seaworthiness of the longships, coupled with the Norsemen’s mastery of navigation and seamanship, which made it possible for them to conquer the ocean.
Seafaring was a key element of Norse society and the longships played a vital role in their lives. Their affinity with the sea is even reflected in the Norse language – with over 150 words for waves. They even buried their kings and chieftains in longships which would carry them on their final journey.
Their Dragon ships were ships of certain significance. The beautifully decorated carvings carried on the prow signified power and inflicted fear on their enemies as well as warding off the terrible sea monsters of Norse mythology.
During the Viking Age a broad range of different longships were used depending on the purpose of the voyage – trade or raid. The coastal river longships were small and maneuverable, mostly used on rivers traveling eastwards. The cargo vessels designed for passage on the open sea were sturdy and broad while the typical warship was long and narrow – designed both for rowing and sailing.
Not many longships survived the test of time. The Vikings left almost no clues as to how they built their longships or how
they were sailed or rowed. Written sources, rock carvings, and archaeological findings all point to the fact that the Vikings built a number of different types of longships – all for different purposes.
A longship could carry a crew of more than 100 rowers and is estimated to have been able to sail around 10 knots. Sailing at speed and covering long distances allowed them to travel far from home. Crossing the North Sea from Scandinavia to Britain took just a few days, for example.
The largest cargo ship was big enough to carry cattle and it was the Vikings who brought horses to Iceland.
The smaller longships had a crew of 10, and could even be carried across a portage. They were mostly used to travel inland waterways which was important in order to explore Europe and Asia Minor.
Oars as well as sail powered the Viking longships making them less dependent on favorable weather conditions. The longships made it possible for the Vikings to look beyond the horizon and explore the edge of their known world.