Even before the Viking Age, ships were an indispensable part of the Scandinavians’ lifestyle. Their homeland’s numerous waterways, its sheer amount of land abutting the sea, and its effective separation by water from the rest of the Eurasian continent meant that the Scandinavians had to travel over water if they wanted to get very far. Happily, their land was also rich in shipbuilding materials such as wood, iron, and wool. The Norse were thus well-positioned to develop powerful maritime capabilities more quickly and more effectively than most other Eurasian peoples.
Before the eighth century AD, the Scandinavians only built rowing ships, and none with sails. This is a puzzling omission, because the technology not only existed at the time, but was being used by nearby peoples like the Germans and the English.
Once Norse shipwrights started building ships with sails, however, the Viking Age roared into being almost immediately. Fast, flexible sailing ships that could transport large numbers of warriors were at the center of the Vikings’ dominant military strategy, which consisted of showing up without warning, raiding or extracting a ransom, and then leaving before any real army could be mustered against them. Without their ships, “there would have been no Vikings and no Viking Age.”
These ships depended on the wind to propel them toward their destination. When the winds blew against them, they could still move in the Vikings’ intended direction, but they were slowed to a crawl.
But when the winds were favorable, the speed of the Vikings’ warships was a marvel. Modern reconstructions of Viking ships have sailed at speeds of over fifteen knots (over seventeen miles per hour or twenty-seven kilometers per hour). When rowed rather than sailed, they cruised along at just short of six knots – much slower, yes, but still exceptionally fast for such a large vessel. These reconstructed ships have also ridden out North Atlantic gales, proving their consummate seaworthiness.
Viking warships were often called “longships” because of – you guessed it – how long they were, a feature that enabled them to hold many, many warriors and goods. When the Old Norse sagas describe massive ships with room for sixty or more rowers, they’re not exaggerating. Archaeological finds corroborate those claims. However, the norm was probably smaller ships that could fit about twenty-six rowers – still a great number by the standards of the time. Such smaller ships would have been more maneuverable, and therefore more useful in lightning-fast Viking raids.
While the ship’s sails were hoisted and propelling it along, the men on board entertained themselves by telling stories and playing games. When the ships had to be rowed, the rowers sat on chests filled with their belongings – including, of course, the spoils of raids.
For the Viking chieftains who owned these ships, they were a major source of pride. Chieftains competed with one another to have the biggest and most lavish ships. When two or more chieftains fought one another, their ships were among the most valuable plunder that the other side could acquire. After a sea battle, if the losing side’s ships were still in usable condition, they were taken by the happy victor.