what is norse/nordic boats? real viking ships

The Nordic region includes Scandinavian Peninsula, Jutland Peninsula, Iceland and other islands. As this region is close to the North Sea and the Baltic and local people’s lives depend on the ocean, the shipbuilding industry there is highly developed. Also, as the Nordic waters are broad, local people had learnt to build ships in very early times. Archaeologists discovered many Bronze-age drawings of ships in Denmark. Some of these drawings were carved on rocks, while some others were carved on the weapons or even razors. The ships in these drawings had long hulls and tall swan-neck-shape bows where there were head portraits of a variety of animals; and in the middle of hulls there were drawings of upright trees.

A ship built around the Christian era was excavated in the marsh region of the southern Jutland, and it was very similar to the ships in those Bronze-age drawings. This ship had a delicately structured hull as long as 42 inches, just like a racing yacht. Every piece of deckplate was very narrow. And instead of being nailed together, they were jointed together and then bound to the ship skeleton. During the early Middle Ages, there was some new development of the Norse ship. In 1863, two large Norse ships were excavated in Nydam, Denmark. One of them was as long as 60 inches, and is now preserved in a museum in Schleswig, Germany.

The three characteristics of the Norse ship:

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They were mainly propelled by sails, and supplemented by paddles. “There was one or at most two masts with the fore-and-aft sails set”. Usually the mast was located in the center. For example, on the Gokstad ship, the mast with shroud was built on a fish-shape hard stone in the center of the ship. To withstand the strong winds on the North Sea, the large square sails (single sail) set on Viking ships were usually made of leather or the cloth blended with leather strips. On a Norse ship, there were also bowlines used to drag the sail side against the wind, so as to make it possible to sail downwind in crosswind. Devices used to fasten the paddles were specially installed on Viking ships. For example, on each side of the Gokstad ship, there were 16 lockholes-like paddle holes, which went down through the gunwale. When the sails were set and paddles were not in use, slidable shuttle-shape corks were put down to cover the paddle holes so as to keep the water out. There were also coverplates on the paddle blades, which were removed when the paddles were in use.

The hull bottom and ship shell were of distinctive structure. On the hull there was a keel where the ribs were horizontally or aslant attached to. Therefore, there were the flat-bottomed ships whose keels seemed to be invisible; and the sharp-bottomed ships whose keels protruded. The two kinds of ships were used for different purposes. The sharp-bottomed ship was slender and of good seakeeping ability, which was the Norse ships’ advantage over the Mediterranean ship and the reason why Normans mainly used this kind of ship. But the flat-bottomed ship could easily land on the beach and was applicable to inland riverwaters during Norman invasions, and therefore was also widely used. The ship shells were spliced together by the “cravel-built” method. For example, 41-centimeter-thick oak panels were used the Gokstad ship. Instead of being attached by bolt nails, the nethermost eight ship shells were all bound to the ribs. As a result, the elasticity and flexibility were improved while the pressure on the ship was reduced. As this kind of ship was undecked, Normans’ voyages were basically shelterless. It was said that this kind of ship was used by William of Normandy when he conquered England in 1066. One of the five Copenhagen ships mentioned above had a spacious cabin.

Steering oar was used on this kind of ship. The long steering oar was installed at the right side of the stern. And it extended all the way down the keel so as to remain stable. Steering oar was controlled

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by the tiller handle, and therefore the right side of ship was referred to as “steerboard”.

According to Engels, it was the Norman ship (mainly the sharp-bottomed ship) that brought a full-scale revolution to the navigation technology: “Their ships were a kind of stable and solid seagoing vessel which had protruded keels and sharp ends. In most cases, they used only sails on this kind of ship without fearing about the sudden storms on the surgy North Sea. Normans went on expeditions with this kind of ship, and reached as far as Constantinople in the east and the Americas in the west. As this kind of ship could be used to sail across the Atlantic, it revolutionized the seafaring industry. And as a result, this kind of new sharp-bottomed ship had been popularized in all the coastal areas of Europe before the end of the Middle Age.”

In the 8th century, the Viking ships began to evolve into sailships. In the Gotland of Sweden, according to the discoveries on a series of sculptures from this period, the Norse sail was not a small piece of cloth, but a large piece of square cloth with red or blue painted stripes used as an eye-catching logo on it. The lower part of the sail was loosely fastened without using any crossyard. Since the late 8th century, Vikings had begun to expand their maritime sphere of influence in all directions with sailships. They had a wide scope of migration, and was the best seafaring people in the world at that time. In England, they were known as the Danes; in the Frankish Empire and Italy, they were called the Normans; and in the Rus region and Ireland, they were referred to as the Varangians. They also dared to venture into the high seas, and traveled westwards to Iceland and Greenland. They even set foot on the North America around 1000 AD. Undoubtedly, their large-scale voyage activities were associate with their advanced shipbuilding and navigation technologies.

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Some ship wreckages that had been discovered fully reflected the characteristics of Viking ships. Two ships discovered in Norway were the most typical ones. One was discovered in Gokstad, Norway in 1880. The other was discovered in Oseberg, Norway in 1903. Both places were near Oslo. According to the appraisal, the Oseberg ship was a long ship built around 800. It was 21 meters in length, 4 meters in width, 1.5 meters in the height of hull. As it was of low freeboard and shallow draft, it was suitable for offshore waters. The Gokstad ship was a typical warship. Despite being as wide as the Oseberg ship, it was approximately 24 meters long and 2 meters tall. Later in an estuary to the north of Copenhagen, five double-transom ships was discovered. According to the analysis, they were built in the 10th century, fully loaded with stones, and scuttled on purpose to block the waterway and stop the invaders. They were of the same ship type, but their design, volume and time of building were different. The larger ones among them must be sailships instead of paddle boats; as they were of deep draft and high gunwale, they might be used as troopships.

According to the materials for ship hull, the characteristics of Norman ships are discussed below. These characteristics largely formed in the same period as the Nydam ship mentioned above, while a few of them came out following the new development of shipbuilding technology between the 9th and 12th century.

The hull was long, but its middle part was much wider than the long ships used in the Mediterranean; the bow and stern were nearly symmetric, both in a pointed and upwarped shape, and much higher than the sea surface. Therefore, it was called the “double-ends”. When looking at the hull as a whole, it was like a smooth and curved outline extending from the high bow to the nearly-circular middle part and then the high stern, and the curves were so elegant. Both the bow and stern stood high in the air like dragons, and they could be removed when in emergency circumstances.

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From the 12th and 14th century, there was some new development of the Norse ship, which was represented by the Viking ship.

Firstly, stern rudder replaced the steering oar. The earliest drawing involved stern rudder and its attached tiller was discovered in a mark of English city in 1200. As it showed, the original stern rudder was curved so as to fit the outline of stern. Later, linear type design was adopted to the stern, and accordingly the stern rudder was modified. The stern rudder helped the ship to go aweather. And as the hull was deepened, the ship could go aslant against the wind.

Secondly, the low freeboard on Viking ship was also modified 1100 years later – a superstructure called “castle” were built at both the bow and stern. “Castle” was originally built for military purpose. At that time, warships were close to each other in the naval battle, so the castles at the bow and stern played certain defensive function when the enemies embarked amidships. Later, this design was also adopted on merchant ships. Ships with such superstructures looked “unequally weighted”. For this reason, the forecastle was actually used as the “sailors’ quarters”.

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Thirdly, it was the emergence and evolution of Norse merchant ship.

The Norse merchant ship was referred to as the “Knorr” ship and had a hull wider than deeper than the Viking longboat. It was the earliest ship that could utilize the headwind. In the 15th century, the “Knorr” ship was developed into a standard merchant ship. Its design type was dominant in the Nordic region for 400 years. In fact, the well-known Norse “Cog” ship was also a re-design version of it. The “Cog” ship had a genuine stern rudder for directional control, a long and forward-facing bowsprit for square sail, and a very solid hull. Around 1400, the larger “Holk” ship based on the “Cog” ship emerged in the Nordic region.

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