Every aspect of the design and construction of any Viking vessel was carefully detailed and meticulously planned to provide the deadly means for them to sail (literally) onto the world stage and into the pages of history books.

A seafaring people

One of the early medieval period's most remarkable events was the Viking expansion that scoured and settled huge swathes of Eurasia between the mid-8th to early 12th centuries CE. 

A quick glance at what we at The Viking Herald like to call the "Viking Backyard" (the Nordic and Baltic regions) and you'll notice that it is surrounded by water – the Baltic, Norwegian, and North Seas were the highways that funneled people from Viking societies to conquest and commerce. 

By the time of the first recorded Viking raids, in the latter half of the 8th century CE, people in Viking societies could draw on millennia of nautical and maritime knowledge.

For people in Viking societies, geography was both a blessing and a curse. They lived in a region dominated by small communities isolated by huge mountainous ranges with little flat and traversable terrain. 

This meant that seafaring was not only the quickest way to travel, or conduct business, but the seas, oceans, and rivers also provided a natural bounty for sustenance.

A strong foundation

By the time the Vikings emerged onto the world stage, maritime travel had been perfected into an art form. No more is this evident than the construction method of most vessels that the Vikings employed. 

Though they were not the first people to use the "lapstrake" (sometimes called "clinker-built") method of construction, the Vikings employed it ruthlessly in an era where, for Europe anyway, they seemed lightyears ahead of other cultures and civilizations. This method involves the deliberate creation of a pattern of overlapping planks.

This was, perhaps, the most important way in which the design of a Viking ship was so special. These overlapping patterns of planks provided both a flexible and durable hull. 

Contemporary ships and boats from other cultures were often constructed to be one or the other, but this method saw the synthesis of both these elements enabling the vessels to be at ease on whether tackling the huge barrels of the North Sea or drifting downstream in a gentle river somewhere in Eastern Europe. 

Whilst other seafaring peoples may have traveled further in history, there is no doubt that Viking ships and boats had one of the most extraordinary nautical ranges, sailing everywhere from Constantinople to modern-day Canada.

This method for vessel construction, in the Nordic region, continued long after the last Viking ship sailed. In fact, in 2021, this method, steeped in both history and tradition, was recognized by UNESCO and placed on the "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" list.

Viking ships had extraordinary nautical range. Photo: MP cz / Shutterstock

Stability, symmetry, and diversity

This clinker method of construction was not the only way in which Viking vessels were efficiently and effectively designed. Though the sturdy hull provided a strong and stable foundation, there were other design elements that provided further stability. 

A keel – a beam of wood that runs from one end of a boat or ship to the other (from bow to stern) - was placed centrally. This not only helped a symmetrical distribution of weight (providing extra stability) but provided the vessel with a low center of gravity.

The selection of the choice of wood used was also loaded with functional reasoning. Whilst the Nordic region may not have boundless tracts of arable land, it does have a multitude of old-growth forests. 

Sourcing oak from these forests provided the perfect construction material, which was often shaven as thin as 2.5 centimeters / 1 inch. However, the clinker method allowed these thin and supple planks, when assembled correctly, to form a durable and flexible vessel.

The stability of the ship then allowed versatility of function for many of the vessels. Modern historians and academics have divided Viking ships into two main categories: warships and trade vessels. 

However, there is a surprising amount of overlap between these two. Just because one vessel was built to ferry warriors across the seas doesn't mean it could not do the same for commercial produce...which often included slaves. 

The best example of the dual function of these Viking vessels is called a Karve. These were a small type of Viking longship – measuring around 5.2 meters / 17 feet in width – and could be used in coastal regions to ferry warriors, livestock, or traded goods.

Speed dragons

Scroll through any of the accounts of the cultures and civilizations that had contact with the Vikings, from the Franks to the Anglo-Saxons, from the Byzantines to the Arabs, and they all commented on the lightning speed that these ferocious warriors appeared and then disappeared. 

Operating centuries before the invention of the internal combustion engine, how did Viking vessels travel such vast distances so quickly? The answer is a combination of wind and muscle power.

The design of most Viking ships, especially the famous longboats – with their narrow and slender design allowed the least amount of aerodynamic resistance through the water. To add to this nautical pace, the use of a sail was added to these vessels. 

Often made from hemp with a square design, these sails could be raised to take advantage of fair winds. In addition, the large surface area of these sails (between 14 to 23 meters / 45 to 75 feet) made them perfectly poised to capture the wind and propel the vessel even faster through waters rough or calm.

Finally, should the wind not be fair, most Viking longboats and ships had one last option for speed: muscle power. Each vessel had oars equipped for when the wind was less than favorable or the waters less navigable. This added an extra dimension to Viking vessels as they could, for example, row against the current or upstream. 

This added a layer of unpredictability for cultures, civilizations, and communities trying to plan against Viking attacks as they seemed to be able to appear from everywhere.

Every aspect of a Viking vessel, from the hull's shape to its sail, had been meticulously designed to ensure maximum efficiency, effectiveness, and versatility. 

Coupled with this perfectly designed vessel was the intrinsic knowledge, passed down through millennia, that peoples in the Nordic region and surrounds have of seafaring. 

A Viking vessel – whether carrying a group of Vikings hellbent on ravaging a coastal community, a slave trader bringing their fare back home to Scandinavia from the British Isles, or a merchant exporting precious furs to the Frankish court – was the perfect synthesis of form and function (not to mention aesthetically pleasing) that underpinned the expansion of people from Viking societies during the early medieval period.

For more on a modern reconstruction of a Viking ship that can even parallel park, visit the Science Norway website here.

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