The Viking Longship

If there’s anything synonymous with the Vikings, it’s not the shields or the axes, the beards or the runes, the Gods or the raiding; it’s the Viking Longship (or Longboat as they were always called at school growing up).

The longship is a symbol and epitomises everything the Vikings were. It struck fear into enemies when they were seen approaching. It was a work of pride and identity. It was the means to travel the seas, to earn fame, wealth and discovery.

The longship is infamous around the world and its image defines an era. But did you know…

There were different styles of Viking ship.

A six oared boat was known as a sexaeringr, a more standard, general use ship of 12 to 32 oars was known as karvi while a proper longboat (a minimum of 20 rowing positions) were called snekkja. This translates as ‘thin and projecting.’

Larger warships were named skei which means ‘that which cuts through water.’ Even bigger, giant warships from later in the Viking age are known as drekar (dragon) whilst the general term for all the warships is a langskip – sounds similar eh? The drekar tended to have above 30 rowing positions and occasionally all the way up to 60 oars.

The Vikings did still use trade ships too, known as knarrs or kaupskips.

The sail wasn’t adopted until the 8th century.

Is it any coincidence that the Viking age swiftly followed the introduction of the sail?

Oars were ok for the coastal waters of Scandinavia but to really explore, the power of the sail was essential for those long voyages.

Longboats took a lot of wood to build.

To build a longship of between 66 and 82 feet, 1,766 – 2,048 cubic feet of Oak would have been required.

To put this in perspective, if each tree used was 1 metre in diameter and 5 metres high, this would involve felling 11 trees, with an extra tree of between 49 and 59 feet required for the keel.

Norway’s oak shortage as they entered the 20th century is directly attributed to the scale of the shipbuilding by the Vikings a millennium earlier, which is incredible – especially when oak wasn’t the sole type of wood used.

There was no longship blueprint.

Rather incredibly, there was no guide or specifications for building a longship – whatever the commission, the shipbuilder would follow basic ratios rather than a set of plans. Shipbuilding was passed down through generations and the shipwright’s experience and rule of thumb affected the size and shape of the finished ship.

Viking activity started with opportunistic traders.

The first Viking attacks on Europe started at the beginning of the 9th century, thought to be traders as they used a karvi type of all purpose ship. They’d be happy to trade but if there was opportunity, they began to take what they wanted through aggression and force.

Longboats were used at funerals – but not in the way that you think.

You may have seen fallen Vikings being sent down the river in their longship, a flaming arrow shot through the air, setting it alight. This was not however a common occurrence.

The Oseberg Ship burial excavation

There are however, countless examples of Viking warriors being buried with their longships, with the boat acting as a burial chamber of sorts, and a burial mound then filled over the top. Have a look at The Oseberg Ship, a well known example of a preserved burial ship, excavated in Norway in 1904.

Longship design made them extremely seaworthy and capable of long voyages.

For the bigger ships, such as The Gokstad Ship (excavated in 1880) there was often a double crew – 30-35 oarsmen rowing and the same number resting, before swapping over. This gave the Vikings in these type of ships extraordinary speed and endurance.

The Gokstad Ship

A replica of the Gokstad was built in 1893 and sailed successfully from Bergen to the United States – a 3,000 mile voyage. They achieved this in just 27 days, without any issues. This gives an impression of just how formidable these ships were, whether sailed or rowed

The Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship discovered so far.

This beast was discovered in 1997 and was a huge 36 metres long and 3.5 metres wide. It was built around 1025. Its sail is estimated as having been 200 square metres, with 78 rowing positions! It could very comfortably have carried 100 Norse warriors.

The Longships were used as fighting platforms.

When heading to battle, longships were roped together in a line, with the king or chief’s flagship in the centre. At the sides, they positioned knarrs with high sides to attack any flanking vessels with missiles in relative protection. Once a ship came close, the Vikings would charge across and board the enemy vessel, slaughtering those on board.

The longship started its decline with the introduction of the cog.

These large European vessels had large cargo holds and greater stability, and by the mid 13th century, the longship was nearly gone. However, many Norsemen in more remote regions were determined to continue with their longship use long past the age of the Vikings in the mid 12th century, keeping those traditions alive until the end of the 19th century!


Special recognition goes to The Vikings RenΓ© Chartrand et al for most of the information I cherry picked for this post!

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