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Sea Thunder: The Viking Longships

By Rachel Terry
Long before trains criss-crossed the continents and planes flew overhead, a small group of
Scandinavians developed a form of transportation that would change history. During the
Middle Ages, the Vikings developed the technology necessary to build their speedy, sleek
longships, which would carry them as far as Greenland, northern Africa, and even North
America. These ships allowed them to dominate great swaths of Europe for three hundred
How did they do it? How did a group of people from the frigid north develop such innovative
technology? Superior shipwrights, geography, circumstance, and raw materials combined to
forge a unique new method of building ships.
Unique Geography
Water dominates Scandinavias geography. Bogs, fjords (long narrow inlets between steep
mountainous coasts), rivers, lakes, and streams made communication and transportation
difficult for early inhabitants of the region. 1 Since overland travel was nearly impossible, the
Vikings turned to the water.
Over time, the Vikings developed boats that suited their unique geography. These boats
were easy to maneuver, a feature that was required to navigate the fjords, which were full
of twists and turns. The boats had to be shallow so they wouldnt bottom out in the small
streams, and they had a large capacity because they were used not only for moving people
but also for moving supplies and goods. The longships could be rowed both backward and
forward so that they could make their way through small streams and crooked byways.
New Technology
To make boats that would suit the Vikings needs, they had to develop new technology.
Here are some of their developments.
Clinker-built sides. The Vikings developed a method of building their longships with wooden
planks, which kept the water out and enabled the ships to glide effortlessly through the
water. When building with the clinker-built method, shipbuilders laid the planks so they
overlapped one another slightly. They fastened the planks together with iron rivets and
sealed the joints with tar-soaked wool.2 Some boats are still built this way today.
Movable Sails. Out on the open sea, sails help to power the boats. Longship sails were made
of unstitched, rough wool cloth, which was plentiful in Scandinavia with its great flocks of
sheep. When maneuvering up the protected fjords, however, sails didnt help at all.
Consequently, the sails would then be taken down, and sailors used long oars to propel the

Even Weight Distribution. When the longships were in full sail, the mast holding the sail
bore tremendous strain. Therefore, longship builders developed a way to evenly distribute
the weight. Heres how they did it: They mounted the bottom of the mast on a heavy block
of wood, which was called a kerling. The kerling rested on the keel (the ships backbone),
but it wasnt fastened to the keel. It was fastened to the ships ribs. 3 This even weight
distribution helped the ships to sit high in the water and maintain a high speed. Out on the
open seas, longships could travel up to 200 miles per hour! 4
Specially Chosen Timber. Viking longships couldnt have been invented in an area that
lacked dense forests. Scandinavian forests were sources of many different kinds of wood,
and Viking shipwrights researched which kinds of wood would best be used for different
purposes. Oak, pine, spruce, larch, and juniper have all been found in Viking longships. 5
Front-back Symmetry. Boats have always been built with side-to-side symmetry to keep
them from tipping to one side or the other, but the Vikings also used front-back symmetry
with their longships. Both ends of the longships rose to a peak, so they could be sailed
forward or backward with equal ease.6 This design enabled the ships to approach land
quickly and then back right out, just as a car pulls into a parking space and then backs out
Raiding Northern Europe
It didnt take the Vikings long to realize that the longships they had developed for local
communication and trade purposes were perfect for something else: raiding foreign villages.
With their silent, fast approach, longboats could float up protected inlets and land on shores
without the locals realizing anyone had arrived. At that point in history, the population in
Scandinavia had increased substantially, and with a limited supply of farmland available,
people had realized that raiding was easier and could make them richer than they could be
if they farmed a small plot of land.
In A.D. 793, the villagers of Lindisfarne in northern England were shocked and terrified
when a Viking longship arrived on their shores. 7 The Vikings attacked the local monastery,
stole the churchs treasures, and burned down the villagers homes before jumping back
into their longship to return home with the loot.
Soon, villages all over England, France, Iceland, and Ireland learned to fear the dragonheaded Viking longships. Today, medieval treasures from these countries are still found in

the Vikings native Scandinavia. Viking raiders stole the treasures and took them home to
sell or give to their loved ones.
With their quick speeds and ability to sail up streams and rivers, the longships often visited
remote areas that had little communication with the outside world. These abilities were
invaluable for trade purposes, and the Vikings soon realized that isolated villages would pay
high prices to trade with them.8 Vikings traded far and wide. We know this because
archaeologists have excavated the following traded treasures in Viking sites: cowrie shells
from the Persian Gulf, glass and pottery goods from Germany, wine from Spain and France,
woolens and tin from the British Isles, and silver Arabic coins. From their own Scandinavian
lands, the Vikings sold timber, amber, iron, walrus ivory, soapstone, and animal skins and
furs. As the Vikings became rich from their trade, they were able to build more ships and
explore more remote territories.
Sometimes Viking raiders fell in love with the areas they raided and decided they wanted to
live there permanently. In these cases, they used their longboats much as we use moving
vans todayto move their families and all of their belongings to a new home. Vikings
colonized many different areas of northern Europe, including the Shetland Islands, Orkney
Islands, Greenland, and northern France.9
The local residents werent always thrilled about their new neighbors. Sometimes violent
skirmishes broke out along the edges of the Viking colonies, but the Vikings often
established friendly trading relationships with nearby settlers.
Colonies didnt always thrive, however. For example, in Greenland the Vikings established a
colony that grew to a population of nearly five thousand people, but the climate was so
harsh and growing food was so difficult that they eventually abandoned the colony. No one
knows exactly what happened to them.10
What Happened to the Vikings?
Over time, raiding and pillaging became less and less profitable. Monasteries built towers for
self-defense, and the Christian church itself arrived in the Viking lands. Bishops and political
leaders told the Viking raiders that their violent raiding violated Gods laws. 11 As the raids
slowed and eventually stopped, the rest of Europe ceased to see their northern neighbors as
Vikings. They simply saw Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, and Icelanders.

Today we dont have to worry about Vikings pillaging our homes and churches, but we can
admire their technological achievements. The Vikings innovative longships equipped people
all around Europe to trade their goods and to explore new lands.
Fortunately for us, the Vikings had a custom of burying their kings and queens in longships.
Therefore, archaeologists have unearthed entire, intact longships that contained all of the
ships original tools and supplies. Instead of disintegrating at the bottom of the sea, many
Viking longships are as beautiful today as they were a thousand years ago. Maybe youll see
one in a museum one day and picture yourself sailing across the uncharted ocean at 200
miles per hour, off to discover a new land.
Rachel Terry lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband Ben and three children. In
addition to teaching her children, she loves reading, writing, and spending time in the
outdoors with her family. You can reach her at tolmanterry@gmail.com .
1. Lassieur, Allison. The Vikings. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001, p. 14.
2. Millard, Dr. Anne. Eric the Red: The Vikings Sail the Atlantic. Austin, Texas: Raintree
Steck-Vaughn, p. 15.
3. Millard, Dr. Anne. Eric the Red: The Vikings Sail the Atlantic. Austin, Texas: Raintree
Steck-Vaughn, p. 13.
4. The Vikings in Ireland Factsheet.
www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/schools/4_11/tandy/pdf/Viking_info.pdf , accessed Oct. 10,
5. Roberts, Stan. The Early VoyagersViking.
www.duckworksmagazine.com/11/columns/guest/viking/index.htm , accessed Oct. 10,
6. Raum, Elizabeth. What Did the Vikings Do for Me? Chicago: Heinemann Library, p. 12.
7. Finney, Fred. Mystery History of a Viking Longboat. Brookfield, Connecticut: Copper
Beech Books, p. 5.
8. Roberts, Stan. The Early VoyagersViking.
www.duckworksmagazine.com/11/columns/guest/viking/index.htm , accessed Oct. 10,
9. Gravett, Christopher. Going to War in Viking Times. New York: Franklin Watts, 2001, p.
10. What Happened to the Greenland Norse?
www.mnh.si.edu/vikings/voyage/htmlonly/greenland.html , accessed Oct. 10, 2012.
11. Hurstwic. www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/society/text/what_happened.htm ,
accessed Oct. 10, 2012.
Copyright 2013, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in
the January 2013 issue of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, the family education magazine.
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