VIKING - 12: SEAFARERS, Marine Technology (2)
"Better weight than wisdom a wayfarer cannot carry. The poor man's strength away from home is worth more than wealth".
Ride the mare, see her tail flow free in the wind astern
There is nothing on the preserved ships...
to show that there were ever benches between oar holes, and historians have assumed that crews sat on seamen's chests (the ones discovered at the Oseberg dig were the right height for use as rowing seats).
A number of sources mention seamen keeping their belongings in water-proofed kit bags, or 'hudfat' that could also be used as sleeping bags. In one of the warships located at Skuldelev in northern Sjaelland (Denmark) it seems the cross-beams were used as seating for rowers. One 'expert' asserted that Viking oarsmen stood whilst rowing (try rowing even a dinghy whilst standing, where the blades would be at a steep angle down into the water - progress would be hard, to say the least)! Even seated on seamen's chests could make rowing an uphill task without 'foot-stops' to press your boots on whilst rowing. I've rowed boats with and without foot-stops, and definitely prefer 'with'! You get up speed, for one thing. If your feet keep slipping you just can't get into it. Having rowed the length of an Alpine lake - the eighteen mile long Woerther See - in my teens, I know how important it is to have something to rest your feet against with the effort of rowing distances.
Oars could be sixteen or seventeen feet in length, those on the Gokstad ship being of seventeen feet or more. The different oar lengths would have been shaped according to the profile of the ships' sides, those in the centre presumably being shorter than those towards the ends. The Norsemen normally rowed one man to an oar, but in times of war two may have been the norm for ship speed and manoeuverability, possibly even a third with a shield to keep the outward-most oarsmen from being struck by arrows or spears (and to add numbers as a fighting force as with the introduction of marines in later centuries).
Olaf Tryggvason's 'Long Sepent' had up to eight men per width at the Battle of Svold in AD1000, with thirty further men as 'marksmen' and to ward off arrows and other airborne weaponry from the rowing crew members.
Riding the waves on the open sea was to be pursued with the help of a great square sail. By the 8th Century this was the norm for ships sailing around and away from Scandinavia. No doubt this was amongst the greatest of the strides in Norse ship technology. A ship named 'Viking' which crossed the Atlantic in AD1893 took only twenty-eight days at speeds of around eleven knots under sail. 'Viking' was a reconstruction of the Gokstad ship and carried a sail made of wool, strengthened by diagonal strips of leather. Rope or linen designed to keep the woollen sails from becoming distorted by salt water spray, wear and tear was also used.
The Gotland rune stones show a form of 'reefing' lines fixed to the sail bottoms. These drew in the sail when pulled to lessen the amount of sail open to the wind, and thus being torn under gale force. Sagas tell us of sails being white, checked with blue, red or green, the Gokstad ships' sails having been white with red stripes. Mast length was usually a little less than a half-length of the ship, so when lowered - as for a fight - the sail would clear the beams astern. No masts have been found intact, however.
To starboard at the stern (originally the word being 'steerboard') was a huge oar with a handle that could be dismounted, i.e., the rudder. This device made the ship highly manoeuverable, whether under sail or oar power. 'Throwing' the rudder hard against the flow of the water could bring the ship about sharply, provided the wind did not capsize her.
Stem and stern were mounted with detachable figureheads - serpents ('orme','worms', or dragons) being the customary choice. The use of these can be dated back to either the first or second century AD, as verified by rock carvings found in Norway. The figureheads gave the vessels their names, i.e., 'Ormen Lange' (The Long Serpent), 'Bison', 'Crane' - even a man's helmeted head has been noted as a figurehead. Icelandic law demanded the figureheads be taken down on nearing land, lest the island's guardian spirits fled in alarm or took offence. In the Bayeux Tapestry even, William's ships are seen at sea with their figureheads displayed, whereas in the havens* of Hastings and Pevensey they have been taken down.
*In the 11th Century both havens were deep water inlets that have since silted up, the coastline having changed radically with sea changes.
From finding a sunken longship in the Roskilde Fjord, to sailing a newly built vessel from Denmark to Ireland, follow the saga of the Sea Stallion of Glendalough. The story begins at the time Harald Sigurdsson, 'Hardradi' beset Denmark to extend his power. Several ships of different sizes were sunk in the fjord to hamper the Norse king, one built far away beyond the Irish Sea from Irish timber.
Full colour images and diagrams show how a Viking ship was built, its component parts and their roles in its working. Expertly guided and documented, well worth the investment. I enjoyed reading my copy and have used it as reference in my own writing.
Welcome on board! The Sea Stallion from Glendalough
Shape of trade
Follow HUNDING'S SAGA to catch a glimpse of seafaring life back in the early 11th Century, through the Oestsjoeen (pron. 'Oestsyoen' = The Eastern or Baltic Sea), down the rivers to the Sorte Hav (pron. 'Sorte how' = Black Sea) and Miklagard ('the Great City or Fortification). Lots of descriptions of life at sea, chases and so on.
Next: 13 Strengthening Walls
More by this Author
Walk the industrial past of Cleveland at Eston, Barnaby Moor and Guisborough, a stop-off at a former 19th Century coaching inn and pilgrim's hostelry and a Who's Who of Teesside's mining history.
Ship sizes in the Viking Age varied according to use. King Aelfred had some of the biggest ships of the age. Trading vessels were broader and higher for cargo, warships longer and lower for speed.
This time we look around the links to ironstone mine workings that dotted the landscape around late 19th-early 20th Century Guisborough, a quiet old market town that was an unlikely industrial hub.