The Vikings built fast ships for raiding and war. These ships were 'dragon-ships' or 'longships'. The Vikings also had slower passenger and cargo ships called knorrs. They built small boats for fishing or short trips.
Viking longships could sail in shallow water. So they could travel up rivers as well as across the sea. In a raid, a ship could be hauled up on a beach. The Vikings could jump out and start fighting, and then make a quick getaway if they were chased.
How ships were built
A Viking ship was built beside a river or an inlet of the sea. A tall oak tree was cut to make the keel. The builders cut long planks of wood for the sides, and shorter pieces for supporting ribs and cross-beams. They used wooden pegs and iron rivets to fasten the wooden pieces together. Overlapping the side planks, known as 'clinker-building',made the ship very strong. People stuffed animal wool and sticky tar from pine trees into every join and crack, to keep out the water.
To launch the ship, the Vikings pushed it into the water. They slid it over log rollers to make the pushing easier.
Sails and oars
A Viking ship had one big square sail made of woven wool. In some ships, the mast for the sail could be folded down. When there was not enough wind for the sail, the men rowed with long wooden oars. To steer the ship, one man worked a big steering oar at the back end, or stern. At the curved front end of the ship was a carved wooden figure-head.
A dragon-ship had room for between 40 and 60 men. The men slept and ate on deck. There was some space below deck for stores, but no cabins.
Finding the way
Vikings sailed close to the coast whenever possible, watching for landmarks. Out of sight of land, they looked for the sun: west (towards the sunset) meant they were headed for England; east (towards the sunrise) meant home to Denmark or Norway. The Vikings invented a kind of sun compass to help find their way. At night they watched the stars. Seamen knew a lot about winds and sea currents. By watching birds or even the colour of the water, an experienced sailor could tell when land was close.
Ships in a museum
Two Viking ships were found by archaeologists in Norway. The Gokstad ship was dug up on a farm in 1880. The Oseberg ship was found on another farm in 1904. Both ships were buried in Viking funerals between AD 800 and 900. The Gokstad ship is 23 metres/76 ft long. It was big enough for 32 oarsmen - 16 oars each side.
These two ships are now in a museum in Oslo in Norway. In 1893, a copy of the Gokstad ship sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Norway to America.