What Boats Did Vikings Use To Fish?

Viking fishing boats

The Viking Age, spanning roughly from the 8th to the 11th century, is often associated with images of ruthless seafarers, warriors, and explorers. However, the Vikings were not only fierce fighters and explorers but also skilled fishermen and traders. They depended heavily on the sea for their livelihood and sustenance. This article aims to delve into the types of boat Vikings used for fishing, how they stored their catch, and their methods of preservation, particularly drying fish.

What Were 3 Types of Ships Vikings Used?

The Vikings, renowned for their maritime prowess, utilized a variety of ship designs to suit their diverse needs. There were three principal types of Viking ships, each with a unique design and purpose: the Longship, the Knarr, and the Karve.

  1. Longships: The Longship is the most iconic Viking ship, known for its dragon head ornamentation and massive size. Longships were speedy and maneuverable, able to navigate both open seas and shallow rivers. These ships had a slender and long design, perfect for rapid movement and launching quick attacks. Made for warfare and exploration, longships were equipped with a large, square sail and rows of oars. The largest among them, the ‘Drekar,’ or dragon ship, could carry up to 60-80 warriors.
  2. Knarr: The Knarr was a merchant vessel primarily used for long-distance trade. Knarrs were broader and deeper than Longships, built to withstand rough, open oceans, and held substantial cargo. With a greater emphasis on sail power rather than rowing, they were the workhorses of the Viking fleet. These ships carried goods, livestock, and settlers to establish new colonies, such as those in Greenland and Iceland.
  3. Karve: Karves were smaller, versatile ships designed for a variety of purposes, including fishing, short-distance trading, and transportation. Smaller than Longships but larger than everyday fishing vessels, Karves was an intermediate ship type. They could navigate narrow and shallow waters effectively yet were sturdy enough to handle the open seas. The Karve was often used as a personal or ceremonial vessel.

These three types of Viking ships – the Longship, Knarr, and Karve – were fundamental to Viking society. They facilitated their diverse maritime activities, from raiding and exploration to trading and fishing. Each ship represents a different facet of Viking life, demonstrating their superior shipbuilding skills and naval capabilities.

How Did Viking Ships Not Sink?

Viking ships were masterpieces of maritime technology in their time, built with remarkable craftsmanship and a deep understanding of nautical principles. They were designed not only for speed and versatility but also for stability and buoyancy, key factors preventing them from sinking.

Three main factors contributed to the seaworthiness of Viking ships:

  • Construction Material: Viking ships were primarily constructed from timber, often oak, a material abundant in Scandinavia. Timber is less dense than water, giving the vessel natural buoyancy. Furthermore, the wood structure, with its natural compartments filled with air, aids in keeping the water out and the ship afloat.
  • Clinker-Built Design: Vikings employed a shipbuilding technique known as clinker construction. This involved overlapping wood planks along the ship’s length, creating a sturdy, water-tight hull. The method resulted in a hull design that was both flexible and strong, able to withstand the impact of waves without breaking. The overlapping planks also helped channel water away from the ship, reducing the chance of sinking.
  • Ship Shape and Design: Viking ships had a shallow draft design. This meant that a large part of the ship remained above the water level, increasing its buoyancy. Additionally, the long, narrow design of the vessels, especially the iconic longship, reduced water resistance, allowing them to navigate quickly through the water. The ships’ prows were designed to cut through waves rather than ride over them, minimizing the chance of capsizing in rough seas.

In sum, the Vikings’ advanced understanding of shipbuilding and navigation, combined with the natural properties of their chosen materials, ensured their ships were highly resilient and seaworthy. These attributes helped the Vikings establish themselves as a dominant maritime power in their time, capable of undertaking vast oceanic voyages without their ships sinking.

Viking Fishing Boats: A Staple of Scandinavian Sea Culture

When people think of Viking ships, the image often comes to mind is large, dragon-prowed longships used for warfare and exploration. Yet, not all Viking vessels were designed for these purposes. A significant number were smaller, more versatile boats employed for daily tasks such as fishing, known as the Viking fish boat.

The common Viking fishing boat, also referred to as the “Knarr,” was smaller and wider than the famed longship. The Knarr had a deep draft and a wide hull, designed for stability in the often-turbulent North Atlantic Ocean. These boats were made using a clinker-building technique where timber planks, usually oak, were overlapped and nailed together, producing a lightweight but sturdy vessel.

Viking fish boats had a single square sail and a small crew of 6-12 men. The vessel size enabled it to venture into the open sea for extended fishing trips. Moreover, these boats were compact enough to navigate shallow waters, making them perfect for river or near-coast fishing.

The Role of Timber in Viking Ship Construction

Timber played an essential role in the construction of Viking ships. The forests of Scandinavia provided an abundant supply of this key material, with oak being the most commonly used due to its durability and strength. The availability and quality of timber significantly influenced Viking shipbuilding.

Vikings valued the strength and flexibility of oak, which made it ideal for creating the hulls of their ships. The planks, typically hewn with axes, were thin enough to be flexible but sturdy enough to withstand the stress of waves and wind.

The choice of timber also reflected the purpose of the ship. For instance, while oak was primarily used for warships due to its toughness, lighter woods like pine and spruce were employed for merchant ships or Knarrs that required more buoyancy to carry heavy cargo.

Besides, Vikings used a special technique known as ‘radial splitting.’ They would split the timber along its natural grain instead of sawing it, which preserved the wood’s strength. This careful and skillful use of timber enabled the Vikings to create seafaring vessels that were robust, flexible, and resilient, embodying the maritime prowess of the Viking Age.

The Viking Bear Plenty of Fish: Techniques and Tools

The Vikings’ maritime culture and the abundance of fish in the waters surrounding their homeland meant they became adept fishermen. Their primary fishing targets were herring, cod, and salmon, but the Viking bear plenty of fish – the ocean also provided a wide variety of other species.

The Vikings employed several fishing techniques depending on the type of fish and the location. Net fishing was common for catching large quantities of small fish like herring. These nets were woven from plant fibers or animal sinews, and stones were tied to the bottom to submerge the net while floating wooden pieces kept the top at the water’s surface.

Line fishing was another popular method, especially for larger species such as cod or halibut. A simple setup of a long line, hook, and bait was used, although, for deep-sea fishing, they sometimes used longer lines with multiple hooks.

From Catch to Storage: How Vikings Stored Fish

Once the Vikings had their catch, they needed a way to store it, particularly during long sea voyages or throughout the harsh Scandinavian winters. The most common preservation methods involved salting, smoking, and drying.

The first step in these processes was to clean the fish. This involved gutting the fish and removing its scales. In the case of large fish, they were often cut into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Salting was a popular method of preservation. The fish were packed in barrels or pits with layers of salt. The salt drew out the moisture, creating an inhospitable environment for bacteria, thus delaying spoilage.

Viking Dried Fish: A Staple of the Nordic Diet

Drying fish was another commonly used method of preservation by the Vikings. The cleaned and gutted fish were hung out to air dry during this process. This method worked particularly well in Scandinavia’s cold, dry conditions, where the fish could be left to dry for months without the risk of spoilage.

Dried fish was a convenient and long-lasting food source. When ready to eat, the fish was simply rehydrated and cooked. This method ensured a steady supply of protein throughout the year, especially during the long winter months when fresh food was scarce.

The Impact on Viking Society and Trade

These preservation methods played a significant role in the survival of the Viking people, allowing them to store surplus food for times of scarcity and to maintain their energy during their long sea voyages. Moreover, preserved fish was also a valuable trading commodity. Vikings would often trade these dried or salted fish for other goods, establishing trade routes and fostering relationships with other societies.

Legacy of Viking Ships: Influence on Modern Shipbuilding

The legacy of Viking ships extends far beyond their historical period and has significantly influenced modern shipbuilding. The advanced design and construction techniques of the Vikings contributed to several key developments in maritime technology.

One of the lasting influences of Viking shipbuilding is the clinker-built technique. This construction method, involving the overlapping of wooden planks, was durable and practical, ensuring the ships were lightweight yet robust. This style was widely adopted in regions where the Vikings had contact, including Britain, influencing the design of traditional boats like the Irish Galway Hooker and the British Norfolk Wherry.

The sleek, shallow-draft design of Viking ships, particularly the longship, has also had a profound impact. It allowed for rapid movement and flexibility, able to navigate both open seas and shallow rivers. This design influenced the development of various sailing and racing boats, valuing speed and maneuverability.

Moreover, the impressive navigational skills of the Vikings, navigating vast oceanic voyages without modern equipment, have sparked considerable interest in the field of historical navigation. Studies of Viking sailing techniques continue to provide insights into early seafaring and navigational methods.

Lastly, Viking ships hold cultural and historical significance. They symbolize the exploration spirit of the Vikings and their maritime prowess. Today, replicas of Viking ships serve as historical exhibits and reminders of our enduring fascination with the sea and exploration. These vessels continue to inspire modern shipbuilding, reflecting the timeless legacy of the Vikings.


The role of fishing in Viking society went far beyond mere subsistence. The sea provided not just food but a way of life for these seafaring people. The Viking fish boat, the techniques they used to catch and store fish, and their methods of preserving the catch, particularly drying, were all instrumental in their survival and success. It’s a testament to their ingenuity and adaptability, traits that still resonate in the maritime cultures of Scandinavia today.