What Was Life Like On Board A Viking Longship?

Viking Longship

The Viking era, a period from the late 8th century to the early 11th century, witnessed seafaring Norsemen exploring vast regions across Europe, Asia, and North America. The Vikings, as they are popularly known, were famous for their longships – highly sophisticated and agile vessels that enabled their far-reaching voyages. But what was life like aboard these formidable vessels? Let’s delve into “a day in the life of a Viking at sea” and journey into the heart of the Viking world.

What Were Viking Boats Used for? 

Viking boats, particularly the renowned longships, were multifaceted vessels serving various essential purposes in Norse society.

  • Exploration: Vikings were renowned explorers, and their longships were the primary vehicles for their wide-reaching voyages. These swift and agile vessels allowed them to navigate the open sea and shallow rivers, facilitating exploration across the North Atlantic, including lands such as modern-day England, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, and even North America.
  • Trade: Viking longships were also used for trade. Their large cargo holds were ideal for transporting goods across vast distances. They carried commodities like fur, timber, ivory, and even slaves to trade in foreign lands in exchange for goods like silk, spices, and silver.
  • Warfare and Raiding: Perhaps most famously, the longships were used in warfare and raiding missions. Their speed and ability to land directly on beaches made them perfectly suited for surprise attacks. The Vikings conducted raids across Europe, creating a formidable reputation.
  • Ceremonies: In Viking society, longships also had ceremonial importance. They were used in ship burials, where high-ranking individuals were laid to rest in their ships, signifying their status and the belief in the ship carrying them to the afterlife.

From exploration to trade, warfare to ceremonial rites, Viking boats were central to Norse culture and their way of life.

What Were Viking Longships Made of? 

Viking longships were primarily made of timber, with oak being the most commonly used wood due to its strength and durability. Still, depending on the region and availability of resources, other types of wood, such as pine, ash, or elm, could also be used.

The construction method used for longships was the ‘clinker-built’ technique, also known as ‘lapstrake.’ This method involved overlapping planks (or ‘strakes’) of wood to create the hull, fastened with iron rivets and caulked with tarred wool or animal hair to ensure water-tightness.

The keel and the stems, forming the ship’s backbone, were typically made of a single, sturdy piece of timber. The ship’s ribs, which provided structural support to the hull, were constructed from naturally curved tree branches, maximizing strength and flexibility.

A single, tall, and straight piece of timber was required for the mast, usually from pine or fir. The sail was typically made from wool, then treated with lanolin or other natural substances to make it water-resistant.

Ropes were crucial for rigging the sail and were usually made from lime bast (fibers from the inner bark of the linden tree) or, less commonly, from animal hide or hair.

The materials and construction methods used in building Viking longships showcased the Vikings’ deep understanding of their environment, mastery of woodworking, and advanced maritime technology.

Life on a Viking Longship: The Basics

  1. The Ship’s Structure: Viking longships were engineering marvels of their time. With a shallow-draft design, these ships could navigate deep and shallow waters, allowing the Vikings to travel across seas, along rivers, and even land on beaches. The long, narrow hull design provided speed and stability.
  2. Capacity and Crew: The size of longships varied, with larger ones measuring up to 75 feet and carrying around 60 to 100 men. These warriors were not just mere passengers but formed the ship’s crew, rowing the vessel when winds weren’t favorable.
  3. Living Quarters: Surprisingly, longships lacked dedicated living quarters. The crew lived, ate, slept, and worked in the same open space. When not rowing or tending to other ship duties, the men would gather around, sharing stories, playing games, or repairing their equipment.

A Day in the Life of a Viking at Sea

Life aboard a Viking longship was a challenging ordeal. The day began at dawn, with the crew waking up from their sleeping spots on the open deck. The ship’s ‘cooks,’ typically less experienced or younger crew members, prepared the first meal of the day, often a gruel or porridge made of grains with dried fish or meat.

After the meal, the crew members would take their positions at the oars if the winds were weak or contrary or manage the ship’s single square sail when the wind was favorable. Navigation relied on the sun, stars, flight patterns of birds, and the experience of seasoned sailors.

The afternoons would see some Vikings attending to ship maintenance, repairing damage, or sharpening their weapons. Evenings were typically reserved for supper, another meal of preserved food washed down with weak beer or mead. The day ended with storytelling, singing, or playing Hnefatafl – a popular Viking board game, before settling down for the night on the deck, shielded from the elements only by their cloaks.

Did Viking Longships Have Cabins?

Contrary to many modern perceptions, Viking longships did not feature designated cabins or separate living quarters. These ships were designed primarily to focus on speed, versatility, and maximum capacity for crew and cargo, not comfort or privacy.

The structure of a Viking longship was open, with a single deck used for various purposes. All activities happened within this single communal space, from rowing to dining to sleeping. When it came to sleeping, the crew often found a spot on the deck and used their cloaks or sails as makeshift blankets against the elements.

Underneath the deck was a small hold for storing cargo, supplies, or plunder gained from raids. This was also where they kept foodstuffs, drinking water for the voyage, and their tools, weapons, and personal belongings.

During long voyages, the crew had to endure the harsh elements, the lack of privacy, and the discomfort of sleeping in the open. This underscores the resilience and adaptability of the Vikings, qualities that were crucial to their successes as seafarers, traders, and explorers.

In conclusion, Viking longships did not have cabins in the way we might understand them today. Instead, these ships were utilitarian structures designed to fulfill their roles as efficient, flexible, and resilient travel, trade, and exploration vessels.

How Did Vikings Eat While They Were on Ships?

The culinary life of Vikings at sea was a far cry from the abundance and variety that their home diets might offer. Yet, they were pragmatic and efficient in their seafaring sustenance, having a practical approach to food and its storage.

First and foremost, the food needed to be non-perishable, as journeys could last weeks or even months. Dried and smoked fish or meat, such as beef, horse, and mutton, were a staple. Vikings were also known to carry hard bread made from rye or barley. These items required no cooking and could be eaten as is. The Vikings relied on preserved fruits, nuts, cheese, and dried legumes for additional sustenance.

The cooking on board, when possible, was basic. Fresh food was a rarity, but if the crew were fortunate to catch fish or birds, they would cook them over an open flame on a firebox – a stone or iron slab – at the ship’s center. Cooking pots could be used to prepare porridge or stew made with grains and any available meat. Water casks stored fresh water for drinking and cooking, but beer or mead – being less prone to spoilage – was also a common drink onboard.

Interestingly, Vikings carried live animals, such as chickens or sheep, on their long voyages. These served as a source of fresh meat, milk, or eggs during the journey.

Meal times aboard a Viking longship were also moments of rest and social interaction. They would gather around the firebox, and share food and stories, reinforcing their bond as shipmates.

Despite the rough and ready conditions, the Vikings managed to maintain a balanced diet, demonstrating their resourcefulness and adaptability. Their approach to eating while on ships was not just a matter of survival but also a testament to their resilience and innovation as seafarers.

Life on Viking Longship: 10 Facts about Viking Longships

  1. Flexibility in Construction: The flexible construction of longships, using a clinker-built method, allowed the ship to flex with the waves, thus preventing it from breaking apart in harsh conditions.
  2. The Symbolic Dragon Head: Many longships featured a decorative dragon or serpent head at the prow, believed to ward off evil spirits.
  3. Multi-Purpose Ships: Viking longships were not only for exploration and raiding but also for trade, transport, and even prestige displays at ceremonial occasions.
  4. Steered by a Single Steering Oar: Longships were navigated using a single large steering oar on the starboard side, which led to the term ‘starboard’ from ‘steering board.’
  5. Versatile Sailing Capabilities: Due to the symmetrical bow and stern, longships could reverse direction without turning around.
  6. Faster than Contemporary Ships: Longships could reach speeds up to 15-20 knots (17-23 miles per hour), making them significantly faster than many contemporary vessels.
  7. Ancient Ship Burials: Viking chieftains were often buried in their longships, signifying their importance and the central role of these vessels in Viking society.
  8. Longship Variations: There were different types of longships, such as the larger ‘drekar’ (dragon ship) often used by chieftains and the smaller ‘karvi,’ which could function as a fishing or cargo vessel.
  9. Significant Manpower: Depending on the size of the ship, up to 60 men would row a longship, with each oar pulling through the water independently, allowing for coordinated changes in speed and direction.
  10. Built for Speed and Distance: Longships were built for speed and long-distance voyages. Their light and flexible design and large sail made them ideal for swift raids and exploratory expeditions.

How Far Could a Viking Longship Travel in a Day?

Given favorable winds and currents, a Viking longship could cover up to 120-150 nautical miles in a day. However, conditions were seldom ideal, and daily travel distance could be much less. Still, their ability to sustain such distances made longships the maritime workhorses of the Viking Age, facilitating their expansive exploration and raiding activities.

The End of the Voyage

Life aboard a Viking longship was a test of endurance, courage, and camaraderie. It involved facing relentless seas, unpredictable weather, and often dangerous encounters. It required physical strength, navigational skills, and a shared commitment to the crew’s survival and success.

These iconic vessels, constructed with remarkable craftsmanship and nautical knowledge, are a testament to the Vikings’ enduring legacy. They enabled the Vikings not only to journey across vast and diverse territories but also to leave a lasting impact on many parts of the world – a feat that continues to captivate our imaginations today.

Concluding Thoughts: Vikings and Their Seafaring Legacy

The Viking Age, marked by the presence of longships on the open sea, was an era of exploration, conquest, trade, and cultural exchange that reshaped the historical trajectory of many regions. Life aboard a Viking longship, as challenging as it was, offered a glimpse into the character of these audacious Norse seafarers.

From the breaking dawn to the sinking sunset, each day on a Viking longship was a dance of survival, camaraderie, and adventure. Despite their austere living conditions, the Vikings excelled as mariners, navigators, warriors, and traders – a testament to their adaptability and resilience.

The ten facts about Viking longships underscore the sophistication of Viking shipbuilding and navigation skills, enabling them to traverse incredible distances. The flexibility of their designs, the speed they could attain, and the distances they could cover in a day were remarkable for the era.

As we reflect on life aboard a Viking longship, we should not only marvel at the technical prowess of these seafaring explorers but also their courage and thirst for adventure. Their spirit of exploration, their enduring vessels, and the formidable journeys they undertook continue to echo through history, leaving an indelible mark on our collective human story.