There were actually three types of longships used for war. The Snekke, Drekkar, and the Skeld. Though built with room for up to 70 oarsmen they could of course be driven by the wind when they hoisted their sail. The men who commanded these ships knew how to navigate in ways that we are just now re - learning. They found their way in the wide open spaces of the ocean using the sun, the stars, currents, depth sounding, and using what are known as sunstones on days that were cloudy. This Icelandic calcite double refracts light, and is able to show the sun's direction even on the cloudiest of days. What made these ships especially great war machines, however, was that they could sail across deep oceans, and then transition from sail to oar power, and go deep into enemy territory up rivers that others ships would never have dared to go. The rudder on these versatile ships was located on the side of the stern and not in the middle like modern ships and was controlled by hand. Another fact that is interesting is that these longships did not have benches for the rowers. They sat on their chests, which were all made to a standard size, and contained their personal possessions.
Modern ships are built from the inside and then worked outward. The Vikings on the other hand built their ships from the outside and worked their way inward. The average vessel would have 16 planks on a side that ranged in thickness from 1 3/4 inches at and below the waterline, and as thin as 1/2 an inch at the gunwale. These extremely long boards were pliable enough to be bent by hand. The Viking shipbuilders overlapped the boards in what is called clinker, or lapstrake construction, and then filled in any gaps with animal hair and tar, as a form of caulk. Once the sides were done the ribs connected the sides and planking was placed on top as flooring. Three crutches, to hold the yard, sails, and spars when under oar power, the mast partner, and the mast were then added to complete the ship. It is said, and replicas have accomplished, 11 knots in a stiff breeze, and could travel up to 250 miles in a single day.
The Scandinavian peoples were not just warriors of course, but were also great sea - going merchants and explorers. To carry their goods they needed ships that were deeper and wider than the sleek dragon longships. These trading ships could carry as much as 40 tons of cargo, and depended on its sail much more than on the strength of its oarsmen. But then again sea - worthiness, and cargo capacity, were much more important than the speed of these vessels, and the oarsmen were probably only used when entering bays. There were two main types of merchant cargo ships that were used. The Knarr was a large ship used mainly in Scandinavia, and around England, whereas the Byrding was used in the more confined waters of the east, especially in the rivers in and around Russia.
The Scandinavian people also had smaller boats called faering, that were used for personal transport, and for fishing. They were similar in overall design to the longships, but were much smaller and were used much as modern rowboats are used today. Being a "sea - people" our ancestors had an intimate knowledge and appreciation for the waters in and around Scandinavia, and built their ships with great skill to their individual needs. They were the greatest ship builders, sailors, and explorers of their day. They had so much respect and love for these vessels that warriors were buried in them, or burned in them, to help them "sail" to the great halls of Valhalla. And that is where we will be going in part 2.
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