What was so special about Viking ships? – Jan Bill

The Vikings came from the rugged,
inhospitable north known today as Scandinavia. As the Roman Empire
flourished further south, Scandinavians had small settlements,
no central government, and no coinage. Yet by the 11th century, the Vikings
had spread far from Scandinavia, gaining control of trade routes
throughout Europe, conquering kingdoms as far as Africa, and even building outposts
in North America. The secret to their success
was their ships. The formidable Viking longship had its origins
in the humble dugout canoe, or log boat. For millennia, the inhabitants of Scandinavia
had used these canoes for transportation. Dense forests and tall mountains
made overland travel difficult, but long coastlines
and numerous rivers, lakes, and fjords provided a viable alternative. The first canoes were simply hollowed out
logs rowed with paddles. Over time, they added planks
to the log boat base using the clinker,
or “lapstrake,” technique, meaning the planks overlapped and were fastened to each other
along their edges. As the Roman Empire expanded north, some Scandinavians
served in their new neighbors’ armies— and brought home
Roman maritime technology. The Mediterranean cultures
at the heart of the Roman Empire had large warships
that controlled the sea, and cargo ships that transported goods
along the waterways. These ships were powered by sail and oars and relied on a strong skeleton
of internal timbers fastened to the outer planks
with copper, iron, and wood nails. At first, Scandinavians
incorporated this new technology by replacing their loose paddles
with anchored oars. This change
hugely improved the crew’s efficiency, but also required stronger ships. So boat builders began to use iron nails
for fasteners rather than sewing. They abandoned
the log boat base for a keel plank, and the boats became higher
and more seaworthy. But these early ships retained the concept
of the original log boat: their strength
depended on the outer shell of wood, not internal frames and beams. They were built as shells—
thin-walled but strong, and much lighter than the Roman ships. Competing chieftains quickly refined
the new ships to be even more efficient. The lighter the boat,
the more versatile it would be and the less investment of resources
it would require— an essential advantage
in a decentralized culture without large supplies of people. These ships still had no sails—
sails were costly, and for now the rowed ships
could meet their needs. That changed
after the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century. Western Europe
took a heavy economic blow, leveling the playing field a bit
for the Scandinavians. As the region revived, new and vigorous trade routes
extended into and through Scandinavia. The wealth that flowed along these routes helped create a new, more prosperous
and powerful class of Scandinavians, whose members
competed constantly with each other over trade routes and territory. By the 8th century,
a sailing ship began to make sense: it could go further, faster,
in search of newly available plunder. With the addition of sails, the already light and speedy ships
became nearly unbeatable. The Viking ship was born. Viking longships could soon carry
as many as 100 Vikings to battle. Fleets of them
could land on open beaches, penetrate deep into river systems,
and be moved over land if need be. When not at war, the vessels were used to transport goods
and make trade journeys. There were smaller versions
for fishing and local excursions, and larger adaptations
for open sea voyages capable of carrying
tens of tons of cargo. Thanks to their inventiveness
in the face of difficult terrain and weak economies,
the Vikings sailed west, settled the North Atlantic
and explored the North American coast centuries before any other Europeans
would set foot there.

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