How to Sail a Viking Ship

In addition to the challenge of reconstructing ships, we also have to learn how to sail them. Whilst the reconstructed ship gives many clues as to how it was sailed, first hand knowledge of square-rigged ships and their capabilities and sea trials are both necessary to understand how the ships were fitted out and how they were handled in different conditions.

The reconstructed Viking ship 'Sea Stallion' at Höganäs

(c) TBirkett. CC BY NC

The Sea Stallion from Glendalough

The Sea Stallion from Glendalough is the largest of the reconstructions built by the Viking Ship Museum, and it requires a crew of 65+ to sail. In 2007 it undertook an ambitious voyage across the North Sea and back to Dublin, where the original was built. The ship coped well with some very difficult sailing conditions, and returned via the English Channel in the following year. A guild of volunteers continue to sail the ship, and to refine its capabilities under sail and oar. You can view a video about the voyage to Dublin here.

Viking Age coin with ship in Nationalmuseet, Danmark

(c) Nationalmuseet. CC-BY-SA

Understanding the Sail

The sail is the most important means of propulsion for any Viking ship, and its shape must be controlled to make the most of the wind. This image on a Viking Age coin from Denmark illustrates a reefed sail being raised or lowered. Reefing (or tying up the sail) is necessary in strong winds to control the surface area exposed to the wind. Here you can see the Draken Harald Hårfagre with reefed sail during a storm in the North Sea.

Distributing the oars on board the Sea Stallion from Glendalough

(c) TBirkett. CC BY NC


Viking Ships could be rowed when the wind was not favourable, and when manouvering in and out of harbour or executing a turn. The Sea Stallion reconstruction has positions for 60 oars, but they are spaced very close to one another and in practice only allow for short strokes. In trials it was found that using every other oar is most effective, allowing for longer strokes, and for half the crew to rest between manning the oars. Speeds of around 5 knots can be reached over short distances, but 3 knots in sustained rowing. It is much more effective to use the power of the wind and the 118m sail! 

The video below was recorded in 2016, and demonstrates the importance of co-ordinated rowing and a well-trained crew. To see a demonstration of correct rowing technique, click here.

Interior of the reconstructed Viking ship 'Sea Stallion from Glendalough'

(c) TBirkett. CC BY NC

Division of Space

All Viking ships have slightly different arrangement of space, depending on their function. Cargo ships generally have more deck space and few rowing positions. A medium sized knarr could be operated by a small crew of between 6 and 15. At the other end of the scale is a warship such as Skuldelev 2, used to transport large numbers of men to battle. With over 60 rowing positions and a crew 65-100, space was at a premium and divided into rum: on this image, the space between two thwarts (or rowing benches) would have been shared by two people.

Movement around the ship also has to be restricted as the dispersal of the weight of the crew is important for the effective sailing of the ship. Modern trials have shown that it is most effective to divide the ship into areas of 15-20 people who work closely together to manage their area of the ship. For example, those in the foreship control the beitass and the front of the sail. For modern people, working in such close quarters can be a challenge: but for the Vikings it may have been second nature. 


Sleeping arrangements on the Sea Stallion reconstructed Viking Ship

(c) TBirkett. CC BY NC

Sleeping Arrangements

Some aspects of life on board have to be learned through experience. Whilst we have no sources telling us about watches on board a ship like the Sea Stallion, we know that on longer voyages it was necessary for part of the crew to sleep. The best way to stay reasonably warm and dry is to create a platform from the oars laid along the thwarts. It is impossible to know if the Vikings did this as well, but we can be sure that it is preferable to sleeping on the deck above the cold air from the bilge!

The Sea Stallion sails on a longer tour every summer, and it is an opportunity to learn about the ship's capabilities as the crew becomes more experienced, as well as to have the experience of sailing an incredible ship! For a vivid account of one of these journies, see here

(c) Jophiel Wiis. YouTube License

How to Sail a Viking Ship