Features of a Viking Ship

Detail of the clinker-built construction of the Sea Stallion reconstructed Viking ship

The Hull of Havhingsten (c) TBirkett. CC BY NC

Clinker Construction

One of the defining features of Viking ships are their clinker-built construction, with overlapping side planks (or strakes) fixed together with iron clinker nails. This gives the ship hulls a distinctive 'stepped' appearance, and also allows for quite a bit of flexibility: rather than resisting the force of the waves like a modern boat with a completely rigid hull, Viking ships flex and bend with the waves.

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The overlapping planks were caulked with a mix of wool fabric and tar, but some leaking is inevitable, and bailing out the bilge is an important job! Photo is of a clinker nail from Dublin in the National Museum of Ireland.

Steering Oar on the Tune Ship

The Steering Oar on the Tune Ship. (c) RDale

Steering Oar

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Viking ships did not have a rudder at the back of the ship (a medieval innovation in Scandinavia), but instead had a large 'steering' oar attached to the starboard (or 'steering-side') of the ship. The steering oar is held to the side of the ship  by a fastening that passes through the side of the ship and is wrapped tightly around the frame of the ship (a wicker-band) - the hole for this fastening can be seen on this example of a steering oar from the Tune Ship in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, whilst the photo on the right of the Oseberg ship shows the oar with attachments, including the large rudder boss through which the fastening is passed. 

Detail of the Mast Seat on the Gokstad Ship

The Gokstad Ship. (c) RDale.

Sail and Mast

Whilst only fragments of Viking Age sails have survived, a large portion of the mast and keelson was preserved in the Gokstad ship burial, as well as the places where the rigging was attached to the hull. Using this information, along with knowledge of tradition square-sailed ships, and supporting evidence from depictions of ships from the period, we can get a good idea of the size and set-up of the sail, which could be well over 100 square meters on a larger Viking ship. The sail was made of densely woven wool or flax and treated with horse mane fat, and was a very valuable item.

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When the yard was raised and lowered a parrel such as the one pictured here (found in Dublin) helped to hold the yard to the mast. Raising and lowering a heavy sail on a larger Viking ship requires many hands. 

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The Reconstructed ship 'Havhingsten' with lowered sail. (c) TBirkett. CC BY NC

Pieces of Rope from the Oseberg Ship

Fragments of Rope from the Oseberg Ship (c) RDale.


Whilst pieces of cordage have survived in finds such as the Oseberg Ship, the rigging has to be reconstructed based on attachment points on the hull and from understanding square-sailed ships. The rigging set up probably varied between ships, and could be adjusted during the lifetime of the ship. Shrouds on either side of the mast help support it from the side, whilst the stays support it in a lengthwise direction. The braces help to turn the yard and the sheet controls the bottom edge of the sail. In all, thousands of meters of rope are required to rig a larger Viking ship. Rope was made from lime bast, and also from animal skin and horse-tail.

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Photograph of the beitass (stretching pole) and tack on the Sea Stallion

The beitass on Havhingsten. (c) TBirkett

The 'beitass' (stretching pole)

To help with sailing by (or against) the wind, some Viking ships made use of a beitass (a tacking or stretching pole). On a larger ship this was a heavy wooden pole which was slotted into the ship's hull on one side, and attached to the formost corner of the sail on the other, helping to stretch and accurately position the sail when sailing by the wind.  The beitass on a ship like the Sea Stallion reconstruction (pictured here) requires at least four crew members to maneuver and to fix the lower corner of the sail when turning (or tacking) with the ship. 

World TreeWhilst no beitass has survived, on the Gokstad ship the slots for a large stretching pole have been preserved, as can clearly be seen in this photo.

Under Oars

Ships from an earlier period of Scandianvian history relied solely on oars for propulsion, and all Viking ships could be rowed as well as sailed. On smaller boats, oar locks such as these from the faroes are common, whilst oar holes through which the oars could be deployed are the norm on larger ships such as Gokstad (pictured below). 

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These holes could be closed when not rowing in order to limit the volume of water coming through the sides of the ship. The largest Viking ship discovered (Roskilde 6) has up to 80 rowing positions.

Detail of the Stern Ornament on the Oseberg Ship

(c) RDale. CC BY NC


On high-status ships, the wood was often carved and decorated, as is the case with the Oseberg ship. Even floor timbers out of sight beneath the deck were sometimes ornamented! The stems may have been elaborately carved as on the Oseberg ship, or removable figureheads attached for the purposes of identification and possibly intimidation! We know from the Bayeux Tapestry that ships could be painted, and the sails dyed.

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Decorated oar-lock from Gokstad and the sail of the reconstructed Ship 'Havhingsten fra Glendalough' dyed with yellow and red ochre.