The Last Viking Part I: Viking Press and Viking Ships

 "In some years now, you can do the Northwest Passage almost in a rowboat"
  The Vancouver Sun, Jan 30, 2003.

Although a number of indicators combine to provide the framework for the Arctic and Pacific Northwest hypothesis presented here, no one single factor is individually compelling nor is the route taken by the Vikings immediately apparent. But perhaps that was how the Vikings intended it to be. Either way, it would seem that the waters and the ways were muddied from the start; perhaps by the Church and perhaps by the Vikings themselves in their own interests and in their own defense. Then again it seems necessary to acknowledge here that the Western World has undoubtedly been subjected to a millennium of largely anti-Viking sentiment though matters seem to have improved somewhat of late, as Magnusson (1976:23) has observed. Nevertheless the image of Vikings as plunderers and blunderers persists, overshadowing the understanding that they were first and foremost extraordinary seafarers with their own agendas and their own religious beliefs. Magnus Magnusson (1976:22-23) summarized the Vikings' bad press as follows:

Suddenly, it seemed, the northern seas were swarming with lean, low-hulled predators with snarling dragon figureheads, manned by men of reckless courage and invincible ferocity. Everywhere they went they plundered, burned and raped. Holy Church in particular was a target for their insensate violence, and ecclesiastical treasures looted from unsuspecting chapels and monasteries flowed back into Scandinavia in an unending stream:

' In a word, although there were an hundred hard steeled iron heads on one neck, and an hundred sharp, ready, never-rusting brazen tongues in every head, and an hundred garrulous, loud, unceasing voices from every tongue, they could not recount or narrate or enumerate or tell what all the people of Ireland suffered in common, both men and women, laymen and priests, old and young, noble and ignoble, of hardship and injury and oppression in every house from these ruthless, wrathful, foreign, purely pagan people.'

It was the shrill and outraged gibbering of priests, like the writer of this passage from The War of the Irish and the Foreigners, which gave the Vikings their reputation for being bloodthirsty savages. Clerics in holy orders were almost the only people who could write in those days, so not only did they give the Vikings an extremely bad press, they also exaggerated their Satanic nature in order to make moral propaganda: the Viking onslaught was to be seen as a divine retribution for sins, requiring repentance and, no doubt, additional offerings to the church.
Happily, this highly colour ed attitude to the Vikings is now changing. Modern scholarship is slowly but surely rehabilitating the Vikings. More stress is now laid on their importance in terms of European politics, commerce, thought, exploration, colonization and art. No one would claim that they were all saints, but it is now apparent that they were by no means quite the sinners they have been made out to be.(Markus Magnusson: VIKING: Hammer of the North, Orbis, London, 1976:22-23).

Even so the image of the "Plundering, Blundering Viking" remains. But although it may also have played a role in later misdirection concerning the northern voyages, secrecy (if not duplicity) in such matters arises naturally enough in any case. For example, the same need and awareness surfaced in China around the time of the Viking Sagas after it was discovered that outsiders were surreptitiously collecting regional data and maps, i.e.,
Throughout history, and especially in China, the possession of superior maps was the key to political and military success, analogous to having advanced strategic weapons today. Shen Kua, in his Dream Pool Essays of 1086, gives the following illuminating story:

' In the Hsi-Ning reign-period [1068 to 1077 AD] ambassadors came from Korea bringing tribute. In every hsien city or provincial capital which they passed through they asked for local maps, and these were made and given to them. Mountains and rivers, roads, escarpments and defiles, nothing was omitted. When they arrived at T'iehchow they asked for maps, as usual, but Ch'en Hsiu, who was then Prefect of Yangchow, played a trick on them. He said that he would like to see all the maps of the two Chekiang provinces with which they had been furnished, so that he could copy them for what was now wanted, but when he got hold of them, he burnt them all, and made a complete report on the affair to the emperor '.

(Robert Temple, The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention, Simon & Schuster, New York 1986:30)

Similar considerations must also have prevailed in the West, especially where voyages in search of new lands and riches were concerned. Here maps would obviously be of immense value, as indeed would be detailed instructions either in addition or in lieu. In our present context the need for secrecy, opposing religious beliefs, the oral traditions of the Vikings themselves and the fact that the Sagas were written down centuries later all contribute to the problem of determining exactly what took place and precisely where the Vikings may have gone.

At this juncture it is useful to consider some of the far-reaching hypotheses proposed in James Robert Enterline's VIKING AMERICA (DoubleDay, Garden City 1972), specifically the suggestion that earlier maps of the arctic regions may have existed before the time of the later explorers, Christopher Columbus included. Although this complex issue is largely beyond the scope of the present work (apart from its bearing on early northern transits) it is relevant to note here that Enterline felt it necessary to explain his approach to the subject as follows:

Since most scholars deny that the sagas of the discovery of America in Vinland could have influenced the European "Age of Discovery," some other medium of communication must be posited as the basis for my contention that explorations by Leif's successors definitely sparked Columbus. There are many other sources besides the sagas which shed light on the Norse activities beyond Greenland. There are archaeological findings, Eskimo folk tales, the Annals of Iceland and a host of isolated documents. Among the most exciting forms of documentary sources, when they become available, are old maps that have been overlooked. The extent to which this is true is proved by the enthusiasm with which the world greeted the discovery of the Yale Vinland Map in 1965. Unfortunately, as some scholars subsequently concluded, this particular map provided no new information on the Norse activities. It is my contention, however, that both the Yale Vinland Map and a very large number of other pre-Columbian maps of the Old World do show previously unrecognized parts of North America. Many of these maps have lain under the noses of historians for centuries, but have escaped notice because their information is in seemingly incomprehensible, distorted form.
Analysis of these distortions requires painstaking examinations, which I have carried out in a separate study. The distortions are all systematic, and once perceived they leave little room for doubt about what lands the maps depict. Indeed, the nature of the systematic distortion is often simply that the American lands have been misplaced into the Old World map of Eurasia. Suffice it to say, these maps thoroughly undermine the widespread assumption that all Norse exploration took place solely along the presently inhabited eastern seaboard of America. The maps, surprisingly, show lands of the arctic and sub-arctic regions of North America, of territory stretching, on the endpaper map, from Greenland to Alaska. They include detailed maps of Greenland's immediate western neighbor, Baffin Island, the Arctic Archipelago north of Canada and the Canadian arctic coast. While publication economics dictate that the many dozens of documentations of this claim be left for a separate study, the illustration of the concept on page 89 may meanwhile somewhat relieve the strain of accepting it on faith.
That the Norsemen could have possessed such an intimate knowledge of the Arctic Archipelago or even Baffin Island seems very surprising. Even more surprising seems the suggestion that they preserved the knowledge in cartographic form. The Norse sailors themselves have never been known to have made or used sailing charts or maps, and the earliest known native Icelandic map was not made until a century after Columbus in 1590. Scandinavia itself was not seriously mapped by its native geographers until 1532. Indeed, the native cartographical knowledge of Scandinavia was so inadequate that as late as 1070 the historian Adam of Bremen could not say definitely whether Scandinavia was an island or had a connection to the mainland. Modern scholars, for apparently good reasons, are so set against the idea that the medieval Norsemen could have made maps that it is necessary to give a full analysis of an alternate means of "explaining away" the maps referred to. The alternate explanation seems simple and straightforward, but, as I will ultimately show, deceptively so. Namely, from the time of the aforementioned Karlsefni's voyage to Vinland the Norsemen had contact with a people who are known to have been good geographers and map makers, the Thule Culture Eskimos of North America. (James Robert Enterline, VIKING AMERICA, DoubleDay, Garden City, 1972:73-75; emphases supplied)
VIKING AMERICA was published a little more than a decade after Helge Ingstad's discovery of the Viking settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, but prior to Peter Schlederman's discovery of Norse items on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic. Thus Enterline was obliged to invoke the eastern migration of the whale-hunting Thule peoples from Alaska, although not without reservations as seen below. Because of this conventional viewpoint, however, it then became necessary to posit a back-migration of the Thule peoples in concert with the latter's suggestion of Greenland Viking incursions into and across the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The difficult question of ancient maps aside, in the present context it now seems preferable to apply Occam's Razor to the matter, specifically, that while a few Alaskan Whale hunters may have moved east from time to time, it is far more probable that there never was a "Thule Culture" per se, or indeed a full-blown influx of Alaskan Inuit into the Eastern Arctic around the turn of the First Millennium. It is more reasonable and more logical to explain the so-called "Thule" culture as the natural progression of Thule-Vikings moving westwards into the Arctic regions, across the Arctic Archipelago and eventually further west again. Here a Viking presence would perhaps be difficult to differentiate. At times the Vikings might well have occupied or even co-existed on some of the choicer Dorset sites - a reasonable assumption given that most sites would have been favourably located with some form of ready-made (if rudimentary) habitation. Perhaps some sites were abandoned completely, while others eventually reverted back to their original Inuit users, further masking signs of a Viking presence. Then again, there is the important and obvious corollary: if Inuit hunters from Alaska are thought to have made it all the way to Greenland in their skin covered boats, what was there to stop the Vikings from proceeding at least as far in the opposite direction, i.e., journeying from Greenland to Alaska and beyond? What indeed, given their superb shallow-draught ships and available option of powering along under oars as well as sail. As for the maps thought applicable in this context Enterline also states:
Plainly and simply, it was only after this supposed extinction that the most detailed and most unmistakable maps of North American lands began to appear on European maps. Where could they have come from if the Greenlanders were no longer there to transmit them? Such maps' continued to appear throughout the fifteenth century and into the next. One of the most spectacular of these, Plate 15, drawn at Rome in 1427 by one Claudius Clavus, depicted the Bering Strait area of Alaska with Seward Peninsula in precise detail, as shown by the above comparison figure. This map poses the most pressing question: How did such a map make its way from the Bering Strait to Rome in 1427? Not only was the European link with the Eskimos via the Greenland Norsemen presumed by then to have been extinct, but there also remains the question of how the map was passed from Alaska to Greenland. It seems unlikely that the Greenland Eskimos could have drawn this particular map because their ancestors would have had no reason to transmit such extremely precise material in their minds over six thousand miles along their route of migration. The Eskimos in Greenland were separated from the Eskimos in Alaska by many generations as well as many miles.
I propose that the obvious answer to this question is that the Norsemen in the Western Hemisphere had not disappeared at all. Assuredly, their centralized settlements in Greenland had deteriorated, but there has never been any answer provided as to what happened to the people. Contrary to theories that were in vogue in the early twentieth century but are now discredited, the Norse population of Greenland as a group was not declining and dying out. Rather, it was maintaining itself and perhaps increasing. I submit that the people gradually moved out of the settlements and became hunters. With the known decline in contact with Europe, the implements from European industry which were required to maintain a husbandry culture became scarce and the need to supplement farming by hunting increased. An even more important climatic factor in the shift away from farming, the "Little Ice Age," is discussed in Chapter 8. A direct result of even the slightest shift away from a husbandry culture would have been the further breaking of ties with the Norsemen by Europe, thereby increasing even more the Norse dependence on hunting. This is an unending circle. But probably the strongest influence on this process of isolating the Norse, from the European point of view, was the rumor that the Greenlanders, because of their contacts with the Eskimo culture, were turning away from Christianity.
A most important direct result of the shift towards hunting would have been a strong need for dispersal of the population. This has nothing to do with overpopulation or any instinctive drive for emigration. It is simply the nature of hunting that any culture which depends upon hunting must necessarily be dispersed. Wild animals soon enough learn to avoid any permanent settlement. Thus, anybody who looks for the last American Norsemen in the Greenland ruins is bound to be disappointed.
Indeed, it is worthwhile to recall that from shortly after the re-established contact with the Eskimos in 1266, there exists a definite chronological-geographical sequence of maps extending backwards along the route of the Thule migration. Instead of attributing these maps to Eskimos, might it not also be reasonable-indeed perhaps more reasonable-to view them as a history of Norse forward dispersal into lands the Thules told them about? With their ships, the Norsemen could in one or two summers make the voyage between Alaska and Greenland which had taken the Eskimo people centuries to accomplish. (It is not really necessary to have steel-bowed supertankers with gigantic engines to sail through the Northwest Passage so long as one does have patience, understanding of ice conditions and skill in ship handling. Whalers sailed their wooden ships through the Arctic's ice for several centuries before Amundsen negotiated the Passage-in a ship smaller than many Norse ships.
The 1427 map of Clavus would be the natural end result of a westward dispersal. Surely the Greenland Norsemen must have learned the technical concepts of map making from the Thule Eskimos shortly after their first contacts in the thirteenth century. And, they also had access to writing materials from that time, when the sagas were first written down, onward. This hypothesis of a westward Norse dispersal is examined in Chapter 8 in much greater detail for, even though it may have been made to seem plausible, it has admittedly not been proven by any of the foregoing.
The first problem that demands attention, concerns how it was that these maps could have reached Europe after the European trade with Greenland ceased. It is of course possible to speculate that if the Norsemen remaining in America were capable of sailing between Alaska and Greenland, they could also sail back across the Atlantic. However, one would have to ask why they should be motivated to do so since their culture had by now presumably broken with Europe, and vice versa. (James Robert Enterline, VIKING AMERICA, DoubleDay, Garden City, 1972:89-92; emphases supplied).
Thus Enterline's premise calls for the gradual immersion of the Greenland Vikings among the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic regions but still essentially passing through the Northwest Passage in doing so, whereas the present hypothesis differs in that it carries most of the Greenland Vikings through the Northwest Passage and on into the Pacific. But as for the originators of the related maps, if the so-called "Thule People" are eliminated from the equation, then who else but the Vikings themselves? Here of course there are immediate problems, for the Norse are not usually credited with such methodology or precision per se, yet they must certainly have possessed the means and ways to navigate, whether by verbal traditions or otherwise. But then again, it was once thought that the Vikings had neither the skills nor the ships to even get to North America, though we now know from recovered Viking ships and the Viking settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows that this dismissive supposition was entirely incorrect.
This having been said, it is nevertheless not the intention to dwell much further on the subject and additional complications that arise from what Enterline has termed the "Grand" and Small" Misunderstandings that accompany the matter. Apart, that is, from noting the immediate attempt to minimalize the L'Anse Aux Meadows discovery with the introduction of the so-called "Vinland Map"-- a map that conveniently reinforced the placement of "Vinland" in the same location (Newfoundland) and thus brought about a swift and largely effective closure on the subject. Which may or may not have some bearing on why Enterline's VIKING AMERICA also seems to have suffered a form of closure itself since its publication, perhaps because it pointed in unwanted directions. Firstly towards the North and another location for Vinland (Enterline's initial hypothesis), and secondly towards the West, while also encompassing further unpopular issues such as possible prior knowledge by Columbus, and as the title implied, the suggestion of a Viking component to the cultural mosaic of North America.
But either way, difficulties in attempting to unravel the historical situation in the northern regions merely continue here, for they can be said to have commenced with much earlier accounts, such as those credited to Pytheas (ca. 350 BCE). In fact David Mountfield introduced this problem in his HISTORY OF POLAR EXPLORATION (1974) by observing that:

All books about polar exploration begin with Pytheas of Massalia, and this one is no exception. As he was the first man to travel in far northern Europe and to report what he had seen, Pytheas cannot be ignored. But he is a problem. In brief, Pytheas is said to have sailed along the north-west coast of Europe; round Britain; and to the semi-legendary land of Thule, land of the midnight sun, the farthest north of inhabited lands. Unfortunately, nearly everything that is said about Pytheas depends on scholarly guesswork. He wrote a book, perhaps two books, about his travels, but they are lost. His account comes second-hand, through the quotations (how accurate no one can say) of later classical writers many of whom were antagonistic to him. Polybius, a well-travelled man himself who was possibly motivated to belittle the achievements of earlier rivals, poured scorn on many of Pytheas' statements. The learned geographer Strabo, a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, took his cue from Polybius and exerted great effort to show that Pytheas was a liar. In modern times the reputation of Pytheas has been restored, or rather it has risen higher than it ever was, for Pytheas was doubted even by his contemporaries. In fact the pendulum has probably swung too far: some recent accounts are inclined to stretch the evidence to make more of Pytheas' famous voyage. (David Mountfield, A HISTORY OF POLAR EXPLORATION, Dial Press, New York 1974)
Thus at this early date religious components already intrude and similar contemporary antagonisms also appear to be associated in the later Viking Sagas. Here religious aspects, political elements and the oral tradition of the Vikings combine to produce a situation well summarized by Helge Ingstad:
In addition, there are the sagas. Their accounts of Vinland were put down for the specific purpose of giving information about the voyages to the new lands in the west. There are two sagas that concern us here, namely, the Greenlanders' Saga and Eirik the Red's Saga. They are both based on older manuscripts whose age it is impossible to determine with any degree of certainty. The Greenlanders' Saga has been preserved as three interpolations inserted in the ' Large' Saga of Olaf Tryggvason and included in the famous codex Flateyjarbok, the greater part of which was written down by the Icelandic priest Jon Thordarson at the end of the fourteenth century.
Eirik the Red's Saga has been preserved in two different manuscript versions. One of these is part of a large codex entitled Hauksbok, which Hauk Erlendsson put down on parchment some time before 1334. He was born about 1265 and settled in Bergen, where he became a lawman, knight, and member of the Norwegian Council of the Realm. He was descended from Thorfinn Karlsefni and seems to have been quite proud of that fact. This circumstance ought perhaps to be kept in mind when one attempts to evaluate this saga. The other manuscript is called SkdlhoItsbok and was written down during the second half of the fifteenth century. It contains the same accounts as Hauksbok, but there are divergences in several places in the way they are set down and also in regard to facts. The Swedish scholar Sven B. F. Jansson has shown conclusively that the differences have arisen because Hauk Erlendsson made a number of improvements in his own copy. Skdlholtsbok must therefore be regarded as the more trustworthy of the two sources.
The two sagas are different in several respects. The Greenlanders' Saga seems particularly concerned with the family of Eirik the Red and whatever might be of interest to the people of Greenland; it seems probable that this saga is based in the main on material originating in Greenland, as G. M. Gathorne-Hardy has pointed out. It tells about several independent voyages to the new land in the west. First we hear about Bjarni, whose ship was driven westward by storms, and the sighting of new and strange shores. Then the saga deals with the voyage of Leif Eiriksson- a carefully planned expedition, the objective of which was to reach the land that Bjarni had already seen. Subsequently, Leif's brothers, Thorvald and Thorstein, as well as his sister Freydis, set out on expeditions of their own. Thorvald and Freydis actually reached Vinland and lived for some time in the houses that Leif had put up. This saga also contains an account of the expedition led by Thorfinn Karlsefni.
Eirik the Red's Saga is focused more on Thorfinn Karlsefni and dwells to a greater extent on whatever might be of interest to the Icelanders of that time. The discovery made by Leif Eiriksson is noted in only a few lines; the saga writer makes the discovery of Vinland a part of the story of the voyage Leif made from Olaf Tryggvason's court in Trondheim to Greenland, when he was given the task of introducing Christianity in his homeland. The sober account of Bjarni's voyage is not included. The account of Thorstein's unsuccessful voyage has been included in this saga, but in a somewhat different version. The independent Vinland voyages of Thorvald and Freydis are not mentioned; on the contrary, both appear as participants of the Karlsefni expedition.
The discrepancies between the two sagas may, to some extent, have derived from a rivalry between two great families as to which had the honour of having fostered the discoverer of Vinland. Such a situation is not unknown in connection with important discoveries and explorations in the past. It seems that Karlsefni's family in Iceland enjoyed a great advantage, for in the course of time there was to belong to it a number of influential men, including Icelandic bishops; moreover, Iceland was the land where the sagas were written down. The. family of the Greenlander Leif Eiriksson, on the other hand, disappears from history with the death of his son. It may be that, in the course of centuries, the Icelanders' centred their accounts of the Vinland Voyages on their great hero and countryman Thorfinn Karlsefni, and as time passed the distant Greenlanders and their achievements were felt to be of less interest. In an oral tradition, influenced by family and national feelings, the accounts of the Greenland voyages could have become incorporated into the saga of Thorfinn Karlsefni, with Leif Eiriksson's accomplishments relegated to a subsidiary place in the narrative. This does not necessarily mean that a conscious effort was made to falsify or alter the facts. It is very hard to prove that this kind of modification of the saga text may have taken place in the course of time, but one is tempted to ask: When Hauk Erlendsson, who very strongly emphasized his relationship with Thorfinn Karlsefni, took the liberty of improving on the saga as late as the fourteenth century, what may not his powerful family in Iceland have done in this respect during previous centuries?
There has been a great deal of discussion as to whether Eirik the Red's Saga or the Greenlanders' Saga is the more reliable. Recent research has arrived at the conclusion that each one offers valuable information, all of which must be properly evaluated and taken into consideration. Their significance does not lie in their differences and in a number of obscure passages but in the remarkable fact that in important respects they provide us with reliable information about events that occurred a thousand years ago.
To sum up, we have no hesitation in saying that the various scattered sources in conjunction with the sagas constitute historical evidence removing any doubt that the Vinland voyages actually took place- that Norsemen sailed to North America about five hundred years before Columbus. But it is one thing to know that this is a fact, it is quite another to determine which areas of the New World they visited and where they built their houses. Where then is the Vinland of the sagas to be found?
It is true that the sagas contain valuable information touching on sailing and navigation, geography, astronomy, ethnography, zoology, and botany, but to give everything a correct interpretation is nevertheless quite difficult. And not least because we must attempt to understand the mentality of the Vinland voyagers and their descendants; we are here concerned with popular traditions and not with scholarly dissertations. The traditions were based on accounts and reports made by young seamen and were retold through the centuries from generation to generation, in houses made of turf and stone, to people sitting on an earthen floor by an open fire.(Helge Instad, WESTWARD TO VINLAND, 1969:32-35, emphases supplied).
Thus it is neither a simple nor a straightforward matter to reconstruct the Viking voyages described - third-hand at best - in the various versions of Sagas. Not that anyone has ever claimed that it was. Indeed some researchers seem to have been meticulous almost to the point of negation. One can in fact only proceed so far, and no doubt the discrepancies and ambiguities in the Sagas leave gaps, especially when applied to the east coast of North America. It remains to be shown, however, that the areas listed above by Helge Instad - "sailing and navigation, geography, astronomy, ethnography, zoology, and botany" - are individually and collectively quite applicable to specific regions in the Alaskan and Canadian Pacific Northwest.

Even limiting the present discussion to the Norse and the interval 800 - 950 CE (the period leading up to the Sagas) there is a substantial amount of data gleaned from Viking burials that testify to the quality and capabilities of the ships themselves. Perhaps the two best known examples are the Norwegian burial ships from Oseberg and Gokstad constructed around 800 CE and 850 CE respectively. Discovered in 1903, the former was almost 70 feet in length while the latter (discovered in 1880) was 76 feet long with a 17 foot beam. Nevertheless, based on a crew of 70 and additional quantified data it was found to have a surprisingly shallow draught (a mere 36 inches). These two Viking ships have been recognized by some as the most beautiful ships ever built, yet they were also functional, as a working replica of the Gokstad Ship amply demonstrated when put to the severest of tests:
In 1893, a few years after the Gokstad ship was discovered, an exact replica was built. It was properly named Viking, and a Norwegian sea captain, Magnus Andersen, sailed her across the Atlantic. ' Viking did her finest lap from the 15th to the 16th of May, when she covered a distance of 223 nautical miles. It was good sailing. In the semi-darkness the light from the northern horizon cast a fantastic pale sheen on the ocean as Viking, light as a gull, glided over the wave-tops. We noted with admiration the ship's graceful movements, and with pride we noted her speed, sometimes as much as eleven knots .... We were afforded a first class opportunity of testing Viking's performance when sailing close to the wind. To our great surprise she proved to be in the same class as most modern two-masters '.
Because of the flexibility afforded by the methods used for lashing the planks to the ribs, the bottom as well as the keel could yield to the movement of the ship, and in a heavy head-sea it would rise and fall as much as three-quarters of an inch. Yet, strangely enough, the ship still remained water-tight. The ship's great elasticity was apparent in other ways too. For instance in a high sea the gunwale twisted out of true as much as six inches. '...The rudder is indeed a work of genius. In my experience the side rudder is much to be preferred in such a ship to a rudder on the stern-post; it worked satisfactorily in every way and had the advantage of never kicking, as a stern-post rudder would certainly have done. One man could steer in any weather with merely a small line to help.' Magnus Andersen also relates how well Viking fared in the worst sea she encountered, partly under sail and partly using the drift anchor: '... A real SSW gale was now blowing. Nonetheless, we found that if the ship could carry sail [in these conditions] she would, of her own accord, progress slightly westwards despite the wind direction, and why should we not make use of it when we could? So we hauled in the drift anchor, hoisted the mainsail but reefed as much as possible. Soon Viking was gathering speed, although she could not come closer than six degrees to the wind -- but on the other hand she was not carried off course more than four degrees.' The triumphant Viking was taken to Chicago for exhibition at the Chicago World's fair held in the same year as the crossing.(Bertil Almgren et al, THE VIKING, AB Nordbok, Gothenburg 1975:254).
But sailing is only one aspect of this replica's capabilities; what is perhaps less well known is that it also performed well under oars alone. Nevertheless, in view of the demonstrated sailing capability of the Gokstad replica it might still be assumed that this was by far the predominant mode, and perhaps it was where the routes and the distances were well known and well-travelled. On the other hand, there are still the pioneering and pathfinding phases that necessarily take place before this, along with the capability to explore river systems as the case may be. Then there are situations (such as those encountered along the more constricted parts of the Northwest Passage, for example) that more often than not would require the flexibility offered by being able to proceed under oars as opposed to the obvious restrictions imposed by sails alone, reduction in speed notwithstanding. Here we may return to the Viking Sagas, at least in terms of deduced procedures and practices, i.e.,
The equipment and gear found in the Oseberg and the Gokstad ships provide a fairly detailed picture of life on board a Viking vessel. According to the sagas the Vikings liked to moor their ships close to land at night, and pitch a tent on shore. The remains of one such tent were found in the Gokstad ship and two in the Oseberg ship. They consist of a light framework of timber over which a covering was spread... On the verge-boards of the Oseberg tents, magical symbols like the coiled serpent were painted... In each of the two ships a large, splendid bed with carved posts was found, along with several simpler beds. All the beds could be dismantled and stowed on board. They may therefore have been field beds which could be set up for the use of the Viking leaders when they went ashore for the night... In both the Oseberg and Gokstad ships large cauldrons, perhaps for cooking on shore, were found. At Oseberg, in addition to cauldrons, a real piece of camping equipment turned up, a collapsible iron tripod for hanging the pots over a fire. The Gokstad cauldron is bronze and holds thirty-two gallons. Even assuming a ship carried as many as fifty men, a cauldron that large could supply ample portions of porridge or soup for everyone. On longer voyages large supplies of water were obviously necessary. It was probably carried in skin bags like those still used for wine in Mediterranean countries. Long, narrow boards with steps hewn out of them have been found on many burial ships, and these obviously served as gangplanks. (Bertil Almgren et al, THE VIKING, AB Nordbok, Gothenburg 1975:262).
One might ask here whether the application of relatively advanced sailing techniques across open seas and point-to-point travel along coastlines (with or without sail) represent opposing philosophies or the best of both worlds. But there may not be a simple answer to this question because of the many variables involved - ranging from fundamental requirements associated with ocean navigation to physical restrictions imposed by the limited amount of space available on relatively small ships. The longer the voyage in open seas, the greater the amount of food and drinking water required. Moreover, if space was already limited outbound, then it would be at an even greater premium on the return leg if added cargo is taken into consideration. But even here it is getting ahead of things, for assuming such a ship sailed directly across the Atlantic, what then? Proceed along the coast and explore inland via the rivers? This would be no different than the coastal method at this stage, except that there would be far fewer points of reference and no established return route. Moreover, would the crew know precisely where they were, would they be able return to their original point of departure, and even if they did, could the first trip be repeated with any degree of certainty? Probably not.
Which brings us back to the coastal component once again. Here one need not begin with lengthy journeys at all; instead it would be reasonable to proceed by safe and simple stages - simple since few of the problems that arise during direct ocean passages apply when rowing (or sailing) along coastlines. Nor would there be any need to carry a large amount of food and water either, since both could be replenished basically as needed. Then there are dire situations that might occur in mid-ocean, i.e., severe weather, catastrophic leaks, irreparable damage and/or food shortages that more often than not could be quickly remedied by pulling ashore if the ship is proceeding along the coast in the first place. Here it would be a comparatively simple matter to wait out storms, fix defects, replenish food stocks, light a fire, dry out and simply rest up. The only negative would be the time factor, which might not be that critical in all cases. Thus there are no doubt advantages to proceeding along coastlines in this manner, especially if successive voyages include exploration of the various rivers encountered along the way. For short forays at least, smaller boats would likely be more suitable, and again remaining with the Gokstad Ship as the primary source, these too were available at the start of the period under consideration, i.e., it was found that:
Amongst the Gokstad discoveries were three small boats, thirty-two feet, twenty-six feet, and twenty-two feet long with five, three and two pairs of oars respectively. Their shape is similar to that of the large ship, with the same elegant construction and workmanship. The smallest (left), which was most suitable as a ship's boat, is built of oak with planking up to three-fifths of an inch thick. The boat is rather narrow, but fast and easy to handle. (Bertil Almgren et al, THE VIKING, AB Nordbok, Gothenburg 1975:269).
Returning to the central issue, it seems safe to suggest that one can only cut corners or proceed on a direct course after a route has been fully determined and short-cuts are found that are both feasible and practical, e.g., perhaps across the top of Hudson Bay, between Baffin Island and Greenland, or between the latter and Newfoundland, etc. Even then the routes would still require additional exploratory voyages before they could be attempted with confidence on a regular basis. Yet there is undoubtedly a lengthy interval during which the maritime traditions and related skills of the Vikings became well-honed. As James Graham-Campbell (1980:63) put it:
Many of their achievements... would have been impossible without the Vikings' mastery of shipbuilding, seamanship and navigation. For a period of 300 years or so, they were the most accomplished seamen of the northern seas. Their ships operated from the Arctic to the Caspian Sea and across the Atlantic to the New World: some were on raiding missions but many were trading ships or on voyages of exploration and settlement. (THE VIKING WORLD, James Graham-Campbell, Francis Lincoln, London, 1980:63)
The latter also provides a useful summary of the maritime capabilities of the Vikings that is worth giving here in full for its detail and its implications:
We get some idea of the performance of these ships at sea from the fact that the Vikings could maintain fairly regular contact with Iceland and Greenland, and undertake countless voyages in the Arctic, the Baltic, the North Sea, the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean, though prudently limiting their sailing season to between April and early October. For further information we must turn to recent experimental work with replicas of Viking ships and boats. Viking's voyage also demonstrated the reliability of the thin planking. Thin planking results in light draft and thus Viking vessels could be taken far inland up shallow rivers; some could even be manhandled overland between rivers or across a peninsula.
In 1893, Viking, a Norwegian replica of the Gökstadt ship, under the command of Captain Magnus Andersen, sailed from Bergen to Newfoundland in twenty-eight days. This voyage demonstrated the seaworthiness and the sea keeping qualities of this form of hull. Andersen noted the flexibility of her distinctive method of construction, yet the vessel successfully endured several stormy days and proved reasonably watertight. Viking ships were designed to be supple and to 'ride the punch' of the sea, rather than be rigid and battle against it. In this they were probably more successful than any rigid structure could have been, for, with the materials and technology of those days, a rigid structure would inevitably have had to be more massive. Leakage at the seams and through fastenings must always have been a problem, however, and bailing out a constant task.
Magnus Andersen was also favourably impressed by the side rudder, which, because it was balanced, he found easy to use even in heavy seas. Viking Age side rudders projected well below the keel but in shallow water they could be raised quickly by unlashing the upper fastening and pivoting the rudder about the external boss.
Theory indicates that long, light-displacement craft should have high speed potential, and this was in fact demonstrated during trials of the Greenwich faering of longship proportions; the faering achieved an unexpectedly high speed of 7 knots under oars, probably because she rode up out of the water and skimmed along in a semi-planing posture, almost like a power boat. Experiment and theory thus show that in favourable conditions the Viking longship could have achieved high speed under oar or sail, provided that she had a competent crew.
Under sail
The simple standing rigging evidently used in Viking ships gave freedom to trim the yard into the optimum position, especially if the shrouds were readily adjustable. The relatively short mast would mean better stability and less need for support, while the long yard made a large sail area possible. Calculations indicate that the Gökstadt ship did in fact have good sailing potential. Precisely how fast and how close to the wind a Viking ship could sail is at present difficult to quantify, for these qualities also depend on the material and the cut of the sail, the match of the sail and rigging to the hull, and the abilities of the crew. The deep keels and the characteristic steepness of the lower strakes imply that Viking hulls had relatively good windward capability and the use of the tacking boom to hold the leading edge of the sail taut shows that Viking seamen were striving to get as close to the wind as they possibly could. Recent experiments in Denmark have shown that Viking ships can be sailed to within c. 60 degrees of the wind, making 1.5 to 2 knots to windward.

Pilotage and navigation
With generations of experience and constant practice Viking seamen became familiar with landmarks that indicated their whereabout in coastal waters, even when operating a extreme visual range, as would be prudent with an onshore wind when they might easily be wrecked. Crossing a channel such as the English Channel or the North Channel would also be relatively simple; wider stretches of water could be similarly navigated in conditions of refraction, when bending of the light rays means that peaks and headlands can be visible at sea level up to 60 miles away. Voyaging out of sight of land was different matter, for the Vikings had no compass and no accurate timepiece. Nevertheless, in the later Viking period they repeatedly achieved long, two-way ocean voyages to Iceland and Greenland during which they were out of sight of land for several consecutive days. They were proven ocean navigators, but we can only make a reasoned guess at the precise method they used: possibly these were similar to those contemporary Arabs, for which there documentary evidence. If the course known and the distance sailed estimated, a form of dead reckoning could have been used. On a clear night a course may be relative to the Pole Star, and we know that the significance of this was appreciated by early medieval seamen. The angle to a steady swell from a known directions can also be used, as can the relative direction of a prevailing wind: warm wet winds are from the south-west, cold wet winds from the north-east; thus the feel of the wind can be roughly equated with direction. Checks on these estimates could be made at certain times of day, providing the sun was visible. At noon, with the sun at its highest, or in northern latitudes at midnight, with the sun at its lowest, the direction of north and south can be established; sunrise and sunset, except latitudes, give the approximate directions of east and west.
Over generations a body of knowledge would have been built up on the time usually taken to sail between two places. There are accounts of traditional routes and their associated number of sailing days in the sagas and we may deduce that there were similar oral accounts in the earlier, Viking times. Such records would have to be based on a standard speed, possibly allowing for currents. Deviations from this theoretical speed could be estimated on a particular voyage from a knowledge of the past performance of one's own ship, and the existing weather and sea conditions. Alternatively, speed could be estimated from the position of the bow wave, or by counting the number of standard oarstrokes used to propel the ship past a floating object thrown overboard from the bow, or by a sandglass. Use of a simple traverse board (similar to the gaming boards found in Viking contexts) would enable these estimated courses and speeds to be 'plotted' to give the ship's approximate position, although there is no direct evidence of such use. For a more accurate position estimates would have to be made of the leeway experienced (the amount the ship had been blown sideways) and the effects of any currents. The length of daylight and the angular altitude of Polaris and of the noon sun change as one moves north or south of a known place. If such variations could be detected on board ship it would be established that the ship was north or south of a known 'latitude'. It may have been possible to estimate altitudes against the ship's rigging, although with questionable accuracy. Another method could be to compare the apparent height of sun or star above the horizon with the outstretched hand (a finger's breadth is c. 2 degrees; wrist span, c. 8 degrees; clenched fist, c.10 degrees; extended fingers, c.19 degrees), or against a calibrated stick. The ship's movement would cause inaccuracies, but the mean of several readings could be used to reduce error. The ability to appreciate significant deviations from the known 'latitude' of the home port, or of destination, could lead to a form of latitude sailing, striving to maintain a constant 'latitude' as indicated by the altitude of the Pole Star or the sun, and there are indications in the sagas that the Vikings may have used this method. Navigation based on celestial observation requires relatively clear skies; a succession of overcast days would almost inevitably lead to loss of bearings, unless, as some authorities believe, Viking seamen had discovered the sun-seeking property of double refracting cordierite or Icelandic feldspar crystals. Whatever methods were employed, it seems clear that the Vikings had developed ocean navigation to a fine art, possibly with the aid of skills that we no longer realize we possess. Approaching land, navigational problems would be eased, although risk of shipwreck increased. Cloud sitting over an island is visible before land is sighted, and ice may be detected many miles away in good weather by its reflection in the sky. Nearer land the line of flight of seabirds, the boom of the surf, the shallowing of the water revealed by lead and line, even the smell of sheep indicate its proximity. Landmarks and beacons were built as aids for navigators in certain places. Using these aids the master or pilot would identify his landfall and decide which way to turn along the coast in order to make the intended destination. (THE VIKING WORLD, James Graham-Campbell, Francis Lincoln, London, 1980:59-62)
The age of sail has come and gone, but naturally enough, it is still images of sail and small sailing ships such as those used by Columbus, Magellan, Frobisher, Hudson, Davis and contemporaries that remain with us when we dwell on early voyages of discovery. In the case of the Vikings and their ships, however, the additional element provided by competent oarsmen has perhaps been under-appreciated as well as understated. Here again, it may be that the "Blunderer-Plunderer" image of the Vikings overwhelms, but for ocean voyages and subsequent exploration, a small seaworthy vessel with both sail and auxiliary power - albeit manpower - undoubtedly has its place. Then again, there are obvious advantages to coastal hugging which in the more restricted eastern parts of the Northwest Passage almost become a necessity in any case. Moreover, although we naturally tend to limit our horizons to ocean spaces when we think of voyages of discovery, how does one proceed after reaching new shores, and how does one go about exploring inland? Because Captain James Cook knew his business he selected a shallow draft collier as his working vessel - a ship that handled ocean crossings as well as coastal mapping and limited forays ashore. But in addition to an almost total reliance on sail his ship was still far too large and cumbersome to tackle rivers per se. This is where small (and not so small) shallow-draft boats such as those used by the Vikings with their well-practiced oarsmen would clearly come into their own, as indeed the later use of "York" boats by the Hudson Bay Company in Upper Canada attested.
What exact vessels may have been used on an arctic venture of such magnitude is hard to say, but it is now realized that the Vikings employed a variety of designs that ran the gamut from small skiff-like craft (or ship's boats) out to much larger ocean-going ships (for further details on Viking ships, see the February 1998 Scientific American article: The Viking Longship by John R. Hale; The Viking Ship by D.L. Ashlimin, the material available via P. Sjolander's Viking Navy pages, The Helge Ask, the Sigrid Storråda, and the large database of ancient ships by NAVIS. As these sources amply show, Viking ships are surely impressive enough in their own right, and there can be little argument concerning their capabilities or those of their crews - simply getting from Europe to Greenland is proof enough. Not that any extensive voyaging was necessarily required in any case, as a number of researchers have already pointed out. More importantly, however, it also follows that since the Vikings managed to remain on the west coast of Greenland, they could also have reached and survived on the game-rich coasts of western Baffin Island and quite likely places farther west. And as for the Northwest Passage itself, that is not perhaps as daunting as it may seem with the right ships and the adoption of Inuit survival techniques along the way. Then again there is also the question of which Viking ships were most suited to this particular task and/or exploration in general.
Although the data and practical experiences gained from the Norwegian Gokstad and the Oseberg ships helped dispel negative attitudes towards Viking Ships and Viking seamanship, both vessels nevertheless predate the Sagas by well over a century. A little closer to the period of interest is the tenth century Longship discovered in Denmark in 1935 (the Ladby Burial Ship). During the latter half of the twentieth century more Danish Viking ships were discovered at Skuldelev fjord and near the end of the millennium (in 1997) the remains of nine more were found at nearby Roskilde, coincidentally the home of the Viking Ship Museum. Cargo ships of varying sizes (e.g., the 16.5-metre Skuldelev 1) and Viking Longships (e.g., the 17.5-metre Skuldelev 5 and 30-metre Skuldelev 2) were found among both groups, but perhaps one of the most surprising aspects was the determination that the latter was built in Dublin (Ireland) during the eleventh century. Among the more recently discovered Roskilde group were the remains of the largest Viking Longship found to date, Roskilde 6, which was fully 36-metres in length (118.2ft) with positions for up to 80 oarsmen (40 per side) and a crew likely in excess of 100. Although none of the wrecks were complete they nevertheless provided much useful data, some of which is provided below in Table 1. Comparative plan views of the Gokstad ship, Viking Longships and a Viking Trader are shown in Figure 1:

Table 1: Partial Data from recovered Viking Ships
VIKING BURIAL SHIPS from Oseberg, Gokstad (Norway) and Ladby (Denmark)
 Oseberg  Burial Ship  21.6m (70.9ft)  5.0m (16.4ft) 60-70 / 30 -- ca. 800
 Gokstad  Burial Ship  23.3m (76.5ft)  5.2m (17ft) 70-80 / 32 36 inches ca. 850
 Ladby  Burial Ship  21.5m (70.6ft)  3.0m (9.85ft) ??? / 30 -- 900-950
 SKULDELEV VIKING SHIPS from Skuldelev Fjord, Denmark
 Skuldelev 1  Trader  16.5m (54.2ft)  4.5m (14.8ft) 5-8 / 2 24-51 inches 11th Cent.
 Skuldelev 2  Longship  30m (98.5ft)  4.5m (14.8ft) 60-100/ 56-60  39.4 inches ca. 1060 
 Skuldelev 3  Trader  13.5m (44.3ft)  3.4m (11.2ft) 5-6 / 7 33.5 inches 11th Cent.
 Skuldelev 5  Longship  17.5m (57.5ft)  2.5m (8.2ft) 30+ / 26 20 inches ca. 1040
 Skuldelev 6  Trader  12m (39.4ft) -- -- -- 11th Cent.
 ROSKILDE VIKING SHIPS from Roskilde, Denmark
 Roskilde 1  Trader  10 m (32.8ft) -- -- -- ca.1336
 Roskilde 2  Trader  16.5m (54.2ft) -- -- -- ca.1200
 Roskilde 3  Trader  18m (59.1ft) -- -- -- ca.1060
 Roskilde 4  Trader  20.5m (67.3ft) -- -- -- ca.1108
 Roskilde 5   ???  14m (45.97ft) -- -- -- ca.1130
 Roskilde 6  Longship  36m (118.2ft) 5.4m (17.7ft) 100+ / 70-80 -- ca.1025
 Roskilde 7  Trader  11m (36.1ft) -- -- -- ca.1271
 Roskilde 8  Trader  11m (36.1ft) -- -- -- ca.1248
 Roskilde 9 Trader 11m (36.1ft) --

Skuldelev Ship Data from The Viking Ship Museum; Roskilde Ship Data from Ove Långe's Ship Index
For a great deal more on the above ships and the subject in general see
Viking Ships and Norse Wooden Boats

The Gokstad ship, Skuldelev/Roskilde Longships and Coastal Trader

Fig. 1. Plan Views: The Gokstad ship, Skuldelev/Roskilde Longships & a Coastal Trader

A number of dates assigned to the above ships are of particular interest in so much as they occur within a few decades of the times associated with the Sagas on one hand and that assigned to the Viking settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland on the other (i.e., ca.1000 CE). Ships in this category include both Skuldelev Longships -- Skuldelev 5 (ca.1040 CE) and Skuldelev 2 (ca.1060), the Roskilde 3 Trader (same date), and perhaps surprisingly, the largest Longship found to date, the 36-metre Roskilde 6 (ca.1025).
It has already been mentioned that even before the end of the nineteenth century a replica of the Gokstad burial ship was found to have excellent sea-going capabilities. Since that time further replicas of Viking ships have been built, and here again some were put to the severest of tests, i.e., the SNORRI, a replica of Skuldelev 1, sailed successfully from Greenland across Davis Strait and on down the Labrador coast to L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland (see also Otto Uldum's notes from NAVIS concerning Skuldelev 2 and Skuldelev 6 etc.). The nature of these types of trading vessel (Knarrs) precludes the use of oars beyond that required for light rowing and maneuvering, as W. Hodding Carter and others in the SNORRI found out during the ship's first test:

For nearly an hour, we rowed out the narrow inlet from Maine's Small Point Harbour to the ocean. It should have been an easy mile, but we were not used to the 18' ash oars. It did not help matters that, rather than being one of those sleek longships powered by 30 or more rowers, SNORRI is a beamy knarr) (kah-narr) -- a 'goat of the seas,' according to the Viking sagas -- with only eight rowing stations. The two forward most rowing positions were nearly useless, and her bilge held roughly 15 tons of hand-loaded ballast. (W. Hodding Carter,"Discovering Vinland: The Voyage of the Snorri," WoodenBoat, Vol. 148, May/June 1999:62)
In ocean traders such as these the sailing component necessarily predominates over rowing, but whether this represents an improvement over the Viking Longship per se is not entirely certain, especially when the versatility afforded by being able to row and sail is taken into consideration. Yes, one might counter, but such versatility takes place at the expense of cargo carrying capacity. This might well be true for the smaller Longships, but with the bigger versions the proportionally larger widths need to be taken into consideration, i.e., a 36-metre Longship with a length-to-width ratio of 6.666 to 1 would have a maximum width of almost 5.4 metres. Allowing 1.2 metres for rowers on either side, this would still leave some 3 metres of usable cargo space for a fair proportion of its usable length.
  To put matters in perspective and also set the pattern for what is to follow, consider impractical attempts by post-Columbian Europeans to come to terms with South America's Orinoco and Amazon rivers. The first example occurs in 1530 when Diego de Ordás (who had previously been with Cortez in Mexico) set out on an expedition up South America's Orinoco river with the avowed intent to:

pursue his conviction that the Orinoco led inland to the source of [South American] gold. He soon prepared brigs and a sailing barge to take his men and horses up the river. The expedition moved into the swampy, forested mouths of the Orinoco. Its brown waters were ' so flat, broad and deep and navigable that it seemed... as if the water was hardly moving'. But the lack of any breeze forced Ordás to put most of his men into the brigs, where they rowed, towing the unwieldy barge against the current. Progress was imperceptible. The Spanish soldiers complained bitterly at the hard labour of rowing... Men were dying one by one from diseases, and from hunger: for the land there was very flooded and covered by the river, and there was nowhere for the brigs to seek food.' The expedition finally emerged from the delta and reached the large Aruak village of Huyapari... (John Hemmings, THE SEARCH FOR EL DORADO, Michael Joseph, London, 1978:10).
Thus hardly the most suitable form of transportation for the river in question and hardly a successful expedition either. Not that the alternative approach to the Amazon river envisaged by Pedro de Teixeira a century later was much better. In this instance "forty-seven canoes, powered by some 1,200 Indians and Negroes" were deemed necessary to transport seventy Portuguese soldiers upriver. As Anthony Smith recounts:
This small army would be well equipped, with guns, ammunition, bows, food, and also goods for barter along the way...[the expedition]. left Belem on 28 October 1637. Teixeira's journey upstream was an astonishing endeavor. The Amazon's flow shifts its strength according to each season but can reach six knots. For Teixeira, whether the current was slow or fast, there was nothing to overcome it save muscle-power, mainly from the Indians who were most familiar with this form of travel. Also...the forty-seven canoes held 1,200 demanding appetites. Food was therefore a tremendous problem. The feeding of 1,200, or - worse still - the provisioning of 1,200 for several days, was beyond the capabilities of Indian villages, however friendly. The huge force had, in the main, to fend for itself- to catch fish, shoot game, collect fruit, and gather what it could. Navigation upstream, apart from being harder work, also presents greater problems than coming down river. Which is the correct fork? Is this the main stream or some equally large but irrelevant tributary? ...Much of the river can look irritatingly similar, even if earlier notes of its appearance have been written down. Teixeira and the bulk of his canoes had to wait, again and again, while exploratory parties checked the way ahead. It must have been an exasperating, as well as exhausting, way to travel. The greatest problem lay in persuading the paddling Indians to continue with their labour. Not only was it tiring work, day after day, but they were growing homesick. Each day's struggle took them even further from their families... Every particle of Teixeira's tact, diplomacy, cunning and persuasive power must have been needed to maintain progress remorselessly up-river, for month after month. After eight months of paddling, and cajoling, and entreating, and bullying, Teixeira's small fleet reached its first Spanish settlement. Instead of proceeding from there with his entire force he sent ahead a small party of eight canoe-loads. The remainder were to wait until the return journey could begin. When this larger contingent had been comfortably settled Teixeira departed to follow and catch up the advance guard. The current grew swifter and swifter, and eventually the river (Quijos) had to be abandoned completely and the rest of the journey completed on foot. After almost a year of travel Teixeira reached Quito. (Anthony Smith, Explorers of the Amazon, Four Centuries of Adventure Along the World's Greatest River, Viking Penguin, London, 1990:146-147).
What have the above examples to do with the capabilities of Viking ships? Simply this--all daunting aspects, dangers and privations aside--the upriver transportation of some seventy soldiers with their weaponry and baggage could almost certainly have been achieved far more efficiently with the 36-metre Roskilde Longship alone. Think not? A Viking ship this size would have a crew of 80-100 with up to 80 practiced oarsmen, i.e., 40 rowers per side. Moreover, with most (if not all) the seventy "soldiers" also oarsmen (and why not? -- work for idle hands, etc) then rather than enforced or hired labour and 1,200 mouths to feed, the entire ship would in essence be crewed by well practiced volunteers united in their common purpose. But one single Viking ship, albeit a large one? Not necessarily; it would also be feasible and useful to employ smaller boats (the 30-man Longship Skuldelev 5) or even those found with the Gokstad ship (i.e., the ten-oared variant) to pathfind and forage ahead, etc. As far as size goes, the crew-carrying capability of the 36-metre Longship must surely be one of its more useful qualities; add to this a definite cargo-carrying capacity, shallow draught and the flexibility afforded by being able to progress under either oar or sail, then "Big Ships for Big Jobs" becomes an appropriate adage -- one that is equally applicable to the Northwest Passage, if not more so. As for the Passage itself, this may not have been as daunting as one might think, especially during the Medieval Warm Period.
   But before moving on there is another aspect concerning the Skuldelev and Roskilde finds that merits consideration. It would be a major understatement to say that it was fortunate that data for such a wide variety of Viking ships has survived until the present day. The fact that the ships were so varied is indeed useful to our understanding, but although the Skuldelev ships were working vessels, were they that played out and were the reasons for their sinking that dire? Similar questions also arise in the case of the nine additional Danish ships found at nearby Roskilde. Even if cannibalized, it still seems somewhat odd that so many fine ships should have been placed where neither time nor special interests could disturb them. Was this a factor? One can only theorize, but thankfully we have them now, for all to marvel and wonder at. Such superb ships, such lines, such practical beauty and grace. Small wonder there are those who build Viking replicas and set out to sea in them again--a proud Scandinavian heritage to be sure, yet there seems something more fundamental to their resurrection all the same. An underlying recognition, perhaps, of the old engineering adage: "If it looks good, then it probably is good," accompanied by the satisfaction of harmonizing with a thoroughbred design that transcends both time and place. But if feelings wax strongly about such ships now, how did their original crews feel about them in their heyday? Ships that served them well in weather fair and foul, ships that took them far afield yet brought them safely home? What does one do with ships like these after such sterling service? The romantic might say give them an honourable burial "at sea" near their home port. Or was it something else altogether -- something far more sinister and perhaps more important? Herein perhaps lies another Viking mystery, for how did these superb Viking ships -- the swift and flexible Longships in particular -- fade so rapidly and so effectively from history? It is true that sources such as the Bayeux Tapestry tell us in various ways about the construction of Norse vessels and some of their uses, but it remains an open question as to how much technical data or practical understanding would have been obtained without the burial ships and the fifteen vessels that rested for centuries beneath Skuldelev and Roskilde waters.

Part II. West by Northwest

Almgren, Bertil, et al. THE VIKING, AB Nordbok, Gothenburg 1975.
Brent, Peter. THE VIKING SAGA, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York,1975.
Carter, W. Hodding, "Discovering Vinland: The Voyage of the Snorri," Wooden Boat, Vol. 148, May/June 1999.
Crumlin-Pedersen, Ole. “The Ships of the Vikings,” The Vikings. Proceedings,of the Symposium of the Faculty of arts of Uppsala University June 6-9, 1977. Eds. Thorsten Andersson and Karl Inge Sandred, Almquist and Wiksell, Uppsala 1978.

Graham-Campbell, James. THE VIKING WORLD, Francis Lincoln, London, 1980.
Enterline, James Robert. VIKING AMERICA, DoubleDay, Garden City, 1972.
Hale, John R. "The Viking Longship," Scientific American, February 1998.
Hemmings, John. THE SEARCH FOR EL DORADO, Michael Joseph, London 1978.
Ingstad, Helge. Westward to Vinland, St. Martins, New York, 1969.
Jones, Gwyn. The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and America. London: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1964.
Jensen, Kenn. "Documentation and Analysis of Ancient Ships," Doctoral Thesis (1999), Centre of Maritime Archaeology, Technical University of Denmark, Lyngby, 1999.

Magnusson, Markus. VIKING: Hammer of the North, Orbis, London, 1976.
Mountfield, James. A HISTORY OF POLAR EXPLORATION, Dial Press, New York 1974
Smith, Anthony. Explorers of the Amazon, Four Centuries of Adventure Along the World's Greatest River, Viking Penguin, London 1990.
Temple, Robert. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention, Simon & Schuster, New York 198

Part 1. Viking Press and Viking Ships
[ Present  Page ]
Part 2. West by Northwest
Part 3. Three Steps Back
Part 4. Symbols and Markers
Part 5. The Copper Canoe
Part 6. The Warp and the Weave
Part 7. Helluland, Markland and Vinland
Maps:  Partial Map Listing for the Last Viking
Postscript 1: A Fir Tree of the Mind (pdf)
Postscript 2: RongoRongo and the Raven's Tail
Easter Island Stone Structures

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Copyright © 1999. John N. Harris, M.A.(CMNS). Links updated on June 15, 2009.