The Viking Longship
For three turbulent centuries, the glimpse of a square sail and dragon-headed prow on the horizon struck terror into the hearts of medieval Europeans.
The Viking Age, from AD 800-1100, was the age of the sleek, speedy longship. Without this crucial advance in ship technology, the Vikings would never have become a dominant force in medieval warfare, politics and trade.
The drekar, or dragon-headed longships, were stealthy troop-carriers. They could cross the open oceans under sail and then switch to oars for lightning-fast hit-and-run attacks on undefended towns and monasteries. Far surpassing contemporary English or Frankish vessels in lightness and efficiency, longships carried Viking raiders from northern England to north Africa.
The longship was a graceful, long, narrow, light wooden boat with a shallow draught designed for speed. The ship's shallow draught also allowed navigation in waters only one metre deep and permitted rapid beach landings.
The secret of the Viking ship lay in its unique construction.
Using a broad axe rather than a saw, expert woodworkers would first split oak tree trunks into long, thin planks. They then fastened the boards with iron nails to a single sturdy keel and then to each other, one plank overlapping the next. The Vikings gave shape to the hull using this "clinker" technique rather than the more conventional method of first building an inner skeleton for the hull.
The gaps between the planks of the ships were made waterproof by filling them with sheep's wool dipped in tar.
Viking ships were among the first to have a keel. This helped them to cut through the water very fast and made them very stable in rough weather