The Viking Ships
Although the Vikings existed in pre-ancient times, their sailboats were highly-advanced, especially at a time when sails were seen as the epitome of great advancement. Their ships were of great importance in making the voyages not just to England but also to other parts of the world.
The most common type of boats was the longships, which were a status symbol and widely regarded as their ultimate weapon. These vessels were elaborately carved and decorated depending on the ship's symbolic value. Their long and narrow shapes made them quick water. This feature, however, meant that they had very limited capacity for cargo and could only accommodate a week's supplies. This, in turn, meant that the Vikings had to increase logistical demands during their expeditions.
But for voyages to England and other faraway places such as Greenland, Iceland, and the Americas, the boats had to be large ocean-going vessels that could carry up to 80 people and a large amount of cargo. The boats were also sturdy and made from planks known as strakes that were held together with iron rivets.
The Importance of Sails to the Vikings
As we noted earlier, sails were one of the most advanced technologies of their days. Without the sails, it could have been extremely difficult for the Vikings to explore across the seas as they did. Sails were invented at the end of the 7th century just before the Vikings began their faraway explorations to areas such as England.
In addition to the oars, the sails meant that the Viking boats were more advanced than other vessels in terms of speed, accuracy, maneuverability, capacity, and seaworthiness. The boats were also designed to tolerate fierce storms and travel far and wide. This gave the Vikings the advantage of traveling not only to England but other parts of the world to trade, make war, and explore.
It's important to note that the Vikings were not only excellent boat builders but were also great sailors. However, all these would count for nothing if they couldn't navigate properly. Unlike today, navigation was no mean task for centuries because there were no maps, no charts, no magnetic compasses, or no sextant for celestial navigation that are common today. If a boat got lost at sea, it would most likely prove fatal.
But to navigate, the Vikings had to use other methods. If they were close to the shores, they'd rely on coastal landmarks. For instance, they relied on how the sun appeared between two specific mountains. The Vikings would rely on signs such as predictable movements of migratory birds. Such signs, however, had very little with how the Vikings managed to sail during stormy or cloudy days but they did it anyway. So how did they do it? Well, the Vikings island-hopped several times on their way to England to be within sight of well-known landmarks such as weirdly-shaped cliffs.
They were also heavily reliant on the initially-noted landmarks such as the sun, clouds, stars, animals, sea mammals, as well as the behavior of winds and waves. In essence, the Vikings had mastered how the seas would behave at any given moment. This enabled them to choose the right time to make the voyage. More importantly, firsthand experience on the route to England or any other place, for that matter, was of great value to the Vikings.
Sailing to England
In the Viking Age, the sailing time for any given stretch was quite variable. The voyage from Scandinavia to England would be quickest but this was largely dependent on whether or not the strength of the wind was moderate and favorable. In most cases, the Vikings would spend many days or even weeks out in the sea if the winds were strong and against them. Such strong winds generally cause high waves and they had to slow down until the sea calmed a little bit before continuing with the voyage.
Again, strong winds and foul weather often meant that the Vikings could lose their bearings and couldn't sail towards their targeted destination. For that reason, the Vikings would stay at a given place for some time waiting for the winds, weather, and the sea to become favorable again. For instance, the Vikings would stay in Fjords for weeks waiting for the winds to become favorable before attempting ocean passing. In such stormy situations, the Vikings would take weeks to reach England if they were lucky to get there in the first place.
When traveling to England in favorable conditions, it would take the Vikings about three days to travel from Roskilde to Norway. With strong winds in the right direction, the Vikings would sail for over 200 miles in a single stretch. The situation would then change in present-day Norway. This meant that they could get stuck on land for at least 10 days, especially if the strong winds were blowing in the wrong direction.
The Vikings would then take a day sailing along the Norwegian Coast and another 36 hours sailing in the open waters from the present-day Bergen to the Orkneys. They would then take a few days on the Scottish coast before getting into the Irish Sea before going down to Northumbria. In most cases, the Viking's travel was slowed by the fact that they moved as a convoy or fleet. They could sometimes move in stages and rally at different points along the way before setting out for England together.
In certain situations particularly when sailing was quite unfavorable, the Vikings would resort to using the oars but this was only for shorter distances. In other words, they couldn't row to England. This, therefore, meant that the only option was to sail when the winds were favorable.
The stiffest test in the voyage often came towards the end, especially if the wind was too much. While the winds off the Isle of Man in Scotland often have moderate winds, things could rapidly change. Under such situations, the Vikings would take the sails down and stop the boats. The idea here was that the stability of their longboats largely depended on how the water flowed over the hull. As such the rudder only became effective when moving forward. This was also important in controlling the boat and preventing it from turning it to the waves or crashing it over.
The Route to England
One of the most important routes for the Vikings was from Denmark to the Mediterranean. This was a completely coastal affair particularly from Denmark to England. They could also sail from western Norway to the Irish Sea or Scotland via Orkney or the Shetland Islands. This route meant that they were only in the open seas for limited stretches. But the longest voyage full of open seas meant sailing directly from Norway to England through the North Sea. This was a deadly adventure so they preferred the Denmark-Mediterranean route, which was more of a coastal affair.
The Importance of the Vikings in Sailing
Sailing was, without a doubt, a pivotal part of the Viking society. In addition to being a more convenient way of traveling in those days, sailing was perhaps the best way that the Vikings could facilitate communication, trade, explore, conquer, and even wedge war. In essence, boat-building and sailing skills enable the Vikings to explore, expand, and have overseas influence. Needless to say, all these would be impossible without their sound sailing skills and seaworthy vessels, which had sails at a time when sails were considered a technological advancement.
With their well-made ships that had sails, the Vikings were able to explore, colonize, and settle in areas such as Greenland, Iceland, and the British Isles. Their vessels were sturdy, quick, and designed with shallow drafts that played a key role in wars. The fact that these boats also used oars meant that the crew could be dropped off just about anywhere, especially when looking to catch the targets unaware.