Three Viking longships

The Viking Longship

Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the Vikings was the Viking longship, which was both a means of transportation and a mode of conquest. These ships contained multiple innovations that allowed the Vikings to rule the seas and travel from Scandinavia to as far as North America in the west and Russia in the east.

Viking Longship Construction

Vikings built their longships, which ranged from 45 to 75 feet in length, from oak planks that were nailed together and tied to the ribs of the ship with spruce root or animal hair. Planks overlapped each other, and the joints were filled with tar and rope or yarn to make the ships watertight. This construction process also made the ships flexible. Rather than plowing through the seas, Vikings rode atop them as their ships bent and flexed with the will of the ocean.

Longship Mobility

Viking longships had room for between 24 and 50 rowers, depending on the ship’s size. Rowers would man the oars while sitting on trunks that contained their belongings. The ships used keels to provide more stability as they sailed and to help them maintain balance. A keel is a long longitudinal structure that runs along the bottom of a vessel and helps keep it upright.

The real innovation with Viking longships was the square sail that allowed them to harness the wind. Vikings learned how to use the wind, even when it wasn’t blowing in the direction they wanted to go. The mast was hinged at the bottom, so it could be folded down when it wasn’t needed. Vikings could also use the sail as a tent when the need arose.

viking longship
Viking longship with mast and sail

Directional Advantage

The English word “starboard” comes for the oar Vikings used to steer the ship. A Viking would place an oar, called the “steerboard,” in the water at a fixed point on the stern of the ship on the right side. By pushing the oar to one side or the other, Vikings could steer their ships.

Longships were symmetrical. If Vikings were going in one direction and wanted to go in the opposite direction, they didn’t have to turn the ship around. They could simply reverse the way they were rowing or change the sail.

Viking longships had one more advantage. They were light. Longships had a shallow draft, which allowed Vikings to use them on rivers and attack villages that would not expect them to appear. Vikings could also carry their ships across land to keep them safe or to reach new bodies of water.

viking longship sailing at night by starry sky
Viking Voyage by Night, digital art by Glen Kratochvil via Dall-E 2

Water Is Essential

Vikings thrived in places where water was plentiful: seashores, fjords, lakes, and rivers were all parts of those places. They learned to navigate these areas, which let them become the dominant explorers and seafarers that we know today.

Our Viking longship will be a large part of our living museum. If you’d like the experience of journeying across Alaskan waterways in the traditional Viking way, you can contribute to Asgard Alaska here and help our vision to become a reality.


The Real Vikings by Melvin Berger and Gilda Berger, National Geographic, 2003.

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