Sailing the Viking Seas

I’ve finished the last of my beads (for now!), and I’m at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. This museum, a short train ride outside of Copenhagen, should not be confused with the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. The Norwegian Vikingskipshuset houses three of the most famous early Viking-Age ships—the Oseberg ship (ca. 800), the Gokstad ship (ca. 890), and the Tune ship (ca. 910). These ships were all buried in wealthy grave mounds during the first century of the Viking Age. The Danish Vikingeskibsmuseet, in contrast, houses five late Viking-Age ships that were found blocking a channel near the small town of Skuldelev.

Oseberg Ship, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo.
The Oseberg Ship, ca. 800. This ship was excavated in 1904 from a grave south of Oslo. It’s the most complete ship that survives today, but when curators reassembled it from loose fragments in 1909, they had to make some hard choices. Recent reanalysis suggests that the stem should lean further forward, which would prevent the body from narrowing too quickly at the front. The wider, more forward-leaning stem would actually help keep water out of the boat as she cut across the waves. (Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, NO.)

The five Skuldelev ships were scuttled in the 1070s as a defensive measure, restricting access to what was then a royal center at Roskilde. Historians think this barrier may have been built by Harald III ‘the Whetstone’ to discourage or even repel one of his rivals. The five ships that were sunk at Skuldelev represent a cross-section of late Viking-Age seafaring, and they stand in stark contrast to the early Viking-Age ships found in the Norwegian graves. The Norwegian ships were shallow and wide, with hulls that could accommodate troop transport or cargo shipment but weren’t specifically adapted to any particular purpose. The Skuldelev ships, however, break into a few distinct types: coastal ships for fishing and trading, cargo vessels for deep-sea commerce, and personnel carriers for rapid troop transport.

Skuldelev 1 at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, DK.
Skuldelev 1. Built in Norway around 1030, this ship was scuttled to block access to Roskilde in the 1070s. Although perhaps less graceful than the Oseberg ship, Skuldelev 1’s bluff bow and wide beam made her the perfect sailing ship for taking cargo across the North Sea. (Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, DK.)

It can be difficult to distinguish these ships in publications, and even seeing their remains in person doesn’t necessarily communicate what makes each ship unique. They have all been flattened by a thousand years in the sand, with varying degrees of disturbance, preservation, and recovery. The Skuldelev ships now survive merely as timbers in a cradle. They’re beautiful to look at and impressive to visit, but it’s hard to image what they originally looked like or how they originally sailed.

Fortunately, the Viking Ship Museum has reconstructed each of the Skuldelev ships. It’s taken a lot of guesswork. The original masts, sails, and rigging had all disappeared, and Viking-Age methods for navigating were never written down. So over the past forty years, a new breed of ‘experimental archaeologists’ have drawn on the archaeological record and living traditions of boatbuilding to understand how the peoples of the Viking Age built and sailed these ships.

The Sea Stallion of Glendalough sailing in Roskilde Fjord.
The Sea Stallion from Glendalough. Many visitors look to this replica of Skuldelev 2 for an impression of what a ‘real’ Viking-Age longship would look like. But only 25% of the original survives, so The Sea Stallion is in some ways realer-than-real—what Umberto Eco might describe as an example of hyperreality. Nevertheless, building and sailing this replica has taught researchers to ask new and better questions, as they tack between the traces of the past and the possibilities of the present. (Roskilde Fjord, DK.)

These efforts have produced a small but diverse fleet: Ottar, a reconstruction of an ocean-going merchant ship built in Norway around 1030 (Skuldelev 1); The Sea Stallion of Glendalough, a reconstruction of a 70-man troop transport built near Dublin in 1042 (Skuldelev 2); Roar Ege, reconstructing a Danish coastal trader from ca. 1040 (Skuldelev 3); Helge Ask, a small Danish longship from ca. 1030, which could accommodate about 30 warriors (Skuldelev 5); Kraka Fyr and Skjoldungen, both replicas of a single fishing vessel from western Norway, ca. 1030 (Skuldelev 6). A new reconstruction of Skuldelev 3 is currently underway to replace the recently retired Roar Ege, which will be moved to a dry display for visitors.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to sail Ottar (ocean trader), The Sea Stallion (troop transport), and Skjoldungen (coastal ship), as well as some of the other square-rigged ships that the museum owns. In a few hours on the water, I’ve learned more than static exhibitions or archaeological publications could ever tell me.

The stern of the Ottar, a reconstruction of Skuldelev 1.
Ottar. Sailing Ottar is easy work, when the wind is in your favor. An experienced skipper holds the braces in one hand to keep the sail at a perfect angle for catching wind. With his other hand, he directs a novice steersman toward port. (Roskilde Fjord, DK.)

I’ll start with the deep-sea merchant, known as a knarr from the Old Norse, named Ottar. This was my first experience with a Viking-Age replica. The crew was small, about ten people (more than enough), and the deck was large—but so was everything else! My initial instructions were to stay out of the way until I was yelled for, which didn’t take long. There was always something heavy to move or a rope that needed to be hauled. I spent most of my time at the front, pulling the leading edge of the sail from one side to the other so we could zigzag our way against the wind. The small size of the crew meant that everybody needed to know what was happening with the ship, which demands a certain style of leadership and fosters a certain type of camaraderie. I’m happy to say that my day with Ottar ended in a crew trip for ice cream followed by a cookout.

The Sea Stallion under sail.
The Sea Stallion from Glendalough. This massive square sail can drive The Sea Stallion forward at speeds up to 17 knots (20 mph / 30 kph). But it can also pull the ship over. It takes a large and attentive crew to balance the sail by moving from one side to the other. When the wind fails, these intelligent pieces of ballast transform into oarsmen. And when more care is needed, such as when maneuvering the ship in port, the crew turns into a human set of winches, hauling the boat from pier to pier. (Roskilde Fjord, DK.)

The next day I went sailing on the replica of the large troop transport, The Sea Stallion from Glendalough. This is the pride of the museum fleet and needs a crew of about 60 for safe sailing in open waters. The ship is sleek and fast, even in moderate wind. When the wind pushes the heavy woolen sail to one side and causes the ship to tilt after it, crewmembers who are not immediately engaged with sailing or steering the vessel instinctively move uphill. Their bodyweight helps keep the ship in balance. The basic sailing techniques are otherwise similar to the Ottar, but the extra length of The Sea Stallion means that one part of the crew isn’t always aware of what the other parts of the crew are doing. Chatter is kept at a minimum, and any crewmembers who aren’t involved in an active task keep low and out of the way, so the crewmembers who are managing the ship can see each other and coordinate their actions. The skipper at the stern relies on commands relayed through a caller at the mast and the eyes and judgements of an experienced lookout at the fore. This kind of ship could not be sailed without a sense of discipline, hierarchy, and trust.

The Skjoldungen under sail.
Skjoldungen. The coastal craft Skjoldungen proved the easiest ship to handle. The smaller and lighter sail is comfortably managed by three—one person at the bow to manage the sail’s leading edge or tack; another holding the braces reaching up to control the angle of the crossbeam or yard; and a third holding the bottom edge of the sheet, managing how much wind fills into the sail. A fourth person, usually the skipper, controls the rudder at the stern and commands the crew. A few extra hands are useful so that sailing (or rowing) may be done in shifts. (Roskilde Fjord, DK.)

My trip on the Skjoldungen was an interesting follow up. The Skjoldungen is a small coastal trader that fares well with a crew about the same size as the bulky cargo-carrier Ottar. But with its smaller size, the Skjoldungen handles with an agility that exceeds even the precise maneuvers of the well-drilled crews aboard The Sea Stallion. In 2016, the Skjoldungen was shipped to Greenland, where a small crew sailed and mostly rowed the ship 1000 km (645 mi / 560 nm) up the coast. Memories were still fresh, and the openness of the Greenland seascapes seems to have tightened the closeness of the crew. The veteran sailors rowed with an ease that looked like it was years and not weeks in the making—probably a fitting representation of the original Skuldelev 6, which was used for workaday tasks of fishing and trading and had to be moved regardless of the prevailing winds.

These experiences would not have been possible without the living boatyard at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum or the active crews, who are always looking for recruits and supporters. For a sample of their activities (including better photos!), visit the Facebook pages for Ottar, The Sea Stallion, and Skjoldungen. Each ship in the boatyard generally does one multi-week trip during the summers, and the crews train regularly during warmer months. You can learn more about the various crews and join or support their efforts here. For more casual visitors, it’s possible to sail for a hands-on tour aboard an authentic clinker-built ship—some rowing required. Details may be found here.

Students from Suffolk County Community College at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, DK.
A pier-side class at the Viking Ship Museum. The museum hosts not just tourists but also educational visits. I had the pleasure to spend several days sailing and traveling to Copenhagen with a group of students from Suffolk County Community College (Selden, NY), who were in Denmark as part of a uniquely immersive course in medieval history. (Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, DK.)

The Viking Ship Museum is a unique hub for maritime archaeology and research, as well as working crafts and reconstructions, but individual replicas may also be found in other places. The Gokstad ship from Norway has probably been the most popular model for reconstruction. The earliest replica was the Viking, sailing from Norway for the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 (currently in Geneva, IL). Midwesterners might also be interested in the Hjemkomst Viking Ship, collocated with the Hopperstad stave church replica in Moorhead, MN. Other recent descendants of the Gokstad ship include the Íslendingur, which sailed from Iceland to New York in 2000 (currently in Njarðvík, IS); the Lofotr and Vargfotr, which may both be visited and sailed at the Lofotr Vikingmuseum (Bøstad, NO); and the Gaia, in Sandefjord, NO, near the original Gokstad site.

Replica of a buried ship from Tuna i Badelunda.
Tuna i Badelunda Reconstruction. Although the big ships capture most of the attention, this simple boat immediately caught my eye. It’s a replica of the boat a woman was buried in at Tuna i Badelunda in central Sweden at the dawn of the Viking Age. It’s the kind of boat that helped knit local communities together, and its presence in the woman’s grave suggest that she too held a central role in her community. I’ve written more about a pair of graves from Tuna—and the stories they reveal—here. (Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, DK.)

The Oseberg ship inspired the reconstruction Dronningen, which ultimately sank in a Mediterranean storm in 1992 along with Saga Siglar, a reconstruction of Skuldelev 1. A thorough reexamination of the Oseberg timbers led to a new and more seaworthy reconstruction, the Saga Oseberg, which is currently in Tønsberg, NO, near to the original Oseberg site. Replicas of both the Gokstad and the Oseberg ships are on display together at the Bergen Maritime Museum (NO). The Norwegian finds also helped inspire the Draken Harald Hårfagre, which began as an effort to imagine what a “great ship” (storskip) from the Norse sagas may have looked like, although it’s not based on any particular archaeological find. The Draken crossed the Atlantic in 2016, and plans are underway for an East Coast tour in 2018. Information on further replicas may be found at and (of course) Wikipedia.

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