Imagine embarking on a journey in which you don’t have a clear route to your destination and no form of direction. It’s unlikely that you’ll get to your destination. Navigation is an important part of a journey, especially while at sea. The Vikings understood this fact.
Although mostly portrayed as warriors with their horned helmets, axes, and weapons, the Vikings were also skilled seafarers. They put their skills of navigation to good use in helping them achieve successful voyages and raids, as well as in their sea explorations. The question, however, is how did the Vikings navigate, given that their time was still underdeveloped technologically? In this post, we will take a look at their navigation skills and how their ships were successful in most of their voyages.
Although seen as savages, the Vikings were an intellectual and sophisticated group of people able to achieve things that were only possible centuries later. Despite navigation methods being rare and them lacking the modern instruments we have today, they still managed to cross the Atlantic ocean. They didn’t even use classic maps that recorded their routes as they traveled, instead they were said to make use of their senses and a good understanding of their surroundings to guide them.
The fact that the Vikings lived in the wild, helped with their understanding of nature. They also understood the concept of north, south, east, and west, but not in the manner we understand it today. They based it on the direction the sun rose, and how high it was at any point of the day. Aside from the sun, they also used the moon and the stars to help get a sense of direction.
These were, however, not their only means of navigation especially during cloudy days or in foggy regions. The Vikings also made use of landmarks to create mental maps that they would refer to if they were to ever pass the route again. So, they would keep an eye out for objects on land or along the coast, to give them a rough idea of where they could be. Some of the landmarks include hilltops or peculiar shapes of rocks.
Birds and whales also made great navigation marks since birds only flew a certain distance away from land and whales were always close to currents where they could catch fish. This knowledge helped the Vikings have an idea of where they were or how close they were to land. Overall, however, their senses were their biggest assets. They used their hearing to listen to the waters crashing against the shore or the screeching of birds, that let them know they were close to land. An experienced seafarer was also able to use their sense of smell to pick out the scent of trees or plants that were a distance from the land. They also used their taste to tell whether the freshwater flowed from land into the seawater. Because the majority of their customs were oral traditions and rituals, it comes as no surprise that they used narratives and rhymes as their travelogues.
How Did Viking Boats Move?
Aside from being skillful, The Vikings’ boats were also key elements of their successful voyages. There were many different ships in shapes and sizes but the construction and craftsmanship were the same.
The Longship, which was a warship was the ultimate weapon and status symbol, especially in raids. They were also elaborately carved with decorations that symbolized their value. As time passed the longships became specially constructed to achieve great speeds to transport troops faster. That was due to their long narrow shapes, which limited the space for cargo to a maximum of a week’s supply.
The trading vessels also varied in shapes and sizes. They were responsible for transporting trading goods. As such the size and shape went a long way in determining the maximum capacity of cargo they could carry. For these ships, capacity was a greater priority to speed.
Why were Viking Ships So Successful?
As mentioned, the Viking boats were key elements of their successful voyages. The reason is because of their excellent craftsmanship and design principle. This evolved over many years, with the Vikings finding new ways to improve the current design of the ship.
The ships were also built using what was called the clinker method which ensured that the ship was watertight. The method involved layering planks of timber, preferably oak, such that they were overlapping, and then nail them together. The spaces in between the planks would then be filled with wool or animal hair to ensure water did not sip through.
Longships were also designed with shallow drafts that allowed the boats to navigate in waters that were even 1 meter deep. Their narrow shape also ensured they were the quickest ships with speeds of up to 17 knots in favorable conditions. Their symmetrical design also allowed them to reverse swiftly without making a full turn around, hence they were double-ended ships. Lastly, longships made use of both rowing and wind propulsion. The ship had rowing positions along its length and additional sails made of wool.
Viking Sun Compass
The Vikings may not have had access to a magnetic compass in their time but they did have a sun compass that worked almost like a magnetic compass. It is made up of a horizontal disc with a vertical pointer called a gnomon placed at the center of the disc. Throughout the day, the shadow of the gnomon is cast on the disc to help locate where north was. Normally as the sun rises the shadow becomes shorter but lengthens when the sun is setting.
Based on the sun compass discover by archeologists showed some irregularities like the gnomon’s lines did not extend to the dial on the wooden board. This made it difficult to interpret the shadow in the late afternoon. It was later discovered that the dial was meant to be short to show the sailors the latitude. By knowing their latitudes, the sailors could ensure that their ship was always on a good course for their frequent voyage.
What Is a Sun Crystal?
While the sun compass seemed useful, like every tool it also had its shortcomings. This was the fact that if the sun was hidden by clouds, it may have been difficult to read the sun compass. The Vikings however, had a solution for this by using sun crystals otherwise known as sunstones.
These were minerals that could polarize light and that the Vikings used to determine the position of the sun during cloudy unfavorable conditions. The sailors would hold the stones up toward the sky and rotate them until the light passing through it became the brightest. That was where the sun was at that moment behind the clouds.
The sunstones have been mentioned in many Viking sagas and stories, however, there have not been discovered by any archeologists so far. Therefore, some people debate whether the crystals ever existed or if they were real. In the late 16th century, however, some crystals were found alongside navigation tools in what seemed to be a wrecked Viking ship. Although not definitive, it could be possible that those were the sun crystal they used for navigation.
Because the Vikings never had original written records of their culture and customs, many things about them will continue to be a mystery. This includes how they navigated. Although we know that they would commit to several months of sea voyages, no one knows how they navigated the sea. What is known are speculations based on what was discovered and written in Norse sources. But given that they spent most of the time in the sea, their navigation skill is bound to be great, no matter what they were.