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  Viking Shipwrights and Ship-Building
From Queen Emma & the Vikings: A Tale of Love, Power & Greed in 11th-Century England, published by Bloomsbury in 2005.

Note: The note below has absolutely nothing to do with our family history (except, in a pinch, in the most highly tangential way), but makes fascinating cocktail conversation.


The enormous success of Viking warfare—and trade—had resulted mainly from the expertise of Scandinavian shipwrights. Almost unbelievably these astute technicians made no records—no drawings or sketches—of their designs. Apart from runic inscriptions, the Scandinavians of this period were a non-literate, non-documentary society relying instead on memory, observation and oral traditions. Finely tuned boat-building skills were passed down through word of mouth among a people who appear to have had an innate understanding of water dynamics and the composition of wood. Different timbers were used for specific types of vessel—from fishing boats of pine to top-quality war vessels of oak.

The boat-builders had no saws: axes were used to create planks of unbroken grain that had great elasticity in water: the nimblest of the ships would effectively snake their way through the sea. Long and lean, the warships in particular could proceed through very shallow water and enable their crews to make surprise attacks by their capacity to be sailed right on to flattish beaches.

By the early-eleventh century these vessels were as much as 30 metres long and carried about 100 men—sixty rowers and perhaps forty others who manned the large wood sail (treated with tar, ochre and fat) and acted as shield bearers. The most splendid of the ships were known as drekkars, or dragons, suitably and elaborately adorned and seemingly alive as they moved with immense speed and flexibility through the waves.