A thousand years have passed since the Viking age, but it’s still a wonder how the Vikings sailed the seas so skillfully in the early Middle Ages.
It’s generally accepted that the pride of their fleet were their drakkars. These Viking warships were both sturdy and very fast, thanks to their special design.
The origin of the word
It is believed that the word “drakkar” originates from the Old Norse words “dreki” and “kar,” which mean “dragon” and “ship,” respectively. There is an opinion that the word “dreki” came from the Latin “draco.” However, Scandinavian people hardly used the Latin language at all in Viking times.
The warship acquired this name because the head of a dragon or another mythical creature (like Jormungandr) usually adorned the ship’s bow. The shape of the ship was also long and narrow, resembling a sea serpent.
The dragon head on the bow wasn’t there just to intimidate enemies but also to emphasize the importance of the ship’s owner. When preparing for peaceful encounters, Viking sailors would remove the figurehead from the bow or disguise it somehow in order not to incur the ire of the spirits.
The Vikings constructed drakkars out of pine, oak, or ash wood. They used a special technique for splitting trees along the grain. They then watered the planks and held them above a fire to make them more flexible.
The shipbuilders put the parts of the ship together with iron rivets and nails and bound them with cords and ropes. After that, they tarred the whole structure and caulked it by plugging holes and gaps and making the seams watertight. If everything was done correctly, an air layer would form under the Viking ship when it traveled fast over the water, giving it additional stability and speed.
The sail was rectangular or square. It was made of sheep’s wool and covered with grease so that it didn’t get drenched. If there wasn’t a fair wind, the Vikings used oars – 20 to 35 pairs of them.
The advantages of drakkars
In the Viking age, few ships could compete with a drakkar in terms of sheer speed, but drakkars were also very nimble.
Thanks to the drakkar’s shallow draft, the Northmen could easily sail along rivers and fjords. They could land in places that were very difficult to access and attack their enemies unexpectedly.
These warships were also barely visible between the waves because of their low sides. This helped the Vikings catch their enemies unawares, even in the open sea.
Drakkars were created for more than just war, however. They were solid and capacious, so the Vikings sometimes used them for trade and to transport goods, but more often these ships were used for sailing long distances. How far did the Vikings travel? They reached the shores of Iceland, Greenland, and North America, to name but a few destinations.
In the next article about drakkars, we’re going to tell you how we incorporated them into our game Vikings: War of Clans. Follow the posts!