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Feb 27, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Viking trading ships

The Vikings were some of the greatest shipbuilders of the premodern world. A lot of people don't realize, however, that the famous longship was only used for raiding and warfare. It was too narrow to safely take across the open ocean and would quickly swamp in heavy seas. Norsemen hugged the coasts with their longships when they went a-Viking.

So what boat did they use for their famous voyages to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland (North America)? This one. It's called a knörr. Like all Viking ships it was clinker-built, meaning of overlapping oaken planks lashed together to naturally curved timber and fastened with iron rivets. Fitted with a square sail and a side rudder called a steer-board (hence the name starboard), they could carry up to 40 tons of cargo. they could be up to 60 feet long and carried a crew of 15-20 people.

Since knorrir didn't have much of a keel and the steer-board could be taken up, they could sail in as little as five feet of water and be run onto a beach. They had very little draft and thus bobbed along the surface of the ocean. It was also somewhat flexible, giving in heavy seas. This kept the hull from cracking.

Several reproductions have been made and modern sailors are universal in their praise of the knörr's seaworthiness. in 1932, a knörr called the Roald Amundsen after the Arctic explorer sailed one of the routes used by Columbus to the New World and made it there in only 2/3 the time it took Columbus! It was then sailed from Newfoundland to Norway.

The Vikings were smart with more than just shipbuilding; they were expert navigators too. They used a special crystal called a sun stone to determine the position of the sun on overcast days.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.


  1. Ah...interesting. I've been researching knarrs lately, and I'd read that they can't come up close in shallower waters, so they'd boat back and forth w/small ship-boats. Just trying to get to the bottom of these facts since my historical novel is about Vikings. Long may their lore live! Thanks for posting!

    1. According to the book West Viking by Farley Mowat, the knorrir could run up on a beach. He was himself a sailor and based his observations on two reconstructed ships.
      One was a replica of the Gokstad ship, a tenth-century karv from a ship grave in Norway. A karv was a smaller version of the knörr. The other was the reconstructed knörr called the Roald Amundsen.
      Mowat emphasizes that one of the main advantages of the knörr was that it could sail in very shallow waters and thus penetrate up fjords and rivers very far inland. This made them useful as trading vessels.
      Interesting that your sources say otherwise. Which sources are you using?

  2. I'm basing it on The Vikings book, 2006 (forward Magnus Magnusson) and Viking Voyage, one in which the main guy W. Hodding Carter, rebuilt a Viking knarr. Both books seem to indicate the knarr is too heavy to pull into the shallower waters. I was thinking the longships were the ones w/the advantage of pulling up closer, as their keels are shallower, right? Anyway, come over and comment on my blog if you find anything else! I've already written this into my novel, and I want to be as historically accurate as possible.