In The Two Lives of Charlemagne, by the biographer Notker the Stammerer, we encounter a deeply troubled Charlemagne who witnessed an unusual event in southern France. A fleet of Northmen sailed up the coast to raid but, seeing a garrison of Franks stationed where they had hoped to strike, they fled. The Franks sent a fleet to pursue them, but they could not match the Northmen’s speed. Notker tells us Charlemagne recognized the imminent threat of the Vikings on his empire when he said, “I do not fear that these bandits will do me any harm; I am sick at heart to think that, even in my lifetime, they dared to attack this coast, and I am horror-stricken when I think of the harm they will do to my descendants and their subjects.”
Already in his lifetime, we learn that the Vikings’ longships had a reputation for sailing much faster than those of the Franks. All the people who bore witness to the raids and invasions of the Vikings convey awe at the speed of their ships. Until recently, however, historians did not know precisely how fast their ships could sail. First, in the 19th century, historians did not have a real boat to work with—the first ship burial was not discovered until the early 20th century. Over the course of several decades, more and more vessels were pulled from the ground, yet speeds for these were merely educated guesses. How Fast Did Viking Longships Sail? Not until the first full reproductions did historians learn the actual speed capabilities of the longships.
The Viking Ship Museum’s Reconstructions
The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, has built five reproduction ships which they have used to test average and top speeds of the various ships they have from Viking Age burials. Below are the four longships among the five ships they’ve reconstructed, and the information the museum lists about them on their website:
Skuldelev 1 – The ocean-going trader
Skuldelev 1 is a sizeable ocean-going cargo ship from Sognefjord in western Norway. The vessel is built of heavy pine planks and has a rounded form that gives it a high loading capacity and great seaworthiness on the North Atlantic. It was repeatedly repaired with oak in Norway and Denmark. The ocean-going trader could have sailed all over the North Sea and the Baltic as well as in the North Atlantic. The ship and its cargo may have been owned by a chieftain or by a group of merchants sailing it on trading expeditions. The ship had decks fore and aft as well as an open hold.
- Age: ca 1030
- Length: 15.84 meters
- Breadth: 4.8 meters
- No. of oars: 2-4
- Crew: 6-8 men
- Sail area: 90 m2
- Average speed: 5-7 knots
- Top speed: ca 13 knots
Skuldelev 2 – The great longship
Skuldelev 2 is a warship built to carry warriors at high speed from place to place. With a crew of 65-70 men, it was a ship owned by a chieftain or king, like those praised in the sagas. Tree-ring analysis of the timber shows that the vessel was built of oak in the vicinity of Dublin around 1042. Vikings settled in Ireland in AD 800 and established several fortified bases along the Irish coast. These bases developed into towns, which today are among the largest in Ireland.
- Age: ca 1042
- Length: approx. 30 meters
- Breadth: 3.8 meters
- No. of oars: 60
- Crew: 65-70 men
- Sail area: 112 m2
- Average speed: 6-8 knots
- Top speed: 13-17 knots
Skuldelev 3 – The coastal trader
Skuldelev 3 is a small, elegant, and sturdy trading ship built for carrying goods across Danish coastal waters and throughout the Baltic. The ship is the best preserved of the five Viking ships found in the Roskilde Fjord and was built with Danish oak. It had decks of loose planks fore and aft and an open hold with room for about 4 tons of cargo. The ship may have been used when the owner and his associates or family traveled to a market or meetings at the assembly.
The wind was the most important means of powering the ship, but the oars could be used when maneuvering or when traveling short distances in calm weather.
- Age: ca 1040
- Length: 14 meters
- Breadth: 3.3 meters
- No. of oars: 5
- Crew: 5-8 men
- Sail area: 45 m2
- Average speed: 4-5 knots
- Top speed: 8-10 knots
Skuldelev 5 – The small longship
Skuldelev 5 is one of the smallest longships and was likely used as part of a war fleet. It was ideal for sailing in Danish coastal waters and through the short, choppy waves of the Baltic. Unlike the other Skuldelev ships, it was built using both new wood and recycled timber. A few years before the ship sunk, it was repaired with both new and recycled wood. We do not know why the ship was built this way, but the construction and repairs were carried out by skilled boatbuilders.
- Age: ca 1030
- Length: 17.3 meters
- Breadth: 2.5 meters
- No. of oars: 26
- Crew: 30 men
- Sail area: 46 m2
- Average speed: 6-7 knots
- Top speed: 15 knots
Draken Harald Hårfagre
The Draken Harald Hårfagre is the largest reconstruction ever made and has sailed across the Atlantic as far as New York. The project was meant to create a ship that adhered to the descriptions of the largest longships found in the sagas with the building techniques discovered in actual burial ships. The website for the Draken Harald Hårfagre warns, “Draken Harald Hårfagre is a clinker-built Viking longship. She is not a replica of a known ship, she is a reconstruction of what the Norse Sagas refer to as a “Great ship”. Knowledge of history, and especially the Norse sagas, archeological findings and Norwegian boatbuilding traditions combined created the world’s largest Viking ship sailing in modern times.”
It is essential to understand that this ship is not the best source for understanding the speed of the longships of the Viking Age because she is not a replica of a known ship, and is much larger than any of the ships ever found. However, the experiment has shown us a profound trend: bigger does not equal faster. The top speed recorded for the Draken Harald Hårfagre is 14 knots, a full three knots shy of the Skudelev 2’s top speed. While an impressive ship, its size certainly affects its top speed and maneuverability.
How Fast Did Viking Longships Sail?
How Fast Did Viking Longships Sail? While modern replicas offer us some evidence for the top speeds of Viking longships, it remains a debatable subject. Replicas have topped 17 knots in ideal weather, but most sail in the 8-12 knot range. Some historians have proposed ships built in the Viking Age may have topped 24-25 knots, but no modern replica, to my knowledge, has attained such speeds. Considering speeds of 24-25 knots are extremely difficult and rare even for modern sailboats, as well as sailboats with two hulls, it is highly unlikely Viking longships reached such speeds. From the evidence, the 17-21 knot top-speed appears the most reasonable range until a new replica proves otherwise.