What it was like to travel on a Viking ship?

What it was like to travel on a Viking ship?

What it was like to travel on a Viking ship back then?

Please, focus on these points:

  • How long it would take for a Viking raider group to get to their favorite destinations using a Viking warship?
  • How long it would take to transport the goods to their most common trade partners for a Viking merchant using a Viking trade ship?
  • What was the average speed of a Viking warship and Viking trade ship?
  • What factors affected the speed of Viking warships and trade ships and how much?
  • What is the greatest distance they could travel and what would be the limiting factors?

How long it would take for a Viking raider group to get to their favourite destinations using a Viking warship?

To go from Scandinavia to Ireland including various stops and diversions might be approximately 900 nautical miles. Good rowers can make about 60 nautical miles per day in ocean conditions. Assuming no stops are made it would therefore take about 15 days to make the trip. To get to Iceland from Norway took about 10 to 12 days.

How long it would take to transport the goods to their most common trade partners for a Viking merchant using a Viking tradeship?

Assuming the merchant is relying on sail it would depend entirely on the route, the winds and other factors.

What was the average speed of a Viking warship and Viking trade ship?

I already answered for an oared warship. Sailing speed varies enormously depending on the winds, the season, cargo etc. An unladen, very trim ship could make as much as 100 nautical miles per day. A laden knorr might be more like 20 nautical miles per day. The more cargo it has, the slower it goes.

What factors affected the speed of Viking warships and tradeships and how much?

The winds, the trim of the vessel, the skill of the crew, the skill of the captain, the currents. In practice, a ship would make many stops. The number and duration of these stops would significantly affect the degree of progress.

What is the greatest distance they could travel and what would be the limiting factors?

In the open ocean, the limiting factor is fresh water for the crew. An active crew member will require about 1 gallon of water per day. A big 60-foot longship might easily carry 1200 gallons, enough for 100 men for 12 days. In a hostile area, or exploring long distances, or making a long military campaign, food will be a factor. It is much easier to find fresh water on land than food.


I can add some comments to Tyler Durden's answer. Viking ships were not optimized for the open sea sailing performance. But they were good for rowing, travel near the shore and in the rivers. They were relatively long and narrow and had a shallow draft. As a result they could not carry much sail. The rudder was not invented yet, they used a steering paddle. The single small square sail they had is a poor performer except downwind. As I already said in my comments, rowing in the open ocean is not an effective way of transportation, especially in the presence of waves, wind and current. Of course, some ocean travels in these ships are known and well recorded. They certainly colonized Greenland and probably had a colony in North America. But I suppose these trips depended on favorable winds and a lot of luck.

Sailing boats, which are optimized for sailing have very different hull shape and different sails and rigging.

On the other hand, travel range near the shore (the thing they mostly did) was unlimited, assuming you can refill water and food on shore. And we know from history that they traveled thousands miles along the shore.

One also has to take into account that open sea travel in antiquity and Middle age was only possible in summer in most cases.

EDIT. Here is a book that analyses performance of modern replicas of ancient and medieval ships: Sailing into the Past: Learning from Replica Ships By Jenny Bennett (2009). It is not freely available but can be searched on Google books. It mentions a sea trial of a replica of a longship. The speed achieved windward was about 1 knot, downwind from 4 to 8, rowing about 3 knots. Of course, the speeds achieved in a trial are not the average speeds over long trips.

ADDED on Aug 12, 2015. Yesterday, I saw an excellent movie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8jhnrNHk3g which documents a trip from Denmark to Ireland on a replica of a large Viking longship. The movie very well confirms what I wrote. 1. Rowing in the ocean waves is not an option. 2. Sailing against the wind was impossible or useless. 3. Even in the best season, you cannot be sure how long will the travel be.

Few modern people would survive such a trip under true "Viking-time conditions", I mean without modern high-tech cloths and radio weather forecast.

Perhaps the correct question would be not "how long does it take", but "what was the survival rate in these travels". Were the loss of life in sea larger or smaller than in combat ?


Viking ships

How did the Vikings navigate the world's oceans in search of land and treasure?

The ‘Vikings’ were seafaring raiders and traders from Scandinavia. The period known as the Viking Age lasted from AD 700 until 1100.

‘Viking’ was the name given to the seafarers from Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. During the Viking age many Vikings travelled to other countries, such as Britain and Ireland. They either settled in these new lands as farmers and craftsmen, or went to fight and look for treasure.


10 Facts About Viking Longships

The Vikings are best remembered as fearsome warriors, but their longlasting legacy owes just as much to their seafaring aptitude. Both the Vikings’ ships and the skill with which they utilised them were key to the success of many of their exploits, from fishing and exploring the oceans to raiding.

Though Viking boats came in many shapes and sizes, the most iconic and effective Viking vessel was undoubtedly the longship. Long, narrow and flat, longships were fast, durable and capable of navigating both choppy seas and shallow rivers. They were also light enough to be carried over land.

It’s easy to characterise the Vikings as bloodthirsty reprobates rampaging across Europe, but the craft and innovation of the shipbuilding that enabled their conquests deserves recognition.

The fact that Leif Erikson led a Viking crew to North America in around 1,000 — 500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot on the New World — makes clear the Vikings’ remarkable maritime prowess and showcases the robustness of their boats.

Here are 10 things you may not have known about the impressive longships.


What are the best Viking sites, museums and ruins to visit?

1. The Viking Fortress Trelleborg

The Viking fortress at Trelleborg is one of the best preserved of four circular fortresses in Denmark. The collection of circular fortresses in Denmark is believed to date back to the tenth century and would have been heavily defended by an army of warriors led by Harald I, who was the son of Gorm the Old.

In addition to the fortress, visitors can see a large Viking cemetery, a Viking village and a museum housing numerous excavated objects, a museum shop and café. Trelleborg is very child-friendly, with demonstrations, costumed-guides and activities.

2. Jorvik Viking Centre

The Jorvik Viking Centre in York hosts a reconstruction of a Viking city as it would have looked in approximately 975 AD. The reconstruction of the city comes complete with figures representing the Vikings whose likeness is based on skulls found at the site. From market scenes to those showing the Vikings at home and at work, Jorvik recreates the Viking life as it would have been in what is now York.

3. The Viking Museum at Ladby

The Viking Museum at Ladby houses the Ladby Burial Ship, a Viking ship grave found there in 1935. Dating back to around 925 AD, it is believed that the ship is the burial site of a prince or other leader, such as a chieftain.

Displaying the Ladby Burial Ship amidst a series of other excavation finds, the museum offers an insight into the history of the Vikings and their lives in the area.

4. Jelling

Jelling is an impressive and significant Viking archaeological site containing a series of important tenth century finds. Originally the royal home of the Gorm the Old, Jelling remains a vital part of Denmark’s history, particularly as this Viking king was the first of the royal line which still rules the country today.

Gorm and his son, Harald I Bluetooth, erected several monuments at Jelling, including a pair of enormous grave mounds, which are the largest in Denmark. These are still incredibly well-preserved and can be viewed at the site. Gorm was buried in the larger one, although the second one is not thought to have been used. Runic stones also stand before Jelling Church, which dates back to around 1100. The site has a visitor centre with a series of exhibits telling the story of the monuments.

5. The Viking Ship Museum

The Viking Ship Museum displays five Viking vessels and offers an incredible insight into the world of the Viking people and their era of between 800 AD and 1100 AD.

The ships are known as the “Skuldelev Ships” due to the fact that they were found sunk in Skuldelev, a deliberate act by the Vikings to form a barrier – the Peberrende blockade – to enemy vessels. The ships range from a 30 metre long warship known as “wreck 2” to an 11.2 metre fishing boat. Each one has been carefully reconstructed. The museum also has an exhibit telling the story of a Norwegian attack and there are even summer boat trips available for an authentic Viking experience.

6. The Settlement Exhibition

The Settlement Exhibition displays the remains of Iceland’s first known Viking settlement set in its original location in Reykjavik. Visitors to the Settlement Exhibition can see an array of artefacts excavated at the site as well as the stone foundations of a Viking Longhouse.

The site of the Settlement Exhibition dates back to 871AD, while the longhouse is believed to be from the 10th century.

7. L’Anse aux Meadows

L’Anse aux Meadows is the only-known site of Viking settlement in North America, these also being the earliest European visitors to the region.

Today, visitors can tour reconstructions of a trio of reconstructed 11th century wood-framed Viking structures as well as viewing finds from archaeological digs at the interpretative centre.

8. Hedeby Viking Museum

Hedeby Viking Museum is located on the site of an important Viking settlement and offers great insight into the lives of the Vikings. The museum is located just across from the original settlement site and displays the results of over a hundred years of archaeological discovery. What’s more, several nearby Viking houses have been reconstructed and the fortifications are also in evidence.

9. Fyrkat

Fyrkat is an archaeological site made up of nine reconstructed Viking houses and a ringfort as well as a Viking cemetery. It is thought that the fort at Fyrkat was established during the reign of Harald I Bluetooth in around 980 AD. There are also exhibitions about the history of the Vikings.

10. Lindholm Hoje

Lindholm Hoje is a large archaeological site housing Denmark’s most impressive Viking and Germanic Iron Age graveyard. With over 700 graves of various shapes and sizes found in 1952, Lindholm Hoje offers a fascinating insight into burial customs of the time. Guided tours can be arranged in advance. Lindholm Hoje also has a museum displaying archaeological finds and telling the story of the Viking and Iron ages.


What it was like to travel on a Viking ship? - History

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However, as most of us do often imagine, Viking ships did regularly come outfitted with fearsome head posts depicting dragons and other mythical creatures.

For more Viking facts about ships, see this report.

With the ability to divorce and remarry, own property, and sit at the head of a familial clan, Viking women had more rights than those in Christian Europe.

For more Viking facts related to women, see this overview.

Leif Erikson, a Norse explorer, discovered North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The Vikings called it Vinland.

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Centuries after their heyday in the Middle Ages, the Vikings remain a topic of popular fascination.

And rightly so: Bold and tough, they fanned out from their bases in Scandinavia to become the terror of European monasteries and villages all over Christendom. With a cunning mix of trading and looting, they battered down whole societies and eventually settled lands from North America to the Black Sea.

Since then, Hollywood and Victorian Romanticists have left us with pop-culture images of these seaborne adventurers, but how accurate is our collective picture of them? The surprising and interesting Viking facts above hold the answers.

Fascinated by these Viking facts from history? To learn more information about what Vikings actually did, check out what researchers recently found inside this ancient Viking ship. Then, see history's worst execution methods, as designed by Vikings and several other brutal groups.


Viking Raids and Weapons

Traditionally, archaeologists have proposed that changes in climate boosted agriculture, causing a sharp spike in population, which inspired the Vikings to look for new lands . Others maintain local chieftains funded treasure hunting raids to further establish their wealth, dominance, and power. There is still debate about how much Viking women participated in warfare. The Vikings went on raids and set up colonies elsewhere in Europe and as far east as Russia. By the mid-11th century the Nordic empire expanded into Britain, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, and they also raided Italian and Spanish ports as well as Constantinople.

Between at least 795 and 836 AD, there were countless ‘hit and run’ raids by both the Norsemen and the Danes in Ireland. It is likely that Christian monasteries in Ireland were initially targeted because they were poorly defended and contained portable wealth in the form of metalwork and people. Settling in richer Christian lands also offered better prospects for some than remaining in resource-poor Scandinavia.

A famous raid took place at Luni, where Bjorn (or Hastein) sent messengers to the bishop to inform him of their leader’s death. They said that on his deathbed he had converted to Christianity and his dying wish was to be buried on consecrated ground. The bishop allowed several Vikings to bring the leader’s body into the town. Once they entered Luni, Bjorn is said to have jumped out of his coffin, fought his way to the town’s gates, and allowed the rest of the Vikings in.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that the Vikings stood shield-by-shield, forming a close formation in battle. A typical Viking shield was relatively small and light, and used as an active weapon. They used a wide range of combat techniques. One of these is the so-called svinfylking (”Swine Array” or “Boar’s Snout”), a version of the wedge formation used to attack and break through enemy shield walls with an axe as the primary weapon, something that was effective at creating fear and panic.

The Dane axe is a two-handed weapon and was used exclusively for battle. It is most famous for its use by the huscarls (household troops) of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD and is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Another type of Viking axe is the bearded axe which could be wielded with one hand and used to hook an enemy’s weapon or shield. Off the battlefield, this axe was also used for wood-chopping.


Building the Hull

The first strake to go on is called the Garboard strake (dunno why, it just is) and it is riveted and nailed on to the keel. Iron rivets are the most common Viking method of joining planks together (modern clinker boats use copper). Nails are used where the end of the rivet cannot be reached – usually at the stem and stern, where space is tight. The heads of the rivets are bent over rectangular (ish) washers, which are called roves. The next plank is riveted on to the garboard strake, so that it overlaps it when seen from outside. The rivet passes through the outside of the plank near its bottom edge, through the garboard strake near its top edge, and it is bent over a washer inside the boat.

Another strake is wedged in place ready to be permanently roved onto the emerging ship.

Caulking (or luting) is used to stop water from getting into the boats. No wooden boat can claim to be entirely watertight, but the Vikings did their best. The caulking was made from animal hair (such as sheep’s wool) that had been dipped in a sticky pitch made from pine resin. It was laid in the groove on the plank and, when the plank was riveted to the rest of the boat, created an almost watertight seal, whilst still having the flexibility to move with the boat.

As each plank is riveted to the next, the boat would begin to take shape. To get the boat to the correct profile involves cutting the planks into some fairly strange shapes. The way that the ends of the planks join onto the stem and stern helps determine the profile of the boat – whether it will be a beamy cargo ship or a knife-thin warship. The larger the ship, the more planks will be required. Long ships would require that several shorter planks be joined together by scarf joints – some of which could be quite elaborate. As the planks are added one above the other, clamps were used to hold them in place and the frame inside could be added.


Leif Erikson’s voyage to Vinland

The second Monday of October is a federal public holiday in the United States. Known as Columbus Day, it marks the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492 – an event that, without doubt, marked a turning point in the fortunes of the conjoined continents, north and south of where he landed.

But despite popular perceptions, the Italian explorer wasn’t the first European to set foot on American soil. Not by a long shot.

Almost five centuries before Columbus crashed into the Bahamas, a boatload of flaxen-haired white men had made landfall in North America. And while the Vikings’ initial discovery of what would become known as the New World was almost certainly a fluke, within a short time Norse explorers led by Leif Erikson and his siblings were deliberately pointing their longboats at the fertile western land. By the early 1000s, a Viking colony was attempting to put down roots in the earthly Valhalla they called Vinland, a place of wine-grapes and wheat.

Leif was from a long line of adventurers, some of whose wanderings were not undertaken entirely voluntarily. His grandfather, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was banished from Norway for manslaughter, a punishment that prompted him to seek a new home for his young family. This he found in Iceland, a land originally discovered by his relative Naddodd. Some 22 years later, Thorvald’s son (and Leif’s father), Erik the Red, was in turn turfed out of Iceland for killing Eyiolf the Foul. During his exile, he found and settled Greenland.

So Leif had a lot to live up to, but sewing the seeds for the foundation of the first European settlement in the Americas isn’t a bad legacy – even if it went unnoticed by most of the world for the next millennium.

But how did this Viking vagabond find his way right across the angry Atlantic with no navigational aids, and what did he hope to find there? Was he even the first white man to set foot on American soil, or did some of his kinsmen get there earlier?

Vikings Season 6 is streaming now on Amazon Prime: catch up on what’s happened so far, plus 8 historical questions from the finale answered

Norse code

It’s never easy accurately tracing a tale that begins over a thousand years ago, but luckily the Vikings left a legacy of sagas – detailed written accounts of their heroes’ exploits.

However, in the case of Leif and the great American adventure, about two hundred years passed between the action happening and the events being transcribed into the written word. During this time, the stories would have been passed down orally across generations and around the societies of Greenland and Iceland (which became increasingly culturally separated from the Norse homeland of Norway) with inevitable distortions, exaggerations and elaborations being introduced.

35 | The number of crew in Leif’s expedition to Vinland in AD 1000, as described in the Saga of the Greenlanders

The result is not one, but two separate accounts – the Grænlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders) and the Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red). Collectively, they’re known as the Vinland Sagas, and contain differing versions about who did what and when. According to the Grænlendinga saga, the very first person to spot North American soil was a Viking merchant called Bjarni Herjólfsson, who was blown off course by a storm and became lost while attempting to follow his father’s route from Iceland to Greenland in around AD 986.

Bjarni never made landfall on the strange new continent, and no-one seemed overly interested in his story for over a decade, until it reached the restless ears of young Leif Erikson. Enthused by the tale, Leif set off on an expedition to explore the mysterious western land, to be followed later by his brothers Thorvald and Thorstein, and his sister Freydis Eriksdottir, along with the Icelandic explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni.

However, in the Eiríks saga rauða, Leif has a lesser role, simply spotting the coast of North America in much the same way as Bjarni (blown off course and lost while returning from Norway), and it’s Thorfinn Karsefni who leads the main expedition to the area named in both books as Vinland.

The main players

Leif Erikson

Viking explorer and early Christian evangelist, born sometime between AD 960 and 970, and the second of three sons of Erik the Red and Thjohild. He was also known as ‘Leif the Lucky’, famed for discovering America.

Leif’s older servant – a foster-father figure (possibly a freed German slave), who accompanied the explorer during his American adventure and discovered the ‘grapes’ that gave the continent the name Vinland.

Erik the Red

Leif’s father, who, exiled from Iceland for killing Eyiolf the Foul around the year AD 982, was the first to settle Greenland.

Thorvald Asvaldsson

Leif’s grandfather, who, banished from Norway in AD 960 for manslaughter, went into exile in Iceland, a land first discovered by his relative Naddodd.

Bjarni Herjólfsson

Possibly the very first European to sight the Americas, in circa AD 986. Although unmentioned in the Eiríks saga rauða, in the Grœnlendinga saga Bjarni is blown off course while attempting to reach Greenland, and spots land far to the west, but he chooses not to land.

Thorfinn Karlsefni

Icelandic explorer and prominent character in the Saga of Erik the Red, in which he is credited with leading the first major expedition to explore North American soil and with establishing a settlement.

Although both stories are heavily peppered with fantastic flourishes, historians have long believed they were originally spun with fact-based threads, a theory that was proved correct when a Viking-era settlement was discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, in the early 1960s by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife Anne Stine Ingstad.

Some scholars consider the Grænlendinga saga, written slightly earlier than the Eiríks saga rauða, to be the more reliable of the two accounts, although the respective stories do share several aspects and characters, and many of the events described are not mutually exclusive of one another.

Who was Leif Erikson?

According to the Viking tradition, as a child Leif was looked after and taught outside the family unit. His tutor and minder was a man called Tyrker, thought to have been a freed German thrall (or slave) captured years earlier by Erik the Red. Tyrker became more of a foster-father figure than a servant to Leif, later accompanying him on his far-ranging expeditions.

Doubtless having heard his father and grandfather’s tales of adventure from a young age, by the time he was in his early 20s, Leif was experiencing a strong urge to explore. His initial escapade saw him depart from Greenland in AD 999 on a trip to Norway, where he intended to serve the king, Olaf Tryggvason.

En route, however, Leif’s ship was blown off course and extreme weather forced him to take shelter in the Hebrides, off the northwest coast of mainland Scotland. The heavy conditions continued for a month or more, preventing the Vikings from setting sail, but Leif kept himself busy and ended up impregnating the daughter of the local lord who was hosting him. The woman, Thorgunna, gave birth to a son, Thorgils, but not before Leif had left for Norway.

Leif made a good impression on Olaf and the King invited him to join his retinue as a hirdman, one of a close circle of armed soldiers. During his stay in Norway, which lasted for the winter, Leif and his entire crew were converted to Christianity, a faith followed by Olaf, and baptised. In the spring, Leif was given a mission: to introduce Christianity to the people of Greenland. It was a challenge he would eventually set about with enthusiasm, but he hadn’t yet sated his appetite for adventure.

The stories surrounding Leif’s first encounter with the Americas differ significantly. In the Eiríks saga rauða, storms again blow the returning Viking off course after he leaves Norway, this time taking him so far west he veers close to the coast of a continent that is unfamiliar to all aboard, but which appears promisingly fertile.

In the Grænlendinga saga, however, Leif learns about this mysterious land from Bjarni Herjólfsson, and is so intrigued that he buys Bjarni’s knarr (a Viking ship) and determines to retrace his route. According to this account, with a crew of 35 men, and armed only with a secondhand boat and a verbal description of the route to follow, Leif sets off on his 1,800-mile journey to a completely new world sometime in AD 1000.

Leif Erikson’s voyage to Vinland: a timeline

The exact chronology and geography of Leif Erikson’s adventures are debatable subjects, with the two primary sources offering differing accounts, but the following is a representation of events primarily described in the Grænlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders), which most scholars accept as being the more reliable text.

1 | Spring/early summer AD 999 – Greenland

Leif departs Greenland, heading for the Norse homeland of Norway, where he intends to serve the King, Olaf Tryggvason. His boat is blown off course, however, and he makes a forced landfall in the Hebrides.

2 | Summer – Hebrides, Scotland

Confined to the islands for a month or more by extreme weather, Leif is shown hospitality by a local chief and begins an affair with his daughter, Thorgunna, which results in the birth of a son, Thorgils.

3 | WinterNidaros (present-day Trondheim), Norway

Upon reaching Norway, Leif is well received by Olaf Tryggvason. While spending the winter in Norway, Leif adopts the Christian faith followed by his host, and is sent back to Greenland on a mission to convert his brethren. According to the Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red), Leif’s boat is blown off course again during his return trip, taking him past the area of North America that would later become known as Vinland. Reports differ about whether this happened at all, and, if it did, whether he landed.

4 | AD 1000Brattahlíð (Brattahlid), Greenland

Having either been inspired by the tales of Bjarni Herjólfsson (a Viking trader who spotted the American coast after becoming lost in AD 986) or seeking to return to the fertile land he’d glimpsed while recently returning from Norway (depending on which saga you believe), Leif deliberately sails northwest to locate and explore the mysterious continent.

5 | Helluland (believed to be Baffin Island in the present-day Canadian territory of Nunavut)

After crossing the icy waters now known as the Davis Strait, Leif encounters a barren and frostbitten coast, which he names Helluland (‘stone-slab land’).

6 | Markland (probably part of the Labrador coast, Canada)

Sailing on, tracing the coastline south, Leif finds forested terrain skirted by white shoreline. Leif calls this Markland (‘wood land’), but he doesn’t dwell there long.

7 | Winter AD 1000Vinland (L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada)

Pushed along by a northeasterly wind for two days, Leif finally finds the sort of landscape he’s been looking for – fertile and full of food including grapes (although these may have been gooseberries). They overwinter here, in a small settlement called Leifsbúðir (‘Leif’s shelters’). In spring, Leif and his crew sail back to Greenland, carrying a precious cargo of grapes and wood. En route, they chance upon some shipwrecked Vikings, whom they save.

Erik, who reportedly harboured reservations about the expedition, was prepared to accompany his son, but pulled out of the trip after falling from his horse not long before departure, which he interpreted as a bad omen. Undeterred, Leif set sail and followed Bjarni’s AD 986 homecoming route in reverse, plotting a course northwest across the top end of the Atlantic. The first place they encountered is described as a barren land, now believed to be Baffin Island. Leif called it as he saw it, and named the place Helluland, meaning ‘the land of the flat stones’.

He continued, heading south and skirting the coast of the country we know as Canada. The next place of note, where the landscape changed to become heavily wooded, Leif branded Markland – meaning ‘land of forests’ – which was likely the shore of Labrador. The country looked promising, not least because of the abundance of trees, something sorely lacked by Greenland (despite its name, which Erik the Red chose to make it sound appealing to the people he wanted to lure there from Iceland). Although wood was in high demand for building homes and boats, Leif kept sailing south.

Why is Vinland known as the ‘land of wine’?

Eventually, the explorers came to a place, thought to be Newfoundland Island, that ticked all Leif’s boxes. The expedition set up camp in a place that would come to be called Leifsbúðir (literally Leif’s Booths) near Cape Bauld, close to present-day L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Here they spent at least one winter, enthusing about the comparatively mild climate, fertile conditions and abundance of food. One day, Tyrker apparently went missing from a group gathering supplies, and when Leif located him, he was drunk and babbling happily about some berries he’d found.

These are referred to in the saga as grapes, although modern experts think it unlikely that grapes as we know them would have grown so far north, and speculate that Tyrker had been scrumping naturally fermenting squashberries, gooseberries or cranberries. Either way, this discovery was greeted with delight, and the place was subsequently named Vinland, meaning ‘land of wine’.

Why was Leif Erikson called Leif the Lucky?

At some point in 1001, laden down with supplies of precious wine ‘grapes’ and wood, Leif and his men made the return journey to Greenland, full of tales about a western land of bounty and beauty. On their way home, they chanced upon and rescued a group of shipwrecked Norse sailors, an adventure that added to the captain’s fame and led to him acquiring the nickname ‘Leif the Lucky’.

Leif subsequently remained in Greenland, enthusiastically espousing Christianity, while his brother Thorvald undertook a second expedition to Vinland, during which he was killed. Unlike Greenland and Iceland, Vinland had a population of indigenous people – known to later Viking explorers as the Skrælings – who were less than impressed at the sudden arrival of the Scandinavians. Thorvald earned the unfortunate honour of becoming the first European to die on the continent when he was killed in a skirmish with the Skrælings.

His other brother, Thorstein, attempted to retrieve Thorvald’s body, but died following an unsuccessful voyage. His wife, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, then met and married Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelandic merchant who subsequently led an attempt to establish a bigger, more permanent settlement on the new continent. This failed, but the couple did give birth to a son, Snorri Thorfinnsson, the first European to be born on the American continent.

Freydis Eiriksdottir, Leif’s sister, also travelled to Vinland, either with Thorfinn Karlsefni or as part of an expedition with two other Icelandic traders, who she subsequently betrayed and had killed (depending on which saga you read). Ultimately, although the terrain offered a good supply of wood and supplies, operating a permanent settlement so far from home proved too hard for the Vikings.

The American chapter of the Vikings’ saga had begun by accident, and their subsequent attempts to deliberately colonise the continent were doomed to fizzle out. Ferocious attacks from First Nation peoples, climate change and distance from their Norse brethren have all been blamed for their failure.

But these intrepid and fearsome folk knew how to wield pens as well as battleaxes and oars, and news of the Norsemen’s globe-bending discovery percolated through European ports over the centuries, influencing the ambitions of later European explorers, including Columbus, who claimed to have visited Iceland in 1477.

When is Leif Erikson day?

Very belatedly, Leif’s achievements are now being recognised in the land he explored more than 1,000 years ago, with Leif Erikson Day being celebrated on 9 October – the same day that the first organised immigration from Norway to the US took place in 1825. Today, there are more than 4.5 million people of Norwegian ancestry living in the United States the saga continues.

Pat Kinsella is a freelance writer specialising in the travel and history


The Beginning of an Era

Before they were Vikings, Scandinavians have always relied largely on the sea that surrounds the Scandinavian countries. Many of these older boats were much smaller than the famed longships. Ravn says that the Norse would have used smaller boats built from planks of wood and dugout canoes built by felling thick trees and hollowing out their trunks. These vessels were largely propelled by rowing, according to archaeological evidence. While northern Europeans certainly had some contact with Roman provinces about 2,000 years ago and likely had some knowledge of sail technology, archaeologists have never found any evidence either in ship finds or depictions that Scandinavians began to use sails themselves until the 7th or 8th centuries.

“It might just be that we simply haven’t found the ship finds where we would see this technology being used,” Ravn says. But this timeline roughly makes sense when understanding why Scandinavian people began to expand outwards on longer sea voyages and raids about 1,200 years ago.

But by the time they began to use the sail, Scandinavians would certainly have been well versed in carpentry since most of their houses and settlements were built of wood. “They would definitely already have excellent skills in selecting proper woods and using these resources in different construction projects,” Ravn says. The combination of their knowledge of boatbuilding with sailing technology likely led to the construction of the first longships.


Waning influence

By about 1100, Viking dominance diminished. Political power consolidated as scattered chiefdoms gave way to Scandinavian kingdoms and legal institutions. Vikings' targets had invested in fortifications and learned to defend themselves. The Battle of Hastings brought the end of Viking rule in England in 1066, and the adoption of Christianity within Scandinavia slowed the raids.

Though popular culture continues to depict Vikings as wearing horned helmets (they didn’t) and drinking from skulls (also a myth), their peaceful trading and cultural sharing belies the violent legend. The Vikings’ cultural power and contributions to the communities in which they settled were just as potent as their ability to sail and pillage.


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