Oarsmen

The longships had two methods of propulsion: oars and sail. At sea, the sail enabled longships to travel faster than by oar and to cover long distances overseas with far less manual effort. Sails could be raised or lowered quickly. In a modern facsimile the mast can be lowered in 90 seconds. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river, to gain speed quickly, and when there was an adverse (or insufficient) wind. In combat, the variability of wind power made rowing the chief means of propulsion. The ship was steered by a vertical flat blade with a short round handle, at right angles, mounted over the starboard side of the aft gunwale.


Gokstad-ship-model. Photo © Softies, 13 Aug 2006

The longships had two methods of propulsion: oars and sail. At sea, the sail enabled longships to travel faster than by oar and to cover long distances overseas with far less manual effort. Sails could be raised or lowered quickly.In a modern facsimile the mast can be lowered in 90 seconds. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river, to gain speed quickly, and when there was an adverse (or insufficient) wind. In combat, the variability of wind power made rowing the chief means of propulsion. The ship was steered by a vertical flat blade with a short round handle, at right angles, mounted over the starboard side of the aft gunwale.

Longships were not fitted with benches. When rowing, the crew sat on sea chests (chests containing their personal possessions) that would otherwise take up space. The chests were made the same size and were the perfect height for a Viking to sit on and row. Longships had hooks for oars to fit into, but smaller oars were also used, with crooks or bends to be used as oarlocks. If there were no holes then a loop of rope kept the oars in place.

An innovation that improved the sail's performance was the beitass, or stretching pole – a wooden spar stiffening the sail. The windward performance of the ship was poor by modern standards as there was no centreboard, deep keel or leeboard. To assist in tacking the beitass kept the luff taut. Bracing lines were attached to the luff and lead through holes on the forward gunwale. Such holes were often reinforced with short sections of timber about 500 to 700 mm (1.6 to 2.3 feet) long on the outside of the hull.

The Gokstad ship was commissioned during the reign of Harald Fairhair at the end of the 9th century. It was built to carry 32 oarsmen, and the oar holes could be hatched down when the ship was under sail.

The Oseberg ship dates from 834 AD. It has 15 pairs of oar holes, which means that 30 people could row the ship.

Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, dates from th 6th- and early 7th-century. In the fore and aft sections of the ship, there are thorn-shaped oar-rests along the gunwales, indicating that there may have been positions for forty oarsmen.

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