Ship Modelling

Rigging Patterns - The Viking Ships

Well, in fact we know almost NOTHING about the Vikings and their ships really.

The Oseberg Ship seen from the front, showing the typical shape of the hull (Source: Wiki Commons).

What we today call "Viking Ships" had different names in those times: drakar/drakkar (dragon ship), knorr/knarr/knörr, longship. Their principle construction was roughly the same, just the size and some details differed.

Viking Ships types were in use at least between 800-1200 in Northern Europe, with emphasis to the period of the "Vikings invasions" 800-1050. after that period, historic evidence is utterly rare.

The successors to these ship types were the Hansa Cogs, between 1200 - 1400

At least, there are some rare original boats, rediscovered around 1900 - they were used for Viking graves and lied buried for 1000 years. The most famous relics are the Drakkar Oseberg and the Gokstad Boat, preserved at The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.

From these, we know much about the hull and its construction. The rigging of course, did not prevail ...

Then we have some rare depictions, the most famous is the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy, France.

OK, we take the Oseberg ship as an example (there is a fine model kit from Heller of it). Its shape is still so good that many details of the hull could be reconstructed quite easily.

The shape of the viking ships were primarily good for rowing, supported by a sail, just like the Mediterranian galleys. But in contrary to them, viking ship hulls are very slim, they cut the water almost like modern rowing sport boats, so it is much easier to make speed by rowing rather than by sailing. What supports this is also the fact that the entire rigging was removable. The first ships (in Northern Europe) having a fixed mast were the cogs, 200 years later.

Although many replicas indicate something else, the ancient sail was not taller than 6m, but as wide as 10-12m.

No original masts are fully preserved. The mast (there was only one) was not fixed in the keel, it was removable (so the entire rigging could be stowed on deck when necessary), e.g. when winds were too strong or too calm, or when they had to pass under a low bridge.

The rest of the Viking sail is 99% speculation. The mast was too high to stand alone without a minimum of a stay and two backstays.

The square sail must have had at least a halyard, some kind of port and starboard braces and sheets. From the mere physical point of view, it was obviously possible to swing the yard from +90 to -90 degrees, in other words, this square sail could be used to sail "large", as well as a for-and-aft sail, and go very closed to the wind, like a schooner.

(Staysails are not "reported"; those came up after 1700, on the Ships of The Line)

Some ancient depictions show a "net sheet" over the entire foot of the sail. The Bayeux Tapestry shows Vikings in their ships, holding the sail´s foot by hands, not by sheets. But this maybe a matter of naivity by the artists who made the tapestry...

We can assume that, in order to set or furl the sail (they had only one), the yard was hauled up or veered down to deck. Topping lifts were not necessary, at least we have no evidence for them.

This is all we know.

Sources and Books

As said above, there are some rare original Viking ships preserved in the museums.

Some books can be recommended:
The Earliest Ships
Conway´s History of the Ship (English)
Gardiner, Robert (Editor) Conway 1996 142
Die Wikingerschiffsfunde
Hagen, Anders Universitetets Oldsaksamling Oslo 1965 40
Wikinger Museum Haitabu: Schaufenster einer frühen Stadt
Elsner, Hildegard Karl Wachholtz Verlag Neumünster (1986) 128
Modellbaureihe DK (German)
von Fircks, Jochen VEB Hinstorff 1979 80
Yes, that´s it!


(from von Fircks, Wikingerschiffe, citating Ċkerlund)

The Viking ship´s rigging gives a basic example for a square sail, that had been used in Northern Europe "ever since" - in the Mediterranian, the Agyptian, Greek and Roman galleys also had a standard square sail, but later, they also used triangular Lateen sails.

  • The Stays and Backstays

    The stay was used to raise the mast at sea by the crew. Then the stay had no function but to support the safe removal of the mast. Staysails are not known.

    The fixing of the backstays is a matter of speculation. Obviously, the entire rigging could be set or taken down quite rapidly, so there is no "standing rigging" in modern terms.

    Ċkerlund made a proposal in 1956, that is resampled in von Fircks book 1979, about the fixation of backstays. It looks like a wooden X, about half a meter in size, fixed by a rope from the ship side like a modern lanyard, and the backstay is belayed in a very special manner.

    Form test sailings with modern replicas, it is reported that backstays were only set on weather side to give room for the sail when sailing close to the wind.

  • The Halyard

    As the rigging is not preserved, we can only speculate that they used a simple block for the halyard.
  • The Braces

    Since the sail would be completely unstable without braces, and due to its size, we can assume simple braces, by using single ropes leading aft. Yet, there are no evidences at all for them ...
  • The Sail

    There are rare relics of woolen sails, that were colored. Depictions show vertical stripes or more complicated patterns.
  • The Sheets

    Since the sail would be completely unstable without sheets, and due to its size, we can assume simple sheets, by using single ropes leading aft. Yet, there are no evidences at all for them ...
  • Belayings

    The rigging of a Viking ship is simple, only a handful of lines. The most primitive belaying position is a clamp or a hook (shown on the Gokstad ship), which can be attached to the ships side or on a backstay.
Viking ships were rebuilt very often as replicas. Due to the lack of evidence, modern rigging techniques (like dead eyes) were also used eventually.