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Specifications (Skuldelev 1):
52 feet
15 feet 9 inches
Height (keel to gunwale):
6 feet 11 inches
3 feet
20 tons
Number of oars:
Six to eight men
Sail area:
970 square feet
5–13 knots (depending on wind)

From their first devastating raid on Lindisfarne, England, in 793 Norse Vikings established a seaborne empire with their sleek langskip (longships), whose gracefully curved wooden plank hulls were stout enough to cross oceans yet shallow enough in draft to negotiate inlets and rivers. By the 9th century the establishment of Norse kingdoms, overcrowding and blood feuds drove growing numbers of Norsemen “west over sea” to settle in the Faroes, Shetlands, Orkneys, Hebrides, Iceland, Greenland and, briefly, Vinland (coastal North America). To tackle the challenges of such long voyages and carry the cargo necessary for survival and commerce, the Vikings developed a utilitarian version of their proven vessels—the knarr, or coastal trading ship.

Beamier and with more freeboard than its martial cousin, the knarr relied more on its sail than the two to four oars it carried to aid in maneuvering. A Viking captain skilled at reading the sun, stars or even natural phenomena—birds, marine life or the variegated waters of various currents—was capable of navigating a knarr across the North Atlantic to the New World. One amenity conspicuously absent on the knarr, and Viking ships in general, was shelter. Exposed to the elements, crew and passengers alike had to bundle up and bear it.

As part of a raiding fleet the knarr carried the extra necessities as well as the booty, standing offshore while the longships ventured upriver. At places too stoutly defended to plunder, the knarr crews came to trade or sell what they had aboard. In either capacity the knarr was the homely workhorse to the thoroughbred langskip. The example shown is a reconstruction of Skuldelev 1, a circa 1030 Norwegian knarr discovered in Denmark’s Roskilde Fjord in 1924 and on display at Roskilde’s Viking Ship Museum The timbers of a knarr recovered from the harbor of Hedeby/Haithabu, Germany, indicate an even larger vessel, displacing some 60 tons. MH