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Rowing a Viking Longship


Did the Vikings always row their ships? Did their row our after our out at sea when there were no wind? How did they row? Could anybody row a vikingship? Were do you have your drums? 
Those are among the most common questions we get when we are guiding people. 

In this article I shall try to awnser these questions. I will also try to describe the technique on how to row a Vikingship. 

I would like to start by saying that almost anybody could row a Viking longship. You do´nt need strength. You need mostly technique and X between you rowers. I have under my journeys seen many strange ways of rowing a ship. It is very easy to think that you should row like you row a modern boat. It is the construction of the longship that gives the technique on how to row.

  • Then, - what kind of construction?
      • The oars are long (often between 5 to 6 meters long).
      • The oars are put into holes in the hull instead of on top of the oarlock.
      • The rowers sit very tight together. That means that the stroke of the oars get shorter.
      • The gunwale is so high that you do´nt see the oars in the water.
      • If the oar blade gets stuck in the water (wrong angle into the water), then the rower will get thrown backwards.
      • Everybody must take the stroke of the oars at the same time, all the time.
    Oh!! Is it that difficult, is probably what you think now. But NO! It is just what it is'nt. It is much easier than rowing a normal boat, just as long as you understand how and why you have to row this way. The youngest kid that I have seen rowing a longship were just five years old and the oldest 82 years old. Both of them did an excellent rowing.
  • The Rowing!
  • The first on board is that you´ll be put at a rowingspot and a chest to sit on. The row leader and some crew members delivers oars, first to the starboard and then to the portside rowers. On given order lowers the starboard rowers their oars (without hurting anyone). The oar puts from inside the ship into the oar hole. Then the portside rowers have done the same is the ship ready to get rowed. The leader gives the command "All - Row". Everybody takes ONE stroke with their oar. The leader waits until everybody has taken their stroke, until he once again says "And - Row", The leader slowly raises the stroke. No, we us no drums. It's not needed. The rowers hold the stroke after a few strokes of oars just by looking at the first rower. The leader do'nt need to give the stroke. This is what we call silent rowing. That is important if you want to take the enemy by surprise. From now on the leader only gives steering commands.

  • Rowing and steering commands (example).
      • All - row.
      • Starboard/Port track rest (ors still above the water).
      • Starboard/Port track row.
      • Starboard/Port track stay or stand (ors still in the water).
      • Starboard/Porttrack reverse.
      • Well rowed (the rowing is over)
  • Rowing technique with longships.
  • You take the stroke of oars like this: You start with the oar in the "Basic position". That means the oar between 1 to 1,5 inch from your stomach and the blade a bit above the water. When the leader gives the starts command e.g "All Rowers -", you move the oar handle forwards to the "Start position". When the leader follows his command with "- Row", you take a short but steady stroke with your oar and move it back to the "Basic position". The short stroke is to not get stuck with the oar. The steady stroke gives the ship its speed. It is important to take the stroke this way. It makes rowing easier. The most important is to take the oar back to the basic position after the stroke of oars. Why? Well, otherwise you wount be able to keep stroke when speed increases. After half a seconds rest, take the next stroke.

  • The Plank with the oar holes.
  • The plank with the oar holes in is the secont strongest plank on board. It should take up all rotary movements during rowing. Furthermore, the plank must not break if one oar gets stuck in the water during rowing. The diameter of the oar hole is fit to a maximum suitable stroke of oars and for maximum speed at rowing. In the edge of the oar hole, there is a notch made for the oar blade to slide in. Otherwise should the oar blade be to wide to be able to be put into sea through the hole from the inside. When not rowing there is a hatch in front of the oar hole. That is to stop the waves from washing through the holes. There are 16 oar holes at each side on the Gokstad ship. The ship is kalled a "sixteen sessa" (a ship with sixteen oars on each side). A Vikingships size is often defined that way (not by its length).

  • The Chests.
  • The rowers often sat on chests in Viking Longships. The chests makes more space in the ship at sailing. Thay kan be put on suitable places on board the ship when not needed for rowing. It is very important that the chests have the right hight. The oars may smash into your knees if the chest is to high. Still uoy have to sit comfortable when rowing.

  • The Oars.
  • The shape of the oars is very important. They should be smooth but still strong. They must have exact the right balance to make the rowing comfortable. In the Gokstad ship the archeologists have found perfect oars for Vikingships. Many replicas of other ships have copied those oars. They are made of spruce to be light and strong enough. It is important that the spruce has grown slowly so the wood fibre is very tight. The shape of the oar makes the balance. The oar is thicker by the handle then by the blade. The length of the oars are important as well. If you sit in front of the ship, you sit higher. That meens that you have to have longer oar then those who sit in the middle. Where the oar gets its contact against the oar plank, is it strengthend with a leather piece. The leather seam works as a target on wich the rower can judge the rotation of the oar blade. The oar blade must point up, otherwise will the oar get stuck in the water. Wrong pointing may krack the oar.

  • Conclution!
  • What is the result by this rowing technique?

    • The Rowing gets comfortable and flexibel.
    • It´s easy to keep stroke, even at silent and high speed rowing.
    • It´s easy to row. Smallest crew upstream at the River Göta Älv has been six men (speed 1.5 knotts) on a 23 meter ship.
    • It takes short time to lern how to row. It takes normaly between 10 to 15 minutes to get a good rowing.
    • It is easy to get high speed. Technical max speed is around eight knotts.

    Ofcourse they did'nt row long time. Maybe only an our at a time. It was better to sail, and i'm shore they sailed mostly. Not even at calm is there any use to row unless you're near a harbour.


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