The Vikings at Sea

The Vikings At Sea

The Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the North Atlantic were the Vikings’ super-highway. These are some of the world’s most difficult waters to sail upon, even with the Viking Ships.

The Vikings most often sailed along the coasts, but they were the only European seafarers at the time to dare travel so far that they lost sight of land. It was important for the Vikings that they understood the weather that each season brought as they could then plan their voyages whether long or short

They didn’t have any of today’s modern navigation instruments, but during the Viking era they developed navigational aids that all seafaring peoples in Europe used until the invention of the sextant in the 1700’s.

On the High Seas

Sailing between the Norwegian Sea, Greenland and America was not just an act of daring it was a grand achievement of navigation. How did the Vikings do it? We can still read a written description of how to sail from Norway to Greenland.


Before embarking on a voyage on the high seas, they had to prepare thoroughly. They needed to know everything nature could tell those in the know, and the Vikings were in the know!

Because of the period’s poor navigational aids they had many things to consider before setting sail. The chances of sailing off-course were large. There were many tales of ships that had disappeared. They got off-course and sailed out over the Atlantic until the crew either starved to death or the ship sank.

It was difficult to hit the destination exactly and the voyages could be longer than planned. The ships waited very often at the journey’s start for favourable winds. In the Bandamanna saga the following is told: Odd Ofeigsson sailed from Iceland to Norway and back again in seven weeks. When he got back the Norwegian sailors were still at the harbour of departure because they weren’t confident in the weather. in addition they had to have plenty of provisions like dried, salted or smoked fish and meat in case they should go off-course or make a detour before arriving at their destination.

Navigational problems

Bottom Sludge

Seafarers could also be fooled by normal aids. During high seas and where there was shallow water bottom sludge could be churned up to the surface.

In the shallowest areas of the North Sea this was quite common. Bottom sludge is usually pointer to the nearest land but not in these cases and you could be fooled by nature.

Finding the Depth

Finding the depth with a sounding lead or bar was only used in waters with a relatively flat bottom. During river navigation it is reasonable to assume they used a sounding bar.

Speed – Distance

The most difficult thing was to calculate the distance you had travelled. It wasn’t possible until the chronometer was invented in the 1700’s. There was no measure for the distances they had sailed. Length was therefore measured in sailing days. It was a certain number of days to the Faeroes and a certain number to Iceland.

Where’s the Town?

Finding the entrances to the markets wasn’t always easy. They weren’t always at the mouth of rivers but on the riverbank a bit inland. many of the approaches were therefore marked by some sort of aid. Ex. Adam of Bremen mentioned a sort of lighthouse at the mouth of the Oder.

This post is also available in: Norwegian Bokmål

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