Viking Navigation

The beauty of Viking navigation was that it was basically so simple that there's not a lot to learn about it. This is a little general, but at least it should make a good beginning.

The quickest and best summary is still the last chapter of The Viking by Howard La Fey, (c) 1972, National Geographic Society,
ISBN 87044-108-6, LoC 72-75383.

On the positive side, the Vikings didn't have to be anywhere at any particular time. Time, and therefore speed, was a relative function. If you were faster than another vessel, that would be noticeable, but, for the most part distances were given as "a day's sail." Purportedly, a "day's sail" for a merchant vessel was 24 hours, while that for a warship was just during the daylight hours. This may be due to the misinterpretation of how these vessels operated, with scholars supposing that the Vikings camped ashore each night like the Mediterranean-bound Greeks.

On the negative side, without a fine concept of time, there is no calculation of speed, and without both time and speed, no real accuracy in calculating distance. In other words, you can't do dead reckoning, where by keeping track of your time and speed at each change of direction, you can approximate your location. I have seen no mention of any time-keeping device, even as crude as an hour glass, in a Viking navigation context. (Come to think of it, the one time device that does stick out is Alfred the Great having a glass "hurricane cover" made for his time candle, definitely a shorebound application.) Perhaps one can count strokes when under oars for a rough estimate, but I assure you that as soon as a fair breeze sprang up, you would hoist sail; so there goes that calculation.

What the Vikings did have was decades of carefully won practical knowledge. The positions of the sun and the stars, and the experiences of previous sailors on that route. How the prevailing winds blew at certain places in certain times of the year. What the reflected loom of a glacier looked like under certain conditions, which birds and seaweed indicated a nearby island. Floki Vilgerdarson, and early Norwegian settler of Iceland, went one better and took three ravens on board with him. A day or so out of the Faeroes, bound towards the recently discovered Iceland, he released the first bird, which headed back to the Faeroes. The second bird was released later and (according to which account you read) either flew up until out of sight, or came back and roosted in the rigging. Some time after that the third raven was released, flew upwards, and then headed straight for Iceland. Floki corrected his course accordingly and made a successful landfall in Iceland.

In terms of instruments:
Recent research has revealed that what appeared to be random scratches on the Greenland "bearing dial" actually mark the shadow of the sun at that latitude, enabling you to find the directions at other times other than high noon.

In the late 18th or early 19th century the sailors in the Faeroe Islands were using a wooden disk, marked with concentric circles and fitted with a moveable vertical gnomon (adjustable for the season), floating in a tub, to keep track of their latitude. This may well date from the Viking age. Sailing directions to Greenland (once the colony was well established) were, essentially, "sail west from Bergen at the same latitude until you hit Greenland."

One of our members bought a sample of cordierite, the candidate for "sunstone," but it did not perform as reported. Might have been a bad sample. I've experimented with calcite with negative results.

Before the introduction of the magnetic compass from China, the term "hafvilla" (bewildered) appears describing voyages beset by fog or bad weather. Within a few years of the introduction of the compass, the word disappears from the accounts.

One of the notes I want to mention is the Viking attitude towards voyages. In our present age, if a vessel sinks, there is a great drama enacted. Rescue vessels are dispatched. Searches are made. A board of inquiry is held, and lawsuits are launched (certainly in the United States) against those responsible or those with the deepest pockets.

In the Viking period, if your ship sunk, no one else might know about it for weeks, months, years; perhaps never. Eirik the Red set out to colonize Greenland in 986 with 25 ships. They were struck by a storm on the way, and only 14 arrived safely. The rest were either sunk or had to return to Iceland.

In another incident, a vessel was sinking off the coast of Ireland, and the "afterboat" could only hold part of the crew. After casting lots, the winning portion of the crew took to the afterboat, while the Captain, left aboard the sinking ship, loudly expressed his opinion of the unfairness of it all!

We have developed a slightly tongue-in-cheek scale of measuring the success of a voyage, but it is based on Viking attitudes. A parallel can be found at the end of the story of "Authun and the Bear":

You reach your destination with ship, crew, passengers and cargo intact.
Fully Successful:
Your ship needs some repairs.
You make it to shore with crew, passengers and cargo.
Fully Acceptable:
You get ashore with crew, passengers, and some cargo.
You manage to get your crew and passengers ashore.
You have some survivors.
You are never heard from again.

In the sagas people usually make one big voyage per year, and frequently overwinter at their destination. However, one must be a little careful using saga material. It's usually equivalent to historical fiction, glorifying one's family. Basic details may be accurate, but without corroboration the facts may have been rearranged for the convenience of the author, a better story, or the fame of the family.

Piece written by Bruce Blackistone, one of the founding members of the Longship Co.

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