by Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen
The Vikings were sailors. Or to be more exact, they started out as rowers, as the first seagoing boats of Scandinavia had oars but no mast. Which, by the way, didn’t stop them from travelling far into Russia, using the rivers and eventually founding the country later known as “land of the Rus” – meaning “land of the rowers”. As population in Scandinavia grew, partly because of milder climate, so did the need to find those fertile fields in the west that everyone had heard of. And people got together and made sails, which, I am sure, made travelling a lot more comfortable.
The Viking ship was fast and could carry a man and his whole clan and even some drinking buddies and other animals too. However, there was always the problem that you could miss that island and end up out in the endless ocean. Or, you’d end up in Vinland, which I am sure was a bit impractical if you had only planned to visit friends in Scotland. (And by the way, rumours had it the natives out there in the far west were a bit grumpy, even grumpier than your uncle Bótta when the mead ran out last mid-winter…)
So the Vikings became expert navigators. Our of necessity, you could say. But since little was written down about this skill, most of our knowledge of Viking navigation methods is shrouded in mystery and it is sometimes hard to separate myths from historical facts.
We can read about Scandinavian seafarers bringing a raven with them, and as they suspected they were approaching land, they would let the raven out of its cage. If it returned, you were not near land. If it didn’t return, you were probably quite close. (Or your raven was dead.)
There are also the mythical sunstones. The theories of how they were used are numerous, but most agree that they were some kind of quartz that you would hold up in the direction of the sun on cloudy days, and this would somehow give you an idea of your heading.
At night, the Vikings navigated by the stars. This is a skill I have been using myself out on the ocean and I know it works, though I have never dared using such a method when approaching land. (And to be honest, I have always double-checked my compass to be sure.) They navigated by birds’ flight and the sun during the day – if it wasn’t too cloudy, then you’d use your sunstone or pray to Njord or both – and they almost certainly had an intuitive “feel of the sea”. They could probably feel the ocean behaving differently when they approached land, as many old seawolves can.
But even for an old seawolf, the sea can be unpredictable. And the sagas tell of ships getting blown out into that vast ocean and ships vanishing, never to be seen again. Death at sea was a part of Viking life and probably a far more likely death than that on the battle field. Ran gathered many more men than the Valkyries ever did.
-Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen
Read more: Viking skills #5