A marvel of engineering, the Viking longboat was unparalleled in the medieval world. The Vikings enjoyed advantages in war, trade, and exploration thanks to their ships’ flexible, durable designs and their ability to sail in many different directions according to the wind.
Dr. William Short, who specializes in Viking history and culture, pointed out that the ships’ especially shallow drafts enabled them to operate in shallow water. So they could travel up river and “surprise people in places where no one expected an oceangoing ship to appear.” From their homes in Scandinavia, the Vikings journeyed as far west as Vinland (Newfoundland), as far east as Russia, and as far southeast as a portion of the Byzantine Empire (Turkey).
As a result using the beitass, a “spar that helped to brace the sail against strong winds,” longboats could tack with changing winds, making them highly maneuverable. Unlike other ships of the time, Viking vessels were also amazingly flexible.
As Short points out, “They weren’t firmly nailed together, [so] they actually bent with the waves rather than taking the full force of the waves and possibly breaking.” Their ships’ flexible design was another characteristic that allowed the Vikings to sail the open sea despite rough waves.
6. Magnetic Compass
Using the mineral magnetite (aka lodestone), which is abundant throughout Scandinavia, the Vikings invented one of the first magnetic compasses. The Chinese were the only other culture to have invented such a compass, possibly even earlier than the Vikings did.
Only when the other Europeans began to trade with China were they able to obtain magnetic compasses from the Chinese. For 500 years, the Vikings alone had this instrument among Europeans and they kept its existence a secret. Using their compasses, the Vikings were able to sail across the Atlantic Ocean despite the occasional presence of thick fog.
Neither the Vikings nor most other medieval mariners were able to determine longitude well, if at all, but the Vikings were adept at reckoning latitude. They knew that the Sun marked the east at sunrise and the west at sunset. They also understood that, “at noon the Sun is due south [and during] months when the Sun does not set below the horizon, the position of the Sun at midnight indicates due north.”
This knowledge allowed them to employ their magnetic compasses in navigation.