Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Vikings Voyages on the Atlantic

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Date of Issue: February 11, 2002
Value: DKK 19,50

According to an old saying, “The Faroeman is born with an oar in his hands”. Boats have always been essential for these eighteen small islands in the middle of the changeable North Atlantic. In former times, the boat was the lifeblood of society itself. Faroese boats are specially designed for these waters. The wind is often erratic in the narrow straits between the high mountains.

There are descriptions of sailing, weather and wind in the Icelandic sagas of the early middle ages, but very little about navigation itself. The magnetic compass did not reach Europe until the 1200s. So how did seafarers navigate before the compass reached Scandinavia? The Vikings waited for known types of weather and suitable winds for their voyages. They made use of all conceivable natural phenomena and formations to guide them. They might have used an island, a rock, a river mouth or a forest and particularly conspicuous fallen trees. They observed the flight of birds and the movements of sea creatures, as well as the appearance of whales and seals. The observed the colours of the sea and its changes. Smells and sounds, as well as cloud formations, swells and currents also provided helpful clues. To be able to sail for long periods without sighting land, however, required some form of navigation. The course must be held by reference to the celestial bodies and the points of the compass. A simple bearing compass may have been used. Using the shadow cast by a stick onto a slab, the height of the sun could be found and the course determined. Another aid possibly used was so-called sunstone. This is a kind of quartzite that breaks up the rays of the sun and made it possible to locate the sun even in cloudy conditions.

The Vikings were experts at interpreting nature and gleaning valuable information from it. This is an orientation skill that has unfortunately been lost by today’s technologically dependent society. The oldest preserved Icelandic map of the North Atlantic is the Skalholt Map, which dates from 1590 and was made by Icelander Sigurdur Stefansson. It shows the North Atlantic with its shorelines and islands.

Traditional Viking ships can for most practical purposes be divided into two groups: the longship/warship and the trade vessel/knarr. But of course there were many other types. The appearance of the ship was always a reflection of the resources available locally, the quality of the waters and the needs, experiences and imagination of its builders. A ship is a product of a society and its social and economic structure, traditions, technology, aesthetics, changes and development.

The Viking ship was a sharp-sterned ship with high, raised prows. The prow and stern were very similar in design. The Viking ship was a clinker-built sailing ship with a rudder, mast, and rigging with a square sail made from wool. The archaeological finds that have provided us with this information are first and foremost the Oseberg and Gokstad ships from Norway, and the Roskilde ship from Denmark. Examples have also been discovered on Swedish soil. The longships in question have been between 16 and 36 metres in length and the largest could be manned by a crew of around 100, of which, 78 manned the oars. The trade ships sailed at the front and had much smaller crews of 6-12 men. When the Norwegian Vikings voyaged westward in their ships – similar for instance to the Skuldelev ship – to the Faroes among other places, they were also carrying a cultural burden in the form of their language and handicraft traditions, and these can still be seen today. The Viking Age ship has always drawn and fascinated people and has been praised for its appearance, construction and awe-inspiring voyages.

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