Sailing into the Sunset

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue'.  Generations of school children chanted this piece of doggerel to help them memorise the date Columbus 'discovered' America. But of course he didn't - discover America, that is. People had been living there for thousands of years and Columbus wasn't even the first European to arrive. That distinction goes to Leif Eriksson, a Viking who pipped Christopher C. to the post by almost 500 years. Eriksson's was an astonishing achievement - the 10th century equivalent of the '69 Moon Landing - and demonstrates the Vikings' superb navigational skills and seamanship. Because although popular interest tends to focus on the rape, pillage, murder and general mayhem the Norse raiders caused, what made them unique was their ability to travel vast distances on the open sea.

Finest Warships in the World

Previous mariners - the Ancient Greeks, Phoenicians and Arabs - had all tended to sail - if not actually in sight of land - at least with a pretty fair idea of where the coast was. Sailing away at right angles to the land was literally going into the unknown and bound to end in disaster. The Vikings thought differently and developed the technology to make the unthinkable attainable - the longships. These were bigger, lighter, stronger and faster than any that had preceded them, and many of the medieval warships that followed. Longships were divided into several different classes, rather like modern warships. These included snekke, skeide, busse and drake or drakkar the 'dragon' ships - all examples of the Viking's exceptional boatbuilding skills. 

Lighter, faster and more seaworthy - by design

For a start they used timber that was split rather than sawn which preserved more of the wood's inherent tensile strength. Then there was the longship's unique design. The Vikings built their ship's hulls using the lapstrake or clinker method. Other Europeans employed the carvel system where strakes or planks were fastened onto the ships ribs with the plank edges butted up smooth from seam to seam. Norse shipbuilders laid the keel first, then added overlapping planks before fitting the internal timbers as a last step. It was an innovative technique and it proved to be highly successful, resulting in ships that were lighter and more flexible than equal-sized carvel-built craft. 

Across the widest oceans, up the longest rivers

In addition, the shallow draft of the Viking vessels allowed for river navigation. Daring raids were carried out miles up the Thames, Severn, Tyne and Humber as well as the Seine, Rhine and deep into Baltic Russia. But it was in the North Atlantic that the Vikings really proved they were master mariners. Having colonised Shetland and Orkney in the late eighth/early ninth centuries, they followed the sun westwards. 

Shetland... Iceland... Greenland... Vineland!

Finding the Faroe Islands on a map isn't easy. Finding them in the North Atlantic must have been incredibly difficult - but the Vikings managed it and settled there. The fact that life on the Faroes was probably even harder than in Norway didn't deter them. It seemed the Vikings had developed a taste for long sea voyages and anyway, as it transpired, the Faroe Islands were half-way to their next destination - Iceland. Then it was off again to Greenland - discovered by Erik Thorvaldson aka Erik the Red. He'd been temporarily banished from Iceland for all-round objectionable behaviour (apparently he was extremely argumentative and prone to fits of violence). To get that sort of reputation amongst Vikings suggests that Erik really put his heart and soul into being aggressive. But that's by the bye. There were still 1,800 miles of open sea between Greenland and the vast continent to the west. And this was sailed by Leif heppni Eriksson who made landfall in what is now Newfoundland circa 1000AD.

Solar-guided navigation

So how did they do it? What special abilities did a bunch of 'uncivilised' pirates possess that enabled them to cross one of the largest and most dangerous oceans in the world over a thousand years ago? From the Icelandic Sagas we know that these explorers were particularly observant. They watched the migration routes of birds, noted the ocean currents and even the feeding grounds of whales - all of which provided clues as to where they were. And then there was the sun stone or sun compass. Also mentioned in the sagas, these were special crystals (shown to be Icelandic spar) which when looked through, enabled the sun's direction to be pinpointed, even on overcast days. In 1948 archeologists found a wooden semi-circle with multiple lines scratched on its surface. Some scholars think this fragment - discovered in Greenland - could be part of a sun compass.

Plenty of Norse-power and a little bit of luck

Superb ships and seamanship, a natural empathy with the ocean and a solar direction-finder - all played a part in the Viking's remarkable feats of exploration. But as every sailor knows, a little serendipity, a stroke or two of good fortune never goes amiss. Perhaps that's why Leif 'Eat Your Heart Out Columbus' Eriksson was nicknamed 'The Lucky'.