Viking Navigation: How to Know Where They Were At Sea

Posted by Ms Elly on

Viking Navigation: How to Know Where They Were At Sea

A strip of fabric and pieces of wood riveting together could help the Vikings discover new land? This is fantasy. If a ship could lead them to where they wanted, everyone could become Vikings. The Vikings, in fact, had a set of methods to navigate at seas. These methods along with the shipbuilding advancement helped the Vikings sail across the sea.

At the time, there were no modern and hi-tech navigational instruments. The Viking crew had to depend on the birds, whales, celestial bodies, chant, and rhymes. The Vikings were also famous for The Sunstone that helped hem navigate.

We are always curious how the Vikings who lived 10 centuries ago could sail through the Atlantic Ocean before Columbus. Honestly, they were more intelligent than we thought they could be. When our life depends so much on the modern technology, the Vikings had to survive with their instincts and observations. Gradually they might have figured out natural principles of things and figured out a way to get them out of the ancestral land. 

Experience from observations

Back to the Viking Age, it is not fair to compare the navigational instrument at the time with ours in this day and age. According to the Viking researchers, if we want to get to know the Viking experience about their directions at seas, we have to temporarily forget about our concepts of nature and navigation. 

Viking ship on the sea. This is how the Vikings navigated

An experienced Viking mariner could do it all

There were no compasses, no echo sounders, satellite or anything to locate their position. But they had experience and understanding. Knowledge from generation to generation piled up a great source to help the Vikings set sail. 

They already had the concept of four cardinal directions. But their way of navigation depended on the horizon where the sun went up and down.

Birds and whales as the guide

The Vikings learnt that birds flew near the shores. Birds were useful back to those days since birds only flew a distance away from the land. 

For example, they might get lost during their voyage. But a sign of a bird flying above meant a lifesaver to the whole crew. 

Whales on the other hand always stayed close to the currents where the fish were. The Vikings knew where whales usually lived. Because of this, they figured out where they were. 

Viking dragon ship

Human senses were great

The researchers agreed that the Vikings used their senses to detect their location. Besides the eyes, the Vikings made use of these senses:

  • Hearing: The Vikings could hear how the close they were to the land. In the foggy weather, the Vikings poked out an ear to listen to the sounds of the birds and the sounds of the waves. 
  • Touch: According to the Viking researchers, an experienced Viking seafarer could use their sense of touch to feel the difference in the swells in the seas. Technically, a swell in the context of the sea is a series of mechanical waves when the interface of the water met the air. 
  • Taste: The Vikings had a kind of tool from which helped them get the tiny sample of the seabed. Taking them from the water waves, the Vikings would taste and touch it. An experienced knew the differences among samples of different regions. 
  • Smell: A talented seafarers could do anything at seas. For example, they could smell whether they were close to the land or not. If the weather was humid, these mariners could smell the trees, fire, and plants from a distance. 

Motivation to set sail

Besides the methods to survive at sea, the Vikings had to have a kind of motivation to get them out of the comfort zone. Researchers listed out three reasons why the Vikings finally looked for new land:

  • Wealth and fortune: staying on the same plot of land would never make one become richer. Being a farmer only helped them to survive day by day. Going outside the land of the ancestors somehow helped them gain not only wealth but also high rank in society. This lured many of the Vikings to go on raiding for months leaving their family behind for the women. 
  • Lack of inheritance: This reason is always mentioned when it comes to what motivated the Vikings. Often, the eldest son would inherit the vast of the legacy leaving the other sons nothing. So they got no choice but to go on raiding. 

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