October 23, 2014

Something beautiful and slippery

I WAS WRITING SOMETHING for a magazine the other day and I mentioned the ancient Viking ship discovered in Gokstad, Norway, in 1880. I referred to her as “slim and slippery.” Someone objected to that description, saying the Viking ships were squat and fat and not very far advanced in the art of design.

Not so, I’m afraid. If you look at her lines you’ll see that she is, in fact, extraordinary in her beauty and fineness. She was light and fast and hardly disturbed the water she moved through.

Frederick K. Lord wrote an article about the Gokstad ship in The Rudder magazine in which he said that, considering the forms of contemporaneous ships, “it seems incredible that a vessel so far ahead of its time could be produced.” Contemporaneous, in this instance, means somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries A.D.

She was a skuta, a type of small warship mentioned in the Sagas. She was designed mainly to be rowed but she did carry a squaresail for use when conditions were suitable. “She was built for speed,” said Lord. “Such a craft must have been very much used, being light, swift, and handy for short voyages and general purposes.” Her length was close to 80 feet and her beam was 16 foot 8 inches. She displaced 63,700 pounds and drew only 3 foot 8 inches of water. She carried about 80 men.

Colin Archer took the lines off her and no doubt marveled, as many others have done after him, at the advanced design and construction. “The boats of Norway are today almost exactly like this old ship,” said Lord, “and such an instance of persistence of type is without parallel in the history of shipbuilding and affords indisputable proof of the skill and knowledge of the Norsemen in designing and building ships. Considering the leading dimensions and type, what designer today would undertake to improve the lines of this boat? Could he produce a fairer set of waterlines, buttocks and diagonals?

“Many parts are decorated with ornamental tracings and carvings and the whole bespeaks the conscientious care with which these Viking boats were built. Driving down the wind with swelling sail, shields on gunwale, and crowded with a crew of lion-hearted men dressed in barbaric splendor, the whole a mass of color — what a sight it must have been!”

A sight to make a stout-hearted man quake in his boots and run to lock up his wife and daughters, I should think.

Today’s Thought
Never slay more than one man in the same stock, and never break the peace which good men and true make between thee and others.
— The Icelandic Sagas 

An Italian immigrant was having trouble with English irregular verbs.
“I can’ta weara my wool skirt any more,” she said. “I have send it to the cleaners and they shrinked ... shrank ... shrunk ... Oh!” she broke off in desperation. “I putted on weight.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


57 degrees North said...

I've always had a "thing" for the viking ship. One thing I find particularly compelling is that the old Norse shipwrights worked entirely by eye and by instinct.

They may not have had a strong grasp of calculus, but they had a keen practical knowledge of what makes for a clean and seaworthy hull. Interestingly, the hull would be shaped first, and the ribs added later.

One of the sagas tells of how master ship builder Thorberg Skafhogg was unhappy at how a hull was shaping up, so he took an axe to it. The ships commissioner gave him the choice of either repairing the damage or winding up shortened by a head. Thus motivated he shaped the ship into what would become the legendary "Long Serpent". Her master? King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway. Now that's a short and effective chain of command!

DaShui said...

Some reason looking at a longship I see a uboat

John Vigor said...

Hi 57, I, too, have a thing for the Viking ship. I have often wondered whether they built them to plans or just by eye and adze. Did they have naval architects capable of drawing sets of lines for construction, or was Colin Archer the first one to produce those beautiful lines drawings after the Gokstad ship was exhumed?

John V.

57 degrees North said...

Hi John,
to the best of my knowledge, they had no naval architects as such. As far as I know Mr. Archer was the first to come up with any drawings.

In a case of "form follows function", the Norse shipwrights tried to work towards an aesthetic ideal, rather than follow a scientific method. You can also see how they continuously tweaked and improved their vessels through experience. The famed Osberg Ship is actually a much inferior design to the later Gokstad Ship. She has a less efficient hull, much lower freeboard, and a weak step for the mast which must have limited sail area.

They also had several different types of vessels for different purposes. The knarr for example, such as the one found in Roskilde, Denmark, were were the deep drafted trans-Atlantic cargo ships that colonized Europe, Asia, and North America.

John Vigor said...

Thanks, 57, those Norse shipbuilders were very clever people. My admiration for them knows no bounds.

John V.