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Long Serpent

"The ship was a dragon...but this ship was far larger, and more carefully put together in all her parts. The king called this ship the Long Serpent... The Long Serpent had thirty-four benches for rowers. The head and the arched tail were both gilt, and the bulwarks were as high as in sea-going ships. This ship was the best and most costly ship ever made in Norway."

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla

In AD 998, near Trondheim Fjord on the west coast of Norway, King Olaf Tryggvason ordered the construction of the Long Serpent, the most splendid of the dragon (drakar or dreki "dragon-head") longships. The keel alone, of a single piece of oak, was said to have been one hundred and twenty-eight feet long (Snorri writes that the ship's slipway still was to be seen in his own time, more than two hundred years later). It was built by the prow-wright Thorberg, who was responsible for laying the keel and constructing the stempost and sternpost that determined the lines of the ship. But he was away when the overlapping planks were fitted to the keel to form the curved hull. When he returned, the work had been completed, and "everyone said that never was seen so large and so beautiful a ship of war."

The next morning, however, when the king went again to admire his longship, there were deep notches hacked into the planking all along one side. The ship was ruined, and Olaf swore an oath, promising that the man who had done this would die and offering to reward whoever revealed his name.

Thorberg said that he had done it.

Unless the ship was restored as before, Thorberg would forfeit his life. The prow-wright then took his axe and proceeded to plane the wood until even the deepest notches were smooth. "The king and all present declared that the ship was much handsomer on the side of the hull which Thorberg had chipped, and bade him shape the other side in the same way, and gave him great thanks for the improvement." So pleased was the king that Thorberg was appointed master builder for the entire ship and known thereafter as Thorberg Skafhogg, "Smoothing Stroke."

What the prow-wright had realized was that the thick planks were too heavy. Thinner ones would permit a lighter, more supple ship, one that would ride higher in the water and flex more in rough seas. (To provide extra strength, the planks were cut radially, split lengthwise along the grain like the spokes of a wheel.) The Gokstad ship, for example, has sixteen planks, or strakes, on each side, ranging in thickness from one inch below the waterline to one-and three-quarter inches at the waterline and only one-half inch at the gunwale. Such a ship drew only three feet of water, which made it well suited to navigate rivers and tidal estuaries. It also was fast and, in front of a stiff wind, could make as much as eleven knots and several hundred miles a day. A replica of the Gokstad ship, in fact, constructed a dozen years after its discovery, crossed the Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland in only twenty-seven days.

Viking ships were built by first laying the keel and securing the stempost and sternpost (as Thorberg had done). Working up from the keel, the strakes were attached, each overlapping the other and fastened together by hundreds of iron rivets in what is called clinker construction. When the sides reached the waterline, the ribs were fitted and lashed to the bottom of the hull. Crossbeams then were placed over each rib to provide support for the deck, the boards of which remained loose so that they could be removed for storage. At either end were wooden knees to which the strakes were attached by pegs (trenails). Such construction permitted an exceptionally strong and flexible ship, one that was seaworthy enough to be propelled by a large sail on the ocean but with a draft shallow enough to allow it to be shelved on a beach or navigated far upstream by oar.

Snorri relates an anecdote about the king and his favorite ship, one that is evocative of them both. He writes that "King Olaf could run across the oars outside of the vessel while his men were rowing the Serpent."


The dragon head pictured above comes from the Oseberg ship and was carved by the "Academician," one of six wood carvers whose distinctive styles can be discerned in the work found in that ship burial.

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