How Vikings Navigated Around the World – Part 2

We continue our epic long voyage alongside early Nordic sailors across the great seas and oceans of the world. In part one of this blog we learned how the Vikings used the sun and celestial bodies to find their way around. But they also used and recorded bird and marine life behavior along with any landmarks on coastal areas they could pinpoint their position from. In this blog we look at other methods the Vikings used and incredibly this includes a good old sea shanty.

Chants and Sea Shanty’s Lead the Way

Singing has long been associated with sailors, and many sea shanties of the past are still popular in the quayside bars in every port around the world. Singing rhythmical songs was not just so the sailors could enjoy themselves. Many duties on board ship were accompanied by chants and songs to keep a steady rhythm going for things like raising the anchor or setting sail. But in the Vikings day the chants were also a way of passing on information.

Since there were no charts or nautical maps in the Viking age, rhymes and chants relayed experiences from the past, in a way they were early travelogues. There is an old Nordic manuscript named the Hauksbok that some of these chants have been recorded. One passage from the Hauksbok relays sailing north of the Shetland Islands but south of the Faroe Islands to find safe and accurate passage to Iceland. This passage would have been chanted by the Nordic sailors as they tried to find their way.

Wildlife Serve as Navigational Aids

Birds and large sea mammals such as whales were also used as navigational aids to the Vikings. Birds in particular were most useful as some species were only common to certain pieces of land, and some birds would only fly a limited distance from land. This could be really helpful as say the Vikings had long passed the Faroe Islands and then saw a particular land bird, they would then realize they must be getting close to Iceland. As for whales they have a predictable path along which they travel, it is usually in certain currents that particular favorite fish can be found.

Because of this the Vikings would often spend weeks and sometimes months just waiting for optimum sailing conditions when they could rely on such navigational aids and help along their voyage.

A Sailor’s Senses

It is often said that a seasoned sailor takes full advantage of his senses, and it is true mariners can often predict the weather before landlubbers. And it is widely held that the Vikings used their keen senses to assist them navigating their boats. By listening intently the Vikings could hear just how close they were to land when the fog was thick. They listened for birds or the sea waves crashing onto nearby rocks. By sensing the touch of the wind on their faces and skin they could estimate the direction and speed of the wind.

When this happens it reveals differences in sea swells, and the fact that a coast that is close can reflect a swell meant that the seasoned Nordic mariner could glean a great deal from the sensation on his skin.

Finally the Vikings used their sense of smell to indicate how close to land they were. When the conditions were right they could pick up scents from trees, plants or even detect fire. This is how the early Nordics could find their way about in such rudimentary ships.