Dragon Ship
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THERE'S no wind along these seas,
Out oars for Stavanger!
Forward all for Stavanger!
So we must wake the white-ash breeze,
Let fall for Stavanger!
A long pull for Stavanger!

Oh, hear the benches creak and strain!
(A long pull for Stavanger!)
She thinks she smells the Northland rain!
(A long pull for Stavanger!)

(from) Thorkild's Song Rudyard Kipling

Basic Information

The dragon ship, also known as the longship, drakkar or drekar was the primary warship of Scandinavia between (roughly) the 9th and 13th centuries AD. The "dragon" part of the name comes from the removable dragon-styled figureheads that were traditionally fitted to the ships when out viking.

Primarily troop carriers, the drakkar were relatively lightweight, clinker built and shallow drafted, giving them excellent handling capabilities in a rough sea and allowing them to operate in shallow inshore waters and even be portaged during river expeditions. A moderately flexible hull and double ended build also helped resist damage during amphibious operations and aided unbeaching and low-speed maneuvers. Propulsion was generally by a single square sail rigged to a central mast or by rowing - meaning that the ship's trooplift capacity was also a large part of its propulsion system. (Which could be a problem after major defeats like Stamford Bridge where the death, wounding or capture of a large number of men led to wholesale abandonment of ships.) Unsurprisingly, the number of rowing positions was the prime means of sorting this class of ship.

The longship tended to lack most design refinements imaginable with little or no shelter or holdspace, primitive steering and little else in the way of amenities - but then their job was to deliver and extract troops for coastal raiding. It also struggled in naval combat, being lower in the freeboard than other contemporary ships, and thus more vulnerable to being boarded - which was how most naval combat was fought in that era and location. It was pretty much doomed against a true warship, but fortunately for the operators true warships were virtually non-existent in much of their range1 and most other opponents could be defeated by superior numbers and crew training2.

On most longboats, the rower's benches weren't built into the ship. Instead each man had a personal chest that doubled as a seat. This also helped with loot distribution and security. You knew no one had been into your share of the treasure, because it was right there beneath you the entire voyage. This also made it easy for the crew to quickly unload and go their separate ways at the end of a voyage.

For less warlike expeditions the Scandinavians of the period preferred the Knarr (a heavier weight cargo ship) or the karve (a broad beamed coastal transport).


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Not all that great for a party of PCs unless they have enough men to crew it.
  • But a fact of life for any PCs playing vikings - or early medieval Scandinavians in general.
  • These things were like beach sand, getting as far away as the Caspian Sea and the Nile River - although the ships that reached North America were probably knarrs. Their ability to operate in relatively shallow rivers allowed deep operations into Central Asia and you could make a case for them turning up in sub-saharan Africa as well (although there's no evidence that they did).
  • For Saxons, Franks, Slavs … anyone who wasn't a Scandinavian really (and probably quite a few who were), these things meant trouble. Specifically a pile of dozens of vikings. Even if the dragon heads were unshipped and their intentions nominally peaceful, there was still a worryingly mobile warband somewhere very close.
  • These were the sort of vessel operated by Blue Men.
  • The ones that would be sailed by Hel's legions at Ragnarok were uniquely different: their hulls were made from fingernail, not wood.
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