It is my great pleasure to host this highly entertaining thought experiment from the pen of the very talented Ian Stuart Sharpe, whose new book, The All Father Paradox, has just launched. It’s a very “Historyland” kind of thing. Read on to find out how fast you’d have to move to escape a Viking raid, and use the links provided to find out about the Vikingverse.
To the Anglo-Saxons of England, they were known as the dreaded Nordmenn or Dene, to the Irish they were the Dubgaill and Finngaill. The Slavs knew them as the Rus and the Byzantines, who employed them as mercenaries, hailed them as Varangians. To the Arabs they were the pagan Majus, sailing in qarāqīr – square rigged ships that were capable of swooping backwards and forwards. And to the Inuit of Greenland, they were the foreign Kavdlunait.
The term “Viking” came later, introduced into Modern English during the 18th-century Viking revival, where it acquired romanticised heroic overtones, instead of the simple, original hallmark of someone who set out to plunder. In fact, most Norse mariners were not just looters, but traders, colonists and explorers, whose advanced sailing and navigational skills made them frequent visitors at the great cities of London, Paris, and Constantinople, the centuries old capital of the Byzantine Empire. As the novel the All Father Paradox explores, this was a sophisticated society, capable of conquering whole nations, not just a bunch of mindless marauders.
Authenticity is key for any historical novel, even more so when you veer from established timelines into an alternate universe (as happens in the novel). You need to be grounded – without solid foundations, the whole edifice of this “Vikingverse” would come tumbling down. And that means solid research coupled with a flair for the dramatic.
Now, there is no better characterization of Norse talents than the much vaunted longship. These were war machines, built to carry many warriors at high speed, and there was nothing else like them. As the history books show, the Norse raiders liked monasteries, as they were usually rich and undefended, and they had no Christian conscience to deter them. But they also struck at cities themselves – London, Paris, Hamburg and even Constantinople nearly fell to the Norse on multiple occasions. They moved so quickly in their longboats that no-one had any time to organise a resistance.
In any case, such was their reputation for plunder and pillage that everyone fled as soon as they were sighted. So, if you were charged with delivering villagers and monks from the fury of the Northmen, how long would you have?
My contention is, that from the time you spotted them on the horizon, you had less than ten minutes before the Vikings landed on shore. How fast can you run?
Here are the assumptions behind my thought experiment.
- A top speed of 17 knots or approx. 20mph. Pretty much an ideal wind.
- Ground level, average height observer with eye level at h = 5 ft 7 in (1.70 m). This was the average height in the Middle Ages, according to Steckel’s skeletal analysis.
- The horizon is at a distance of 2.9 miles for this observer
Now, the notion that a Viking ship can sail that quickly is shocking to many modern sailors, who question it instinctively. For reference, I drew my data from the sailings of the Skuldelev 2, a replica ship described on vikingeskibsmuseet.dk website “with a crew of 65-70 men, it was a chieftain’s ship, like those praised in ancient skaldic verse and sagas”. The site records 17 knots as the high end of the scale. “The long, narrow shape of the ship and the enormous sail allowed at great speed”. The Sea Stallion of Glendalough, which recently recreated a Viking voyage. It had a top speed of 20 knots and followed the prevailing winds round the north of Scotland into Dublin.
Now, let’s be very accurate. And use https://www.timecalculator.net/speed-distance-time…
19.5mph over 2.9 miles takes 8.55 minutes.
Any experiment like this has flaws and variables. The wind might be much weaker. There could be lookouts on clifftops, for example, who could see much further and provide over an hour’s warning. Detractors might point out that Vikings wouldn’t hit the beach at full sail: they’d have to row ashore (at a mere 9mph) before leaping into the surf and charging onto land. But, it should also be recognised that the Vikings were masters of the surprise attack. The shallow drafts of their longboats meant they could sail along most of Europe’s rivers and strike deep at the heart of their foes. They didn’t care for Christian holidays – commanders would often wait until their spies told them that the local fighting men were in church before they made their move.
So, in a nightmare scenario, with a Sweyn, Canute or a Thorkell coming straight outta Denmark on a strong wind and Ægir’s tide, you better get moving. The sækonungr won’t be dilly-dallying and they have a spear with your name on it.
Of course, as the Vikingverse diverges from our own timeline, inventions like Thought and Memory Drive make for even faster incursions, across all of the Nine Worlds. But that’s another saga…
Author: Ian Sharpe.