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What is a Longboat?

By Sonal Panse
Updated May 23, 2024
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Longboats have been popular since the time of the Vikings. Without the longboats to navigate them swiftly over the rough seas, the Vikings would never have gained their awesome reputations as a conquering, sea-faring people. Longboats were also widely used by the navies of the leading European powers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The early Viking longboats were animal skin and wooden affairs. They were open at the top, had high sides and a large bow. Later on the Vikings learned to use wooden planks in place of the stretched animal skins, and saw the wisdom of adding a mast, bowsprit and sails to the general design. The mast and bowsprit of the longboats could be removed whenever necessary. This meant that if the wind was not favorable the longboats could be navigated by rowing by over 30 rowers in a longboat.

The longboat vessel of the Vikings and the latter day Europeans was usually double-banked. Single-banked longboats were comparatively less common. Double-banked longboats can fit two rowers easily on a rowing bench and they can row one on each side. This is called two per thwart.

As their name suggests, longboats are long in proportions. In the days of the great sailing ships, longboats were the largest boats aboard a sea-going vessel. Sometimes they were almost half the length of the ship carrying them. A 328 foot (100 meter) ship could have a 164 foot (50 meter) longboat.

On board a ship, the longboat was either tied to the ship's side or stored on the ship's deck. The sizes of the longboats were gradually reduced over the years. Longboats in the range of 98 feet (30 meters) or less are more common nowadays.

The longboat was a very useful boat in a variety of ways. It was used for fishing and for carrying anchors. It was also used to ferry people, supplies, food, and water barrels from the shore to the ship and back. It served as a lifeboat in emergencies.

Longboats were usually kept stocked with provisions that might come in handy if it ever became necessary to abandon ship. In times of war, longboats were equipped with swivel guns and cannons. Crews in an armed longboat patrolled around the ship to protect it from enemy attacks.

In modern times, the longboat has been replaced by motorized boats in navies. Longboat rentals are however available from boating clubs or boating companies for boating enthusiasts. Longboats are used in the sailing program for youths organized by Atlantic Challenge Canada.

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Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Jun 30, 2011

I live in Longboat Key, Florida. The town took its name from the boat that Hernando DeSoto manned in 1539 when he visited the key with Juan Anasco, his scout. I think that’s kind of funny. It would be like me driving my Taurus through an uninhabited seaside area and naming it “Taurus Beach.”

Before Longboat Key had its name, the Timucuan and Caloosa Indians took their vacations here for centuries. Archaeologists have found shell mounds indicating that fish fries and picnics took place here frequently.

Though I have seen plenty of picnickers and fish fryers carrying on this Native American tradition, I have yet to see anyone in a longboat on Longboat Key. I’m sure someone here must own one, but they probably stick to their private beach area.

By wavy58 — On Jun 29, 2011

I have always had an interest in the history of boats. I teach history, and I happen to remember that when attacking the Gaspee, John Brown called for “eight of the largest longboats in the Providence harbor.” These boats could hold one hundred men.

These same longboats were taken by Brown on the voyage to Africa and anchored offshore to be used in the slave trade. These longboats had to be big enough for the entire crew to use if they had to abandon ship. Each boat have at least five sets of oars and could allow for at least 11 men to row.

By Almata — On Jun 29, 2011

@bivie - Yeah, I can see come of the colorful designs. I can also envision some of the old Viking ships that had great designs. Some of them actually made the ship look like a giant serpent going through the water. Those most have been some rough times to live through.

By bivie — On Jun 29, 2011

Some of these longboats, especially those that are deeper, have some great designs on them. The paintings and such are very colorful and give them a lot of personality. I suppose some of these designs came about as a way of showing pride; others came about as a way of looking threatening while in service to protect the larger boat.

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