Alright, departing from my usual fantasy setting to something of a thought experiment. Let's say, for argument's sake, some Dane longboat captain in the 10th or 11th century worked out how to make a primitive compass and, while serving in the Varangian Guard, read about the shape and size of the Earth. Extremely unlikely, I know, but humor me. This hypothetical Dane would, in other words, be an extremely capable navigator and explorer.

Anyways, let's say he made his way back to Denmark and resolved to sail west past England, and discovered places like the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland/Canada. From there, imagine that he returns to Denmark, gathers up a bunch of Danes, and makes for Vinland to set up a colony. How quickly could he sail from Denmark to Canada, without stopping? Assume he's got good weather and favorable winds, as well as a top of the line longboat for the day.

Now, for further fun, let's say this Dane established a successful colony in Newfoundland, and his son was hell-bent on outdoing his father in the exploration game. How far down the coast of North America could he conceivably make his way before he had to return to the colony for resupply?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ At about 4 knots average speed the about 2800 miles between Denmark and Terra Nova take about 30 days. Note if the captain is lucky he may get "good weather and favorable winds" once in a lifetime; this is the North Atlantic we are speaking of. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 15 '18 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ How much food and water can a Norse longboat carry? That will be a big limiting factor in how far they can travel in one stage. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Aug 15 '18 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Depends on the boat of course. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 15 '18 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ Alright, for the sake of argument, let's say they've got a skeid of about 35m long crewed by 80 men. $\endgroup$ – Horik Aug 15 '18 at 19:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I@M. A. Golding I dunno if I would necessarily have to delay the other explorers. Perhaps instead this explorer was the first to work his way down the Atlantic coast and discover the Gulf of Mexico or something similar. Or maybe he’s just a particularly skilled chartographer, and the first to accurately map Vinland and the surrounding jarldoms; the key feature of this alternate history is that the Norse colonies in Canada were wildly successful rather than abject failures. $\endgroup$ – Horik Aug 17 '18 at 19:00

The Draken Harald Hårfagre, a reconstructed Viking longboat, made the crossing from Norway (not Denmark) to Newfoundland in a little over five weeks in the spring of 2016. From their website, here's a description of the voyage:

On April 24th 2016, Draken Harald Hårfagre set sail across the icy north, beginning Expedition America 2016. Due to tough weather Draken made two portstops on the way to Island [Iceland]. April 27-30 in Lerwick, Shetland, to replace the starboard shroud and May 1-6 in Torshamn, Färöarna [Faroe Islands] to repair the sail. The first stop was in Reykjavik on the 9st of May, and celebrated the arrival to the Viking island of Iceland in proper fashion. From Iceland we sailed for Greenland, rounding the treacherously windy and confused seas of cape Farewell and Greenland’s southernmost tip. We needed to dodge the sheet ice to seek refuge in the port of Qaqortoq in Greenland’s south western fjords. From Qaqortoq we sailed across the Davis Strait, a thousand miles north of where Titanic met her fate, maneuvering past icebergs for Newfoundland, Canada. Our first stop in Vinland was St. Anthony harbor and the known viking settlement of L’anse aux Meadows tentatively the 1st of June.


  • April 26: Haugesund, Norway
  • April 27-30: Lerwick, Shetland
  • May 1-6: Torshamn, Faroes
  • May 9-16: Reykjavik, Iceland
  • May 21-27: Qaqortoq, Greenland
  • June 1-6: St Antony, Newfoundland, Canada

Note that approximately half of the transit time was spent in port performing repairs & resupplying; the actual amount of time spent under way seems to have been about 16 days. However, you'd also have to add a couple of days to account for the time needed to sail from Denmark to Norway, and a realistic voyage would probably require some time for resupply along the way.

All told, three weeks or a bit less seems like a reasonable estimate for a "lucky" voyage.


For the trip from Denmark to Vinland I'm using AlexP's distance statistic for the Viking route heading north and east, roughly 2800 miles (approx. 5200km), because I can't find an estimate I'm confident of. Based on that and an estimated top speed of 15 knots (28kmh-1) the trip would be roughly 185 hours, call it 8 days. That's with a perfect and consistent following wind but that's highly unlikely to be the case for the whole voyage. At the average speed, around 7 knots, it'd be about more like 400 hours, or 17 days.

Exploring farther south will depend on what size ship(s) are used more than anything else; that's something you'd have to decide on. The important variable being the cargo-to-crew ratio, how much food and water the ship carries per head of crew needed to work it effectively. The ships will cover an average of about 165 Nautical Miles (310km) a day sailing around the clock, they can do that if they have sea room but if they stay close to shore, (and depending on the season) they'll get less than half of that.

One thing to keep in mind is that the European Windstorm Season, when the vikings would normally stay in port is September to March but the North Atlantic Hurricane Season, which will impact any trip south along the American coast from Newfoundland, is June to November. Setting out for a long exploration voyage during the traditional Viking sailing season could be totally disastrous.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I hadn't realized that the Danes liked to sail during hurricane season. I suspect though that they'd work out fairly quickly when to sail and when not to, either from observation or contact with the native skraelings. $\endgroup$ – Horik Aug 15 '18 at 19:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Horik Its a matter of latitude, summer in the far north is a calm season, summer in the tropics is storm season, they're going far south of their normal environment they will work it out pretty quickly but that first voyage could still be a killer. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 15 '18 at 19:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I figured they’d lose some ships before they worked out when storm season sets in. Makes me wonder though, how far and how quickly could they spread if their initial colonies in Vinland were booming successes. $\endgroup$ – Horik Aug 15 '18 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Horik I'm not sure about that, a sudden shift in climate went against them in our history, they stopped expanding right on the cusp of making the American colonies a going concern, if they'd got a solid toehold I'd expect them to have expanded pretty rapidly, just look at what the Danes did in England against organised and technologically contemporary resistance. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 19 '18 at 11:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.