I have always been fascinated by Vikings. As I was doing research for a possible historical novel about Vikings, I came up with some interesting facts which I'd like to share.
When the Vikings, or Norsemen, began raiding Britain around the beginning of the ninth century, the Gaels and Anglo-Saxons believed it was impossible to sail across the North Sea. They reasoned the Vikings had to have made a pact with the Devil in order to do it. If you know the secrets of how the Vikings traversed the waterways of the North Atlantic, you will realize that one does not need a pact with the Devil. Sailing the North Atlantic, even in small, open boats, is not as difficult as it seems.
Even though the North Sea has a reputation for storms, some months are calmer than others. The Vikings chose the best time of the year to sail, which is mid to late summer in that area of the world. The looting of Lindisfarne, which is thought of as the beginning of the Viking era, occurred on July 8. When a Norse fleet and army sacked the Gaelic fortress of Alt Clut, they did not return immediately because it was winter by the time fort fell. They camped at Alt Clut and sailed back home when the weather improved.
The Vikings did not sail directly from Norway to Britain or Iceland. The Shetland Islands were only two days sail from Norway with good winds, and the Orkney Islands only a couple days from there. From the Orkney Islands it's possible to see the coast of Scotland. Also, the Faroe Islands are perhaps three days sail from the Shetland Islands, and a roughly equal distance from Iceland. From Iceland, it's a short trip to Greenland, then to Baffin Island, and then to Newfoundland, which they called Vinland. By hopping from one island to another, they could assure they were never far from land at any one time.
They could also predict the weather by observing cloud formations. They knew when a storm is approaching certain cloud types precede it, often by several days. If they saw storm clouds approaching, they could stay put on the coast until it passed.
Finally, they never sailed alone. Every instance of a Viking voyage I am able to find involves groups of ships. The smallest number I can find sailing at once is three. If one ship got into trouble, the others could assist it.
This does not diminish the bravery of the Vikings. It takes a lot of courage to set out on the sea in a wooden boat perhaps fifty feet long, with no radio, no compass, and no global positioning system. While it was still a daunting task to sail the North Sea in a small, open boat, it's not as unsurmountable once you know how.